On the Town
- Phil Stanford
- Portland Tribune - News
Goodbye to a true visionary
I like to think of Roy Keller, who died here last weekend at the age of 90, as just another in a long line of pioneers - although, to be sure, not the kind that came from back east in covered wagons.
Surely, you've heard the story: How at a certain fork along the Oregon Trail, all the greedy ones went south to California, while everyone else proceeded to Oregon to establish the agrarian paradise we have today.
Well, if you just do a little subtraction you'll see that even Roy would have been a little young for that sort of thing.
And now that you mention it, I'm not so sure about that fork-in-the-trail story in the first place.
Any way you choose to look at it, though, Keller qualifies as a true-blue Oregon pioneer.
• • •
The story goes that when the shipyards closed after World War II, Keller had enough money saved up to buy a house but used it to get into the tavern business instead. First he opened the Alberta Tavern on Northeast Union Avenue, and then in 1954 he purchased Mary's Club on Southwest Broadway, just south of Burnside.
At the time, Mary's Club was a thriving piano bar, catering to merchant seamen, who, according to Mike Clark, a pianist and singer who used to work there, spent oodles of money listening to sentimental songs and crying in their beer.
But as Portland declined as a shipping center, so did the piano-bar industry - and Keller, always an astute businessman, began looking around for a way to improve the bottom line.
And so it happened, that in February of 1965, after an eye-opening trip to San Francisco's North Beach, Keller turned Mary's into the Northwest's first topless nightclub.
Of course it didn't all happen immediately. At first, there were go-go dancers, wearing bikinis and high-heeled shoes.
Keller started by having the go-go dancers fill in while the piano players were on break. But after two weeks, when it became obvious that the go-go dancers were more popular than the music, that was the end of the piano players.
And while he was at it, Keller figured that the place might as well go topless as well. His first topless dancer, hired from Big Al's in San Francisco, went by the name of Tasha. Bambi Darling was next.
By the summer of 1965, a rival topless club, the Broadway Inn starring Francine DuVal, opened at the other end of the avenue, just kitty-corner from The Oregonian - or as Oregon history buffs will recognize immediately, on the present site of Higgins.
And the rest, as we say in Portland - which reputedly has the most nude (not just topless) dancing establishments in the US of A - is history.
• • •
As anyone who ever shook a tail feather at one of Keller's clubs will tell you, Roy was a hardworking guy, kind and generous to his employees. He didn't smoke or cuss at all, and he rarely drank.
In fact, about the only thing that might give you the wrong impression was his penchant for expensive suits and alligator shoes. Oh, yes, and the coral-colored Caddy he drove around town.
But as his daughter, Vicki, who now runs the family business, says, 'He was really a sheep in wolf's clothing.'
As he liked to tell everyone again and again, 'It's nice to be important, but more important to be nice.'
I mean, how Oregon can you get?