Greg Chaille is the perfect person to rave about places worth visiting in Bisbee, Arizona, because the four-year resident has been to so many places all over the world with which to compare them. Born in Santa Ana and raised in Fullerton—where Chaille attended Sunset Lane Elementary School, Park Junior High, Sunny Hills High (class of '84) and Fullerton College—he has lived more lives than a cat, first as a member of a Fullerton-born band, then as a comedy-show booker, webmaster, tech-company man, creepy amusements expert and most notably as tour manager for the late, great comic Mitch Hedberg and now with the great, death-pooled standup Doug Stanhope. Chaille's life choices have taken him to Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Guam and Florida, as well as colleges, theaters and comedy clubs around the country.
"I've moved to so many places," Chaille says matter-of-factly while sitting on a stool on the breezy outdoor balcony of Old Bisbee's Copper Queen Hotel saloon. He's in one of the loud suit jackets he and Stanhope wear to shows. As I am colorblind, I can only guess that on this particular day, the wisps of long hair from Chaille's mohawk are white, violet and the shade of blue old ladies achieve with the help of bottles. His first vehicle for getting the hell out of Dodge was Last Call, "a KROQ-style-of-music cover band" that a Sunny Hills High friend enlisted Chaille to join. Last Call played punk, new wave and rock covers throughout Southