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July 19th, 2006 MARY CHRISTMAS | Featured Stories
 

Pole Bearers

The family behind Mary's Club says goodbye to its patriarch.

     
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Last Friday at New Hope Community Church in Clackamas, a crowd gathered to mourn local businessman Roy Keller, who died Sunday, July 9, at age 90. Seated before a stage laden with elaborate flower arrangements were just under a hundred white-haired seniors, tattooed young women and generations of family.

Not every bar owner attains the level of regional celebrity that Roy Keller had, but then few could be credited with the birth of a local industry. Because Keller, who formerly worked as a foreman in a Portland shipyard, hadn't bought just any bar back in 1954—he'd bought Mary's Club, the downtown joint then known for its popularity with sailors. A year later, he made the risky decision to introduce pasties-clad topless dancers and sparked a sex-industry boom that brought P-Town a reputation as a Sin City.

On Friday, many of Mary's small, tight-knit group of dancers sat in folding chairs at the megachurch, dressed in conservative slacks and button-down shirts. It's notoriously difficult to get a job at Mary's—loyal dancers tend to stay on for years, making it tough to find room for new hires. Gathered around a table for coffee at the post-funeral reception, the women shed light on why the bar at 129 SW Broadway is a preferred place of employment. While digging through a purse to find snacks for her toddler, a former dancer named Nicole (she declined to give a last name) remembers: "I've gone to Thanksgiving at [the owners'] house.... They care about us, about our families." That could be because Mary's is one of a few small, family-run businesses in the red-light world, an industry dominated by huge, impersonal "gentlemen's clubs."

Keller is survived by three children, 11 grandkids, 22 great-grandkids and eight great-great-grandkids. Three of the clan still show up for shifts every night at Mary's. Roy's daughter Vicki Keller is at the helm, having run her dad's business for the past 25 years. After the funeral, Vicki moved about the room greeting guests much as she does at Mary's: offering hugs, directions to the bathroom and stories of the famous bar where she still slings cocktails alongside her daughters Virginia and Traci.

Dark-haired Virginia stands patiently in the buffet line, red-rimmed eyes telling of the emotion and exhaustion of the past week, and recalls her mom "covering my eyes and running me through the club to the office," as a child. "It's not your typical family to grow up in," she admits, "but it's second nature to me."

Her mother, who grew up in a more conservative era, had to bear the brunt of the family reputation. "When I was young, one of my girlfriends' parents wouldn't let her hang out with me because my father was in the bar business—and this is before [Mary's] went topless!" Vicki says. Now, she says, "my grandchildren all brag that their grandma runs Mary's Club." Brag away: Having featured both a teenage Courtney Love and, according to Vicki, sex-change-pioneer Christine Jorgensen on its tiny stage, the bar has cemented its place in history far beyond the city limits. That, and the naked ladies, is what has kept customers coming back for decades.

Roy Keller wouldn't have had it any other way. "When my mom died, I closed the bar for her funeral, and Dad said, 'Don't do that for me when I go,'" Vicki says while scheduling dancers' shifts at Mary's the day after the funeral. The three Keller women miraculously kept the bar running all that week, even heading to work straight from the funeral. It was hard for Vicki that night, she says, and the sadness in her voice speaks louder than the pumping bar music as she sighs, "It's in our blood. Business as usual."

 
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