Meadow Lakes bids farewell to saloon

Owners cite dwindling business, state trooper substation for closure

Posted: Monday, April 23, 2007

MEADOW LAKES - Like many longtime patrons of the old saloon, Elsa saw more than her share of wild times. Truth be told, the countless nights she spent bellied up to the bar took their toll. Hundreds of trips on and off barstools led to arthritis in her joints, making walking painful and slow.

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A few years back, Elsa stopped making as many appearances at the bar. She wasn't alone among the regulars. For one reason or another - kids, work, a desire to cut back on the drink - people drifted away. And the saloon, once the boisterous heart of a close-knit, rural community, started to get quiet. The town was changing, and for one reason or another, the old bar no longer seemed to fit.

On the Friday night of April 13, many of the bar's longtime patrons returned for one last round. Tears flowed. Beers were downed. And Elsa the pit bull, for 13 years the unofficial mascot of Lucky Lisa's Dead Dog Saloon, was there sitting alongside them to say goodbye.

Elsa's owner, Dead Dog co-owner Jim Wirsbinske, said he figured the old pooch deserved one final opportunity to rub up against her old pals.

"Tonight's the last night, we figured she better have a last chance," Wirsbinske said while pouring shots of tequila for a rambunctious group of young Russian-American women.

Wirsbinske and his wife, Lisa, decided to shut the bar down due to a number of circumstances. For the past couple of years, business at the Meadow Lakes landmark had been slowly dwindling. Then last fall, the Alaska State Troopers built a substation right behind the place.

More than ever, customers steered clear of the place and its eclectic interior, featuring pictures of dead rock stars, a tropical fish tank and plenty of off-color cartoons and pictures scattered throughout.

Adding to the bar's declining popularity was the changing face of the neighborhood itself. A new community center was built across the street. There's a supermarket on the hill overlooking the bar. An influx of new residents from the city caused subtle changes to the character of Meadow Lakes, which isn't quite as rough-and-tumble as it used to be.

"It's not really a good spot for a bar anymore," Lisa Wirsbinske said.

Sitting on a wooden swing outside the bar Friday night, Wirsbinske sat and reminisced about the old days.

"It's been quite a ride," she said.

The Wirsbinskes were the last in a long line of owners to run the establishment - under a variety of names - since it opened in 1962.

The current incarnation got its name from a rather macabre source. According to Lisa, a previous bar owner used to let locals store their dead dogs in a freezer out back when the ground was too cold to bury them. That, combined with the fact that she'd recently lost a dog of her own, led to the renaming of the joint.

"I thought the name was appropriate," she said. "It just fit."

Over the years, the saloon was the site of many an offbeat incident, many unfit for print. It also nurtured more than its share of friendships - and romances as well.

The Wirsbinskes, in fact, can trace their relationship to the days when Lisa was running the show and Jim was tending bar.

"That's how Jim and I met," Lisa said.

Eventually, the couple became a Meadow Lakes fixture. But after serving up thousands of cocktails and listening to just as many barstool stories, Jim said it's probably time to move on.

Although the Wirsbinskes both worked at the bar, the workload never allowed them much time alone.

"I'm looking forward to spending some time with my wife," Jim said.

He said he plans to head south for a while, maybe do some fishing in the tropics and relax.

While Jim might be ready to ride off into the sunset, other Dead Dog fixtures expressed different emotions, from nostalgia to sorrow, Friday night.

The Wirsbinskes pasted old photos all over one wall of the bar for Friday's finale. The pictures brought back strong emotions for Stephanie Flanders and Jennifer Soto. The two women first met when Flanders was waitressing and Soto was a dancer, and both choked back tears as they reminisced about the friendship they forged.

"We've been sisters over the last 10 years," Flanders said.

She said losing the saloon is like losing a part of her life.

"We're all one big family," she said.

But times change, and family members move on. Lisa Wirsbinske said she was sad to be closing the place down, but after 13 years in the bar business, she found she no longer had the energy to try and keep the place afloat.

"I could probably pull it out if I wanted to," she said. "I just don't have it in me anymore."

Wirsbinske said the long Alaska winters have gotten to her more and more each year. So when the troopers moved in, she said that was the final straw.

Some resentment at the state's choice of location was visible on the bar's last .

Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters said in an e-mail that it wasn't the state's intention to shut the bar down by moving the station there, and stressed that there was a need for more enforcement in the rapidly growing unincorporated area 10 minutes from downtown Wasilla.

"While it is unfortunate that some business owners may not see our presence as a positive, many other businesses have expressed gratitude and welcomed us into their neighborhood with open arms," Peters wrote.

Trooper Jesse Darby, fueling up his "K-9" patrol car at the gas station across from the saloon Friday, said the location was simply an unlucky coincidence for the Dead Dog.

"We didn't pick our post to put their bar out of business," Darby pointed out.

Even Lisa Wirsbinske agreed that changing times in Meadow Lakes may be more responsible for the bar's demise than anything else.

"This corner needs to develop into something else," she said.

She suggested maybe a fast food restaurant might take up residence where the bar has stood for more than four decades.

"I've always said this would be a perfect spot for a McDonald's," she said.

As she spoke, Wirsbinske's eyes again filled with tears.

"I'll probably be crying a lot tonight, but that's OK," she said.

Wirsbinske then returned to the bar and began dishing out a few more hugs - and drinks - to her family. As she did so, a digital clock on the wall continued to count down the seconds until 5 a.m. Saturday - the last possible moment the bar could stay open.

A few hours later, things at the bar were in full swing. A couple of overly excited young men got into a brief scuffle and had to be escorted out by the large bouncers on hand for the night.

Out on the dance floor, a young woman - perhaps longing for the days when exotic dancers roamed the bar - briefly went topless. Exuberant patrons laughed and yelled and carried on as if the party would never end.

But it did. The house lights came on. The digital clock ticked down to zero. Elsa had long since limped off somewhere to sleep. Outside, the first light of dawn began peeking over the horizon.

As a final few partiers filed out and the music faded away, Jim Wirsbinske - a man whose home for the past 13 years had been behind the bar of one of the Valley's most notorious watering holes - headed for the door one last time. His bartending days were done. It was time to move on.

"I'm going fishing," he said.

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