The life and times of Eadie Henderson

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2000

There is a story about the Frontier Club that goes like this:

A roughneck finds himself before a local court apologizing for a night of misbehavior. It seems that while at the club, he pulled a .44 and shot through the ceiling for some reason he could not explain but did not deny.

At the sentencing, the judge addresses the defendant with a stern lecture, "Young fellow, obviously you haven't lived here long, because if you had, you would know better than to shoot through the ceiling of that establishment. Sir, you easily could have killed two people with a single shot."

The young man is sent home to Texas with little more than a lecture.

That account, included in almost every newspaper story published in the last 20 years concerning the Frontier Club or its proprietor Eadie Henderson, may or may not be true. What follows represents best efforts to separate fact from fiction about the club and its owner and to note the passing on Jan. 27 of this most remarkable lady, who's life has become central to the lore and history of the North Road's last 50 years.

Little is known with certainty of Eadie's early life. Eitha Chenlikas, born on April 18, 1926, to a Russian Jewish mother and a Greek father, learned to keep a secret at a young age. Her father was an illegal alien living in fear of immigration officials, and she was warned not to mention this family secret to anyone. Throughout her life, she was known for her ability to keep a confidence.

In later years, she spoke of her early life growing up in Youngs-town, Ohio, during the Great Depression. She referred to it as "Hoover Time." She would pull her "little red wagon" around town gathering old newspapers and scrap metal to sell at the junkyard. She quit school in the fifth grade. Life at home was hard and complicated by well-meaning social workers, so at age 13 she ran away. At 14 she got her first job, dancing striptease, in a Youngstown burlesque club under the name of Eadie Sutton.

She was married briefly at age 15 and moved to Florida. The marriage was annulled, and she danced for a short time in Miami nightclubs.

With World War II under way, she traveled to the Panama Canal to entertain American servicemen. By 1945, she found her way to Los Angeles, where she continued to contribute to the war effort by working as a welder in the shipyards by day and dancing for the troops by night at the Hollywood Theater. While in Los Angeles, she met an Alaska fisher who encouraged her to go north.

She arrived in Anchorage in 1946. On her first day in town, she got a job dancing at The South Seas. Jobs at other legendary Alaska clubs, now long gone, followed. There was the Bel Air and Green Lantern in Anchorage and the Hills Bar and Casablanca in Fairbanks. It was said she was a one-woman USO show.

She returned from Fairbanks to Anchorage briefly and opened a small restaurant called the Box Lunch. But then word came that an air base was to be built in a small fishing community called Kenai.

In a later newspaper interview, she said she decided to relocate to Kenai in 1951 to start her own business, because it offered a perfect spot with its military base, seasonal fishers and oil field workers.

When asked to describe -- in a word -- Kenai during that time period, she chose "mud." Roads were narrow ruts and transportation, even in a military 4-by-4, was dubious. But as an astute business woman, she knew location was everything. So when she bought her 300-foot-by-400-foot lot, not far from the gates of the new air base for $8,500, it was probably the most expensive piece of unimproved real estate sold to that date in Kenai -- a shocking price of more than 7 cents a square foot.

In telling her own story in "Once Upon the Kenai," she said of those times that in order to get by, she adopted the motto, "If men can do it, I can, too, and I can do it better."

Cost of materials and transportation made construction of the Last Frontier Dine and Dance Club a struggle. But, by May of 1952, she was ready for business. And there, in its doorway, she first stood, at the far distant end of the long Alaska Highway, with outstretched arms, ready to provide comfort to the weary traveler.

Her business boomed, and she hired hostesses and dancers, many of whom were said to be in premed, although this fact could not be verified.

Her business stayed open 24 hours a day. Electricity was provided by a 10 kilowatt generator, and the club's water well, freezer and telephone, provided free to the community, became central to the lives of many homesteaders. She went on to stake her own homestead in North Kenai, and there raise her only child, Zane.

The club became the unofficial post office during this time. At the time of her death, the club was the longest single-owner business on the Kenai Peninsula -- nearly 48 years.

Her generosity to the needy, her discretion as a businesswoman and the public service she performed in keeping rowdy boomtown workers corralled in one location in years past, all contributed to a public persona that became larger than the person herself. However, the genuine affection felt for her was nothing short of remarkable.

Her epic struggles with the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board lasted for decades, but even those struggles came to represent examples of her beloved old-timer status. In the mid-1980s when the ABC Board recommended license suspension of the grounds that investigators were solicited for prostitution, "each and every time they went on the premises," the community responded with a petition signed by more than 4,000 area residents asking the board to allow Eadie to keep her license. The Kenai City Council even ask the board to reconsider.

The rumors the Frontier Club engaged in the world's oldest profession were understandable, given the fact that the bottom floor was a strip joint and bar, and the second floor was a hotel.

When asked to comment in 1986, she said, "They still haven't proven anything when it comes down to it."

On the prostitution charges, she said, "I'm not admitting it, all I'm saying is that people have had a good time here and enjoyed themselves immensely. People may have come in as strangers, but they always left as friends."

In that same interview, Eadie said, "I'll never leave Kenai. I'll be here when those people who put me out of business are gone. I can hold my head up high. I think I've done a wonderful job. I feel like I brought a lot of people a lot of happiness here."

Her concern for those in need and her contribution in reaching out to help are acknowledged even by her critics.

Eadie's sense of independence, adventure, humor, honesty and determination will be missed. At a time when the peninsula's economy remains hopelessly depressed, with little to suggest the immediate future will improve, the loss of her voice will be felt.

To reflect on those economic forces that brought Eadie to Kenai, oil, fishing and the military only deepen one's sense of despair. In the short time she was with here, commercial fishing in Cook Inlet has by and large evolved into a summer hobby.

The military has been gone so long it is hard to find someone who even remembers its presence. And the proud tradition of the oil field, once home for colorful wildcats, is now a system of "preferred-partners," an arrangement that has all but eliminated area independents from the industry.

The yards of the Columbia Ward Cannery and countless area oil field contractors remain as empty now as the parking lot of the Frontier Club.

For the record, Eadie's last performance was at the Vagabond Inn on Dec. 11 at the age of 73. She lost her battle with cancer after a 26-year struggle. She said it was the thoughts of her son and many friends that gave her the energy for the fight.

Eadie lived her life on her own terms -- with no apologies.

For her countless contributions to the community she received little acknowledgment. But she was never bitter, for she understood full well the delicate nature of social norms. At a time when we need more neighbors of Eadie's character, she is suddenly gone. It's hard to believe our luck has gotten this bad.

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