Monday, May 30, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Celebrity Bulldogs

Memorable Celebrity Bulldogs,
a continuation of "It Takes A Village"...

Mary Hart and husband, Burt Sugarman owned a big spread at the north end of Whitefish Lake. Their ranch bordered an immense forested wilderness which was predominantly owned by the government and managed by the US Forest Service. What the government didn't own, likely belonged to the Burlington Northern Railroad.

Word around town was that Burt intended to create a large land buffer between his ranch and everyone else; and he believed the only way to accomplish said buffer was to lease the surrounding forest service land from the US government for a pittance, thereby allowing him to fence the public out of public lands. The community was in an uproar at the prospect of being denied rightful access to open acreage that had been freely used by all for hiking, hunting, fishing, etc. At one point Burt tried to win local support by wooing the townsfolk with shiny new Christmas decorations for Central Avenue. Many considered the bribe, I mean gesture, an insult.

Maybe Burt should’ve considered doing what Bill Pennington did and just buy up everything in his vicinity at a fair price, albeit that 99-year lease from the US government was unquestionably a much cheaper deal. I honestly don’t think Pennington felt the need to be as frugal as perhaps Burt did, for it sure looked as if Mr. Circus-Circus had plenty to burn. Nor did he seem to me to be overly concerned about spending what was necessary to get exactly what he least that was the attitude he projected when I closed that last transaction for him.

Bill Pennington had arrived in Whitefish after buying the enormous custom log "cabin" Kiefer Sutherland had built for Julia Roberts during their short engagement way back when. The lake front castle was situated in a small nook on the northeastern shore of the lake – it was said that the location was essentially perfect because Mr. Bill needed a nice place to park his cigarette boats after Nevada had outlawed them.

Before Julia broke off her engagement with Kiefer and Kiefer closed on his heartbreak house sale to Pennington, it wasn’t uncommon to find Kiefer and Emilio Estevez hanging out together at the Great Northern Bar. Emilio’s first house wasn’t on the lake though like Kiefer’s castle – it was off Whitefish Stage Road about three miles south of town. Sometime during Emil’s short-lived marriage to Paula Abdul, he decided to sell that house and exchange it for a house on the lake, perhaps to be closer to his buddy Kiefer who ultimately sold out and left town anyway. I closed both the sale and purchase transactions for Emilio. And yes, there is more to tell.

Jim Nabors was a long time Whitefish resident, considered a local by many. He was quite friendly and seemed well liked. My interactions with him and his companion Stan were always pleasant. Jim had a large home off of Big Mountain Road which had been put on the market right before I left in 1996.

I’d been asked one day to open my title office on a Saturday morning to conduct a private closing for a high profile client who didn’t want to attract attention. That client was Jill Clayburgh. She had paid cash for a large parcel of vacant land northwest of town where she planned to build a vacation home. I can only assume she accomplished her goal long before passing away because I never saw her again. I found her to be a lovely, gentle woman. 
Courtesy of 'Time Magazine' 05-31-1993
Next up, "Well-Heeled Bulldogs"...

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: It Takes A Village

It’s always seemed to me that the movers and shakers who invest in keeping a community in motion are often cut from the same cloth, or to put it another way, dogs of the same breed…..regardless of where that community is located. Whitefish, Montana was certainly no exception, except of course, for a few exceptions.

While any community would naturally have a unique collective culture or personality of its own, one might rationally conclude that the personality belonging to the smaller community would tend to attract a special kind of resident; namely, someone who was predisposed to a cozier way of life, and who distinctly felt a level of comfort with the community’s particular culture.

The phrase “it takes a village” can take on a whole new meaning for many native small town residents when confronted about their socially intimate upbringing, especially since those doggies born and bred from within will historically fall into one of two very opposing camps.

First is the “contented canine” camp – these dogs smile pensively when they reminisce about home, hearth, and the village that raised them. Many who leave after high school yearn to return to that warm and fuzzy village when they’re ready to settle down and squeeze out a few puppies of their own.

