Keen remembered as businessman, filmmaker, friend

Veteran died Friday in Seattle

Posted: Sunday, April 06, 2003

Chuck Keen, a Juneau filmmaker and businessman, died Friday morning in a veterans hospital in Seattle. He was 65.

Keen was known to the public for his long, unsuccessful effort to build a tramway on Mount Juneau, and as a documentary and feature filmmaker who brought Hollywood-style premieres to town.

"Incredible person," said Barry Wink, a friend of 30 years. "I know he was in the limelight. There's so much that Chuck did for people. He was the kind of guy that helped somebody out and didn't want it to be known he did it."

Keen had been a logger in Washington and Alaska in his early manhood, his friends said. He operated a gift shop in downtown Juneau for the past 10 years, and ran unsuccessfully for the Juneau Assembly four times in the 1990s.

He and his wife, Karen, had been married for 46 years, said family friend Bruce Hoffman. They have one son, Michael, also of Juneau.

His family and friends remember him as a humorous storyteller and loyal man.

"When I think of him, I see him in all the facets," said Ann Marie Good, his sister-in-law. "But I see him with all these people around him. He liked people. He could keep them laughing. He always had a story."

Some friends acknowledged he could be a fighter in the public arena when he thought he was right and others were wrong. Jim Beeson, who knew Keen in recent years, said Keen's fighting spirit probably came from his "hardscrabble days as a toughened lumberjack" and a chronicler of the Vietnam War.

"He shot himself in the foot a lot when it came to his mountain and what he was doing in Juneau," Wink said. "He was outspoken. But the guy had a heart the size of a basketball."

Keen served in the Marine Corps for a year and was discharged for medical reasons, his family said. But it was as a civilian that he worked for many years as a photographer and filmmaker in Vietnam during the war.

Wink said Keen filmed from military airplanes and helicopters on contract for aircraft manufacturers and the government. Several times he was in aircraft that were shot down, but he wasn't injured, Wink said.

"He's got more footage than anybody's taken in Vietnam," Wink said.

Keen also produced, wrote and filmed "Joniko and the Kush Ta Ka" a 1969 children's adventure story acted by Southeast residents. Keen produced and wrote "Timber Tramps," a 1973 movie that featured Tab Hunter, Claude Akins, Cesar Romero, Rosey Grier and Joseph Cotten.

And in 1970 Keen made "No Substitute for Victory," a documentary about communism narrated by John Wayne, who became his friend, Wink said.

Keen traveled around the world making documentaries, family and friends said. He filmed great white sharks in Australia and logging operations in Borneo that use elephants.

Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., and former director of Perseverance Theatre in Douglas, said she knew Keen as an artist and craftsman.

"I saw Chuck Keen in his element," she said.

Smith directed a mystery movie made locally in 1995 called "Raven's Blood," for which Keen was the director of photography. And she and Keen made a short film about the poetry of Robert Service, filmed in Skagway and narrated by the actor Stacy Keach.

"He was just a great, iconic personality, full of stories and wildness, really," Smith said. "He was one of those people that was just obsessed with making stories. He loved to make stories through pictures, though images."

Smith recalls a climatic scene in "Raven's Blood" that showed a creek bursting with spawning salmon.

"We probably shot there for eight hours. The look on his face was pure joy because he knew how gorgeous the images were. He was a real Alaskan, a real can-do kind of guy," she said.

Clay Good, Ann Marie's son, said he remembers going to Keen's house in the Mendenhall Valley as a child and seeing photographs of Keen with John Wayne and other celebrities.

"He was larger than life. We were amazed at how big his dreams were. He lived a big, bold life," Clay Good said.

Among those dreams was the idea of building a tramway from downtown Juneau to the top of Mount Juneau.

"Like we all do, we want our dream," Ann Marie Good said. "He looked at that mountain and said, 'I can get up there,' and said the whole world should be able to see the beauty he could see."

Keen worked on the plans from the early 1970s, bought some land and received some city permits. But the project became embroiled in questions about air rights over power lines and city requirements. Keen sued the city and lost, the case eventually being reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

A tramway up Mount Roberts eventually was built by another company. Goldbelt now fully owns the tramway.

"He has a lot of friends, and he also made some enemies, politically speaking" Clay Good said. "Because he was so well traveled and got around so much, a lot of people didn't get to know him. I saw the tender side of Chuck."

Ted Vadman said Keen would let homeless people pitch tents on his property above Franklin Street, and would find them temporary work. In recent years Keen paid Hoonah youths to cut down trees, which he would sell as Christmas trees and give the proceeds to charity, Hoffman said.

Information about services was not available by the Empire's press time.

Eric Fry can be reached at

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