Last of the outlaws

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  • Ron Kelley cuts Joe Couch's hair at the King's Lair on Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Ron Kelley stands behind his barber chair at the King’s Lair on Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

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    A pole lights up the hall outside the King’s Lair.

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    Matilda the dog lounges at the King’s Lair on Thursday.

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    IN THIS March 18, 1979, file photo barber Ron Kelley, right, gives Lane Morris, then a Flathead High School junior, a haircut. Inset, stylist Joyce Passow goes to work.

  • Ron Kelley cuts Joe Couch's hair at the King's Lair on Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 1

    Ron Kelley stands behind his barber chair at the King’s Lair on Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

  • 2

    A pole lights up the hall outside the King’s Lair.

  • 3

    Matilda the dog lounges at the King’s Lair on Thursday.

  • 4

    IN THIS March 18, 1979, file photo barber Ron Kelley, right, gives Lane Morris, then a Flathead High School junior, a haircut. Inset, stylist Joyce Passow goes to work.

In the early days of the Outlaw Inn, Ron Kelley’s barbershop, the King’s Lair, was in the heart of the action.

Like the rest of the then-five star hotel and conference center, the King’s Lair’s customers included wealthy businessmen, intrepid travelers and movie stars. In 1974, the hotel hosted the cast and crew of “Winterhawk” during the movie’s production and Kelley, after starting at the hotel in 1976, trimmed the manes of famous disc jockey Wolfman Jack, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson and director Charles B. Pierce, the man responsible for “Winterhawk.”

These days the movie stars are long gone from the Outlaw Inn and the businesses that used to surround the King’s Lair — including an art gallery, restaurant, bar and beauty salon — have closed their doors. Even the Outlaw’s name has officially vanished. The hotel today is the FairBridge Inn and Suites.

While the Outlaw’s different owners, names and reputations have come and gone, Ron Kelley and his second-floor barbershop have always been there.

That changes after Wednesday when Kelley will give his last haircut as the hotel that was once the epicenter of Kalispell’s south side ushers its final business tenant out the door.

“He’s such a great guy,” Karen Whitman, the hotel’s sales manager, said of Kelley. “The era’s coming to an end; he’s the last real fixture of that hotel.

“He’s the last outlaw to leave the inn.”

KELLEY HAS been cutting hair for nearly 60 years.

The 75-year-old grew up on a dusty farm in Eastern Colorado before beginning his career in Denver. After a few years as an apprentice Kelley opened his own barbershop in 1962, then relocated with his family to Kalispell in 1971. He ran his first shop out of the Glacier Building downtown before joining the Outlaw Inn when it expanded in 1976.

In those days, Kelley said, the inn couldn’t expand fast enough.

“Now this is the actual truth,” he said. “I watched the people roll out the carpet, put down the furniture — all in one day — and a guy walks in and rents a room the same day. I’m not kidding, that’s just how busy [it was]. They packed this place for years.”

Unfortunately for Kelley, the hotel did not stay that way.

“The reputation of the hotel has turned some,” Whitman said. She began working at the FairBridge when a company out of Spokane, Washington, bought the hotel four years ago.

“When the bank owned it we got a horrible reputation from drugs and all of that, and that was true,” she added. “When we bought the hotel we changed all of that, but it’s still got that stigma.”

About 20 years ago, Kelley estimates, as other hotels popped up in town and the Outlaw’s ownership changed from local businessmen to an out-of-town outfit, his clientele from within the hotel disappeared.

“That’s when I totally relied on my ability to handle the people in town,” he said.

Fortunately for Kelley, he had been handling the people in town exceptionally well.

“I don’t have clients,” he said. “I have friends.”

When Kelley first started the King’s Lair he went door-to-door to local businesses to pitch the idea of $10 haircuts in an era when most shops in town charged between $1.50 and $1.75. Kelley had paid $1,500 to take a modern hair-cutting course and would go on to become a teacher to other barbers around the state, but he said his clients kept coming back not just because of the caliber of haircut he could provide. His secret was even simpler.

“I always believed in taking care of people,” he said.

“I can tell you almost every customer — and like I say, they’re friends — what they do, where they live, their telephone number and all these things, because I devoted my life to that,” he said.

Years ago, all four chairs at Kelley’s barbershop were full, with three employees trimming hair alongside him. The last 20 years, though, Kelley has been by himself and completely reliant on repeat customers making appointments. That’s built him a steady roster of “friends” with whom he discusses everything — even the typically verboten politics and religion — as his faithful and placid dog, Matilda, looks on.

He’s become enough of a fixture in the community that the hotel is throwing him a retirement party on Thursday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free coffee, tea, lemonade and cookies will be served and scrapbooks documenting the history of the inn and Kelley’s tenure will be on display.

“I expect a lot of customers, family, a lot of town people who’ve known Ron for a long time,” Whitman said.

“We’re very much a big family at this location ... You kind of become addicted to the place, you care so much about it, and Ron’s definitely a part of our family.”

In retirement, Kelley plans to travel with his wife, Faye Bennett-Kelley, and spend time with his children, Brock and Melina, and his stepchildren Tricia, David, Greg and Jeff. Kelley’s first wife, Ardis, passed away in 2012.

The barber will also devote more time to his second craft, intarsia, a wood-carving technique. Nearly two decades ago, Kelley started crafting three-dimensional, hanging wood art and has since sold pieces for thousands of dollars.

Still, he concedes, none of that will be the same as his more than 40 years at the Outlaw Inn.

“I’ve enjoyed the almost 60 years of cutting hair and I’m sure going to miss my friends, you know, and leaving here,” Kelley said.

“[My wife and I] are looking forward to spending more time together; just living a good life.”

Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or aviano@dailyinterlake.com.

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