This 1961 drawing of the Circus Bar, east of Soldotna, was created by Connie Silver for a travel guide called Alaska Highway Sketches. The bar was located across the Sterling Highway from land that was later developed into the Birch Ridge Golf Course.

This 1961 drawing of the Circus Bar, east of Soldotna, was created by Connie Silver for a travel guide called Alaska Highway Sketches. The bar was located across the Sterling Highway from land that was later developed into the Birch Ridge Golf Course.

A violent season — Part 1

Like many such drinking establishments, Good Time Charlies usually opened late and stayed open late

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The motives people have for violent actions can be difficult to discern. We can examine the evidence we uncover, tell the story as clearly as possible, and allow our audience to decide. Such is the case during the turbulent time described here.

For nearly 50 years, the lot across the Sterling Highway from the ninth fairway of Soldotna’s Birch Ridge Golf Course was home to a bar known as Good Time Charlies.

Like many such drinking establishments, Good Time Charlies usually opened late and stayed open late. Throughout the passing decades, under the ownership of Charles Cunningham, it evolved from a rock-and-roll bar to a country-music venue, from a disco club to a stage for exotic dancers. Highway drivers and passengers were witness to banners such as “SHOWGIRLS!” “TOPLESS. BOTTOMLESS.” and “GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS.”

But all of that is gone now. Last summer, only a concrete foundation slab lay where Good Time Charlies once stood. Gone, too, were the cheap signs, the outbuildings, the gravel parking lot. And gone from the remnants of the land surrounding the footprint of the bar were the scattered old cabins, junker cars and dilapidated shacks. Gone were the trees and the brush immediately adjacent the right of way, as the State of Alaska prepared to widen that stretch of roadway and improve its safety.

Something else was also missing from this location: its history.

Before there was Good Time Charlies, there was the Zodiac Club. Before that, there was the Hilltop Bar and Café, a drinking establishment known as The Circus — which began operations nearly 70 years ago — and a Weaver Brothers storage lot.

And before those businesses, this parcel of land was just the northernmost piece of a 160-acre homestead owned by a young man named Jack Keeler, who came to the Kenai with other family members in the late 1940s.

The property’s long history as a watering hole was occasionally punctuated by violence. Sometimes that turbulence was connected to denizens of the bar but occurred elsewhere. Such was the case in the early 1980s when a police investigation of a burning van near Soldotna revealed the body of a Good Time Charlies cocktail waitress named Bonita Loraine Hartley, almost certainly one of the victims of convicted killer Michael Andrejko.

Other times, the violence occurred on-site, and there appears to have been no period more intense and tragic than that between May 1961 and December 1967, when three separate incidents resulted directly in two deaths and the shooting injuries of four other individuals. This, then, is the story of the birth and history of the bar, and of the lives that found a cruel nexus there, during this season of violence.

Transactions

On July 18, 1952 — just over a year before he was killed in an Oregon logging accident — John William “Jack” Keeler signed a warranty deed as part of his agreement to sell his entire homestead to William “Bill” and Lillie Mongeau, who were then living in Potter (near Anchorage).

Keeler had arrived on the Kenai Peninsula in 1947 with his father, a brother and his family, and a sister and her husband — all from logging country in western Oregon. The brother, Floyd Robert “Bob” Keeler, had homesteaded immediately east of Jack. Although the whole Keeler clan collectively filed on four parcels of land, only Jack and Bob actually completed the proving-up process and received patent to their homesteads.

The sister, Myrtle, and her husband, Melvin Minor, had filed on land near the Mackey Lakes but failed to prove up. By 1950, they had returned to Oregon. The father, Floyd Nelson “Pappy” Keeler, had also filed on land in the Mackey Lakes area and failed to prove up. Instead of leaving, however, Floyd moved onto Jack’s place and helped his son clear land and build a homestead cabin.

Jack’s L-shaped property, just east of the growing community of Soldotna, lay mostly south of the Sterling Highway, although a small piece of it lay to the north. That smaller section would become the site of Jack’s cabin and, because of the bars that would be built nearby, would garner the most attention during the 1950s and 1960s.

Jack Keeler’s cabin stood in a manmade clearing in the woods west-northwest of the bar’s eventual location. Behind the cabin and in the shallow, marshy drainage of meandering Soldotna Creek lay the northern edge of Keeler’s property line. It was into this cabin, with its low-slung upstairs, that the Mongeaus, along with their five children, moved shortly after the ink on the purchase contract was dry.

Their time in their new home was brief, however. On the last day of November 1952, the cabin caught fire. Lillie, at home with all the children, managed to get everyone out safely and even to preserve the furnishings and a few other belongings from the ground floor. The cabin itself burned to ground, taking with it all the family’s clothing, other furniture and food supplies that had been upstairs.

The Mongeaus found other housing in the area, and neighbors and friends in Soldotna chipped in to help the family as winter deepened.

Four months later, on March 20, 1953, Bill Mongeau signed a contract with Virginia “Ginger” Tallman, assigning to her half of the Mongeaus’ interest in the homestead, thereby splitting his family’s financial burden. This agreement was one of many involving either Tallman or Mongeau or both over the next several years.

After the 1953 contract was finalized, Tallman either built or hired someone to build a small bar just north of the highway and began doing business there as The Circus.

In July 1954, the Mongeaus signed a conditional sales contract with Tallman, agreeing to purchase her interest in “all buildings” (in other words, the bar and any outbuildings connected with it) located on the homestead. This agreement included the bar business.

A new agreement in October added more changes to the bar’s ownership. The Mongeaus agreed to transfer to John T. Hurn and Dorothy E. Beasley, both of Kenai, one-half interest in both the homestead and the bar. Hurn and Beasley agreed to pay half of all money still due to Keeler’s estate ($5,000) and to Ginger Tallman for the bar ($14,200).

To complicate matters further, Bill Mongeau, on March 24, 1955, signed a quit-claim deed that transferred all of his interest in the bar back to Tallman and her husband John, thus removing the Mongeaus from the bar business. Almost two full months later, this classified advertisement appeared in the Anchorage Daily Times: “For sale or lease by owner. The Circus Bar located Mile 94 Sterling Highway. Modern throughout, living quarters. Call 45792 evenings.”

On Oct. 8, 1956, Ginger and John Tallman entered into a real estate contract with John Edward “Jack” Griffiths and his wife Alice. The Tallmans agreed to sell, for $10,000, the bar and the portion of the homestead north of the highway, minus the right of way.

Jack Griffiths, who had been an auto mechanic in Anchorage, also opened the Garage and Body Shop next to the bar. Later, Jack and Alice filed on an 80-acre homestead immediately west of the bar.

Then, in a trio of separate transactions occurring over about a week and a half during October 1959, the Mongeaus signed a quit-claim deed transferring the remainder of their interest in the homestead to John and Ginger Tallman, the Tallmans signed over their interest in the Circus Bar, and Hurn and Beasley signed a quit-claim deed transferring their interest in the homestead to the Tallmans.

Thus, Jack and Alice Griffiths now controlled the bar and the Jack Keeler homestead property north of the highway, and John and Ginger Tallman controlled the rest.

The trouble was about to begin.

TO BE CONTINUED

This circa-1950s souvenir ashtray from the Circus Bar was donated to the Soldotna Historical Society by Virgil Dahler. The irony of the illustration in the bottom of the ashtray is that a golf course opened across from the bar in the early 1970s.

This circa-1950s souvenir ashtray from the Circus Bar was donated to the Soldotna Historical Society by Virgil Dahler. The irony of the illustration in the bottom of the ashtray is that a golf course opened across from the bar in the early 1970s.

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion
Charlie Cunningham stands behind the bar at Good Time Charlies on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska.

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion Charlie Cunningham stands behind the bar at Good Time Charlies on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska.

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