Addison Bragg BRAGG ABOUT BILLINGS
There was a time once when it was simply the Northern Hotel - and then it burned down. It was a splendid fire and included such niceties as the free coffee and sandwiches that Grand Hotel management from across the street sent over during the fire, which burned throughout the long night.
There might not have been a new Northern on the site had it not been for Sen. B.K. Wheeler exercising an impressive degree of clout in wartime Washington. He had released a hold that had been put on the shipment of pipes, wiring, metal fixtures and other construction materials.
This is how I got to see the new Northern when I passed through Billings.
Later when I got here it was still the new Northern as opposed to the old.
That was over half a century ago, which not surprisingly has earned our town's most prestigious watering hole a right to the title "old." And whenever those whose memories of the place go back much longer, they speak of the litany of incidents and situations in which the comfortable old place both gloried and accepted responsibility:
Red Burnett's daily habit during the always-busy lunch hours of matching silver dollars with bar patrons who enjoyed losing as well as winning when Red was running the game.
And Red's description of his Texas birthplace as "Forty miles from Dallas and paved all the way." The sound of those cartwheels on the bar, by the bye, blended with the whir of the slot machines.
Bill Elliott, retired furniture store owner, always at the western end of the bar, back against the wall, cigar stub in his mouth and his fingers around the shot glass of Usher's Green Stripe with which he passed after dinner until heading home - upstairs - around midnight.
Bill Pollard and Grace Caldwell, black-tied and evening gowned, were at the piano and organ in the lobby and on KGHL radio nightly to give an uptown looked as well as sound to the Northern's dinner hours, when live music came to Billings bars in the late 1950s.
Les Carter, thanks to his ability to pick the right people to help him make a name for the Northern, was unique among the town's saloonkeepers when it came to employee relations, a major example of which was his order that the Northern bar, however busy, closed one hour after midnight. Montana bars are allowed to stay open until 2 a.m.
His reason? "Gives my people a chance for a little night life on their own after a full shift here," he told me once.
Speaking of Northern alumni, catering manager John White left here to manage Western's now-famous Space Needle, which opened at the Seattle World's Fair. Alan Woodrow, who began his hotel career as a Northern bus boy, retired a few years back as general manager of one of Hawaii's most prestigious hotels on Waikiki beach at Honolulu. Then along came Warren Anderson who went supersonic, leaving to open Montreal's Bonaventure, then Bangkok's Dusit Thani and bowed off after seeing the start he gave the Century Plaza in Los Angeles would last for longer than a bit.
I know of only one person who had a sort of feud with the Northern - particularly, the Golden Belle - where it hung behind the bar, a Billing landscape as seen from the Northern picturing the arrival of the first Northern Pacific passenger train into the city. As time passed and things got busier, the foreground of the painting was obscured, first by a larger, more ornate cash reegister, then by shelves holding bottles and glasses that moved steadily up the canvas to damage the painting.
The artist kept his word to never go in the Belle again until the hotel repaired the damage and moved the painting upstairs.
He grew up as a cowboy and he ended up an artist. He proved the old saying about cowboying is only skin deep but art goes clear down to the bone.
The Golden Belle was not the aging, reclining debutante whose full-length painting hung in the bar but a legendary cat in old San Francisco, dreamed up by Alan Woodrow whose ghost was said to haunt the Belle.
If true - and I have no reason to disbelieve it - he's not the first ghost to haunt the room.
And we remember them all.
Addison Bragg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.