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Chilkoot Charlie's: A museum disguised as a bar

To begin, a very incomplete list of items found inside Chilkoot Charlie's bar and nightclub:

1. Soviet medal for "Valor in Childbearing, Second Class."

2. Life-sized replica of the Sputnik satellite.

3. Framed Playboy magazine naming Chilkoot's as one of the "Best Bars in America."

4. Framed congratulations letter from then-Anchorage mayor Rick Mystrom on Playboy honor, noting that Anchorage also has the top-rated municipal water and landfill.

5. Photo of bar owner Mike Gordon and 14 Sherpas attempting to summit Mount Everest, clad in Chilkoot Charlie's shirts.

6. Rare 17th century Russian Orthodox cross.

7. Flier from Koots' single biggest night ever, the Pauly Shore/MTV "non-stop 24 hour street party."

At night, and especially on weekends, Chilkoot Charlie's is a raucous cauldron of Anchorage nightlife -- the kind of place that traveling salesmen tell stories about for years after they visit. Maybe no other single bar in Anchorage -- or Alaska -- carries quite such an outsized reputation. Koots, as some patrons call it, has attracted its share of controversy over the years. The club has been the site of high-profile incidents of violence and the subject of a few lawsuits.

But in the light of day, an unexpected side of the place emerges. Look closely, and you'll see Chilkoot Charlie's is more like a museum, albeit one that smells of spilled beer.

Patrons glugging Jaegermeister may not fully notice, for example, that they are standing in a replica of a czarist-era ballroom. The man riding a horse out of the wall is a recreation of a famous statue of Peter the Great. Upstairs rest display cases filled with items like a Russian porcelain egg that dates to the 1890s and a string of "cranberry beads" from the 1850s, strung on sinew and traded widely in Alaska.

Over the past 45 years, owner Mike Gordon has transformed a modest watering hole into a sprawling nightlife palace that contains a world of Anchorage history, cultural ephemera and a serious collection of Soviet and czarist memorabilia.

The Russian-themed upstairs room and hallway, open to patrons on weekend nights but not widely visited, contains what Gordon believes "could be the largest private display of Soviet memorabilia anywhere."

Elsewhere in the bar, there's a replica of the Berlin wall, complete with barbed wire, graffiti and display cases featuring educational explanations. There's also a chunk of the actual Berlin wall. And a wooden boat Gordon bought in Homer and chain-sawed in half to add ambience to the patio area. And a framed, signed photo of presidents Nixon through Bush (the elder). And a guitar signed by 1990s songstress Natalie Merchant. And mementos of when Tiny Tim performed, and ZZ Top partied. Yellowing newspaper clippings telling the story of Alaska's statehood bid and oil discovery. A page from a 1955 newspaper called "Spenard Life." A wall of vintage bartender biographies. A tire from a 1968 Oldsmobile. A bar made of actual frosty ice kept cold at room temperature with insulating foam boards.

Once, when Gordon bought the now-iconic Spenard windmill from a 1980s Anchorage character known as "Mafia Mike," he learned that his reputation as a collector of peculiar items had preceded him.

"Someone said 'go talk to Mike Gordon, he'll buy anything,' " Gordon said. "I can hardly argue against that because previous to that I bought a two-headed pig."

The two-headed pig was suspended in formaldehyde and on display at the Alaska State Fair. It was a good deal, Gordon said. He couldn't resist.

'An Alaskan theme bar'

Gordon, a personable if gruff, twinkly-eyed mountain climber, got into the nightlife business with two high school friends. Together they operated the original Bird House, a few dozen miles down the Seward Highway from Anchorage, from 1967 to 1968.

It traded on quirk: The bar was wallpapered in bras, business cards and panties. Bartenders told customers the pickles sold there were enhanced with "hormone of wolverine." They sold scrambled eggs as "boneless chicken dinners."

The partners sold the Bird House after about a year, and Gordon focused on starting what he calls an "Alaskan theme bar," something he felt Anchorage lacked. "There were either neighborhood bars or nightclubs," he said. "Or they were trying to pattern themselves on Outside bars."

In 1970, he opened Chilkoot Charlie's, named after a popular literary character created by the Alaska poet, radio broadcaster and epic storyteller Ruben Gaines. Gordon has described the original Chilkoot Charlie character as a "titan sourdough reprobate." It was a little place, wedged between America Rents and Spenard Bingo.

Along the way, Chilkoot's became an institution and a symbol of Alaska-style revelry. The Pipeline era was a wild time: Bars were open until 5 a.m., and young kids who'd "never had a decent job in their lives" were taking home $1,000 or $2,000 a week and spending plenty of it at Gordon's bar, he said. The practice of "six-packing," or buying an entire six-pack of beer for someone, was popular. Gordon, who helped with security, got into a scuffle every night.

"Alaska was basically out of control during the pipeline (era)," he said. "I wouldn't want to go through that again."

Over time, Gordon bought out adjacent businesses and added on to Chilkoot's. Each expansion introduced space that Gordon was not content to paper with handout posters from beer and liquor distributors. Instead he dreamed up ideas that Anchorage artist Joe Hamilton executed, including the Swing Bar. When the beloved Bird House Bar burned down, he bought the rights to the name from its owners and built an exact replica -- complete with hundreds of bras, panties and businesses cards papering the walls. The only surviving item from the fire, a wood stove, lives on in the revived Bird House Bar.

His most audacious and expensive was the Romanov Room, a light-filled upstairs space with sky blue onion domes and latticed windows, dominated by a large portrait of the Romanov family, the last Russian imperial dynasty, who were executed by Bolsheviks in 1918.

The Russian theme came from Gordon's interest in the country's history, which he studied in college at the University of San Francisco. During Gordon's attempts to climb the tallest peak on all seven continents, Gordon traveled to the then-Soviet Union three times trying to summit 18,510-foot Mount Elbrus.

He began buying up Soviet memorabilia there but completed the collection by purchasing large lots through eBay dealers. He eventually came to own hundreds of pieces of Soviet memorabilia ranging from military uniforms to porcelain dishes to certificates and logbooks. The ornate Russian Walk showcases many of the objects.

Gordon knows the details of Chilkoot's don't matter to many of his customers, who come to drink and dance. But it matters to him. "It pleases me," he said.

And wandering though the club, stumbling on signed Molly Hatchet albums, a giant taxidermy king crab, a display case titled "The Night Mr. Nugent Came By" and 32 Soviet hockey pins feels a little like perusing the national museum of a mythical place that might be called the Nation of Spenard.

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