Then there’s the diametrically opposed “caged dog” camp – these are the dogs who begin foaming at the mouth with an obsessive need to escape the minute they realize that they feel trapped like a dog at the pound. The very thought of returning to that suffocating village sends them into a hyperventilating chase-your-tailspin.

Native dwellers aside, I believe Whitefish had a similar polar aspect to its personality which caused it to attract a choice selection of notable newcomers who seemed to find their place within two categorical extremes as well.

The first extreme I call the “leaders of the pack” – these are the diplomat dogs who are skilled at aligning their personal agendas with the synergy of the community. These sly dogs are fast on their feet, and can usually be found throwing their power around in an attempt to influence local public policy and opinion in order to synchronize the community’s objectives with their highly prioritized personal objectives.

Some would call that making their mark. In Whitefish, it was usually more like marking their territory.

The opposite extreme can only be described as the “lone wolf pack” – these are the loners, the bad dogs with something to hide, and anyone else who’s decided -willingly or not- to fall off the grid.

When I think about those big dogs making their mark on Whitefish territory in 1995, the first thing that comes to mind is a kennel klatch of slobbering, snorting bulldogs – it is the town’s high school mascot after all.

The more memorable bulldogs I’ll be posting about next run the gamut, from contented canines to caged dogs, diplomat dogs to lone wolves. Some of them I either worked with or for, which wasn’t hard to do since I was a local business person and closed a large portion of the area's real estate transactions. Others I knew personally, or simply knew of because I lived there and it was unavoidable. And some were never really acknowledged or talked out loud about but everyone knew they were there, part of the backdrop, lurking.

Where was my place in all of this? It didn't take a local dog long to realize that this city bitch had no place to go but the “caged dog” camp, and I don’t even like camping.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: The Lay Of The Land

The Whitefish I knew in 1992 had a year-round population of about 3,500 - half of the full-timers resided within a mile of the town’s main drag aptly named Central Avenue; and the rest were scattered out over the surrounding 30,000 or so acres somewhere between the sheep, cattle, hay fields and the woods. It wasn’t unusual for the resort’s population to swell to 4,500 during the summer season, especially after Brad Pitt starred in those two blockbuster films strategically staged to make Montana look so idyllic that anyone dreaming to be like Brad was seduced into selling out in order to pursue a life of fly-fishing in nature’s big sky backyard.

There exist certain similarities in small towns across America in my observation, and I found Whitefish to be no exception, no matter how hard it tried to reach beyond its small town status.

When driving north into splendiferous Stumptown via Highway 93 - just north of Highway 40, and past the Par 3 Golf Course-Driving Range and Jack’s Diamondback Restaurant and Casino on the east side – was the Mountain Mall, a commercial development disaster that always ran at least 70% vacant. The mall’s only saving grace in my opinion was the cineplex it housed because it was hardly worth taking your life in your hands by driving 15 miles south to Kalispell on the 2-laned “pray for me, I drive 93” just to go to the movies, particularly in the winter. Boy's Town also had its own video rental store. We did have a VCR after all, not to mention the biggest TV satellite dish known to NASA in our front yard. Whenever I'd watch that satellite dish monotonously reposition at a snail's pace with each push of the remote, I couldn't help but wonder if I was innocently beaming up otherworldly messages to infinity and beyond every time I changed the channel. It's no wonder alien abductions seem more prevalent in the outback.

Adjacent to the Mountain Mall was the Food Depot, the biggest supermarket in town. Yes, there was a Safeway in town too, it was across the street. Frankly, I’ve yet to see a small western town that didn’t have a Safeway, but for whatever reason this Safeway could never attain the popular prestige enjoyed by the Food Depot.

Next to the Safeway was the bowling alley slash pool hall slash 24-hour greasy spoon called the “Pin ‘N Cue”. It had been eloquently nicknamed the “Spin ‘N Puke” by locals because it was the only place to eat after last call when all the taverns closed down. Traditionally the 24-hour restaurant in many smaller towns is Denny’s, but Whitefish didn’t get its first Denny’s until 1994, and my young daughter got all caught up in the grand opening frenzy with the rest of the villagers who were lined up around the building at dawn to get Eggs Over My Hammy - as if she’d never been to a Denny’s before. It had certainly not been a place we went to by choice and here she was, begging me to take her to the Denny’s grand opening as if it we didn’t live with CIA Chef, the king of sauces, French cuisine and anything else she could’ve possibly wanted not cooked in lard.

Further up the road, on the very edge of in-town was the Dairy Queen, definitely a small town requisite. Sing with me: “Let’s all go to D-Q Dairy Queen! The food’s more fun at D-Q Dairy Queen. We’ll have a D-Q sandwich. Maybe two or three. The food’s just great. And what va-ri-e-ty!” And no, my daughter never worked at the Dairy Queen nor did she wear frosted lipstick (an obscure “Baby Boom” reference, sorry, couldn’t resist).

After the Dairy Queen, the “93” assumed the now-you’ve-arrived name of Spokane Avenue. While the official Highway 93 would hang a sharp left due west at 2nd Street before once again veering north outside of Whitefish on its way to Canada … just beyond the cemetery, the fancy full sized golf course, the ever elite Grouse Mountain Lodge, and Lion Mountain; it was the happenings on 3rd Street that influenced my stumped town life the most. Whitefish Title Services, the escrow/title office I managed was located at the time on 3rd Street between Spokane and Central Avenues. The famous Buffalo Café was next door; and the infamous (and formerly known as) Mountain Bank was across the street and across the alley from the Frank Lloyd Wright office building where my first title office had been located.
Viewing north up Central Avenue from 4th Street. Big Mountain in background.
Central Avenue proudly boasted a few local landmarks such as the Bulldog Saloon (in honor of the Whitefish school mascot, the Bulldog), The Remington saloon and dance hall, the fashionably favorite Great Northern Bar and Grill, even the Black Star Brewery.

Central ran the length of six short blocks, yet was considered the community’s downtown hub. Many of the saloons, bars and restaurants were there; the galleries and kitschy tourist shops were there as well. The street dead-ended at the Stumptown Museum-Whitefish Depot from where Amtrak and the Burlington Northern Railroad ran regular routes. The only thing that stood between my back porch and the railroad tracks east of town were about 500 acres of hay fields littered with grazing cows. When I was at home, it somehow seemed sacrilegious for me not to stop whatever I was doing simply to savor the regular railcar processions that would glide silently across my distant landscape behind a lead engine's billowing smokestack en route to the depot.

Whitefish understandably required its own Post Office 59937; and it also had a small hospital, two small medical clinics, and the unquestionably MOWB-ish Whitefish Credit Union for which I closed loan transactions almost daily.

It was the Baker Avenue bridge that offered access to the other, resort side of the tracks, namely Whitefish Lake and Big Mountain. After Baker turned into Wisconsin Avenue, it quickly offered up a fork in the road. To the left was Lakeshore Drive, which followed the lake’s eastern shoreline until it ended abruptly at the edge of a vast forested wilderness managed by the US Forest Service, just beyond the Mary Hart/Burt Sugarman spread on the north shore. To the right went Big Mountain Road, which predictably switch-backed half way up the mountain to the ski village of Big Mountain, and the usually fogged in all winter vertigo capital of the world.

What few outsiders knew was that the town had an evening curfew and every night, at precisely 10:00pm, the curfew alarm would sound from the fire station at deafening decibels and reverberate like an echo for miles through the night skies. It turned out to be a rude, and quite symbolic, wake up call for me.

Coming up next on the “T T” Channel: Who was who in good old Boy’s Town.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King