Twelve. That’s the number of businesses Charlie Cunningham has owned since he dropped out of the seventh grade. The Texas native moved to Alaska in the 1960s and took over what was once called the Hilltop Bar and Cafe in 1972. Now, 50 years later, that business — renamed Good Time Charlies by Cunningham — will be demolished by the State of Alaska.
“We’re closed forever,” Cunningham could be heard saying into a landline phone from inside the establishment Monday morning.
The strip club last weekend opened its doors to patrons for the final time.
“I did everything I could to get away from the strip club image,” Cunningham said Monday of the establishment, which has gone through multiple phases over the last 50 years.
When Cunningham took over, he opened Good Time Charlies as a rock music bar. He later dabbled in country and western music, which he said drew a rowdier audience, before moving to disco, which he called “the absolute best of all genres.” Between starting a business at the heyday of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the introduction of dancers to the club’s lineup, business was “unbelievably good,” he said.
That was until 1986, when Cunningham said the bottoming out of the state’s economy caused business to wane.
“Over the years, it just kind of slowed down to what I’d call the norm for the last five to 10 years,” Cunningham said. “It wasn’t near as profitable as it used to be, but it was still profitable.”
It was in 1991 that the State of Alaska reached out to Cunningham about buying his property for a project along the Sterling Highway, on which Good Time Charlies sits. Cunningham said he negotiated with the state for about four years before deciding that the state would buy the property and lease it to Cunningham.
The State of Alaska has been working for decades to complete safety improvements along the section on the Sterling Highway from about Fred Meyer to the bridge over the Moose River. That project got a boost under the National Highway Performance Program and from state matching funds.
The state has touted the physical separation between traffic moving in different directions, expanded roadway capacity, opportunities for passing and fewer opportunities for left turns as being among the benefits of the project. Planned work includes widening the highway to create a four-lane divided facility with a depressed median.
Still, some businesses along the corridor have voiced concerns that the project would limit access points from the highway to their businesses.
Cunningham said the state communicates with him every year about the status of his property. This year, the state says they’re finally moving forward with the project. Cunningham said he’d hoped to stay open through the end of August to take full advantage of this year’s tourist season, but demolition is scheduled for Aug. 25.
“I knew that it was coming and I’d kind of prepared for it, but it’s hard to prepare for something like that after 50 years,” Cunningham said.
To make the project happen, the state needs 200 feet of space on either side of the Sterling Highway. That 200-foot mark runs down the middle of Good Time Charlies — through the pool table room and in front of the fireplace.
Cunningham said he’s now working to offload everything in the building — anything he cannot sell will go to the dump, he said. That includes everything from the bar sinks and ice machines to the booths and bar stools.
He refers to public distaste for Good Time Charlies as “undertow,” because even though it’s not always visible, he’s always had to deal with it. When the bar began to “run” strippers, Cunningham said, it took him awhile to adjust to the public response.
“As a typical citizen, I didn’t pursue the strip club image as a good image at that time, so I did everything I could to get away from it,” Cunningham said.
The club’s last hurrah was Sunday evening. Cunningham missed the last night because he was in the hospital with heart problems that have afflicted him since he was 29. As of Monday, he said he doesn’t have any plans to open a new club once Good Time Charlies is torn down.
As demolition day looms, he said he’s been thinking about what he’ll be remembered for in the community and said it probably won’t be his entrepreneurial spirit.
“I was thinking the other day that I’m probably going to be remembered for Good Time Charlies,” Cunningham said. “I’ve had 12 other businesses, you know? Those will never be remembered.”
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.
Correction: This article has been corrected to say that the Sterling Highway safety project is being funded by the National Highway Performance Program and state matching funds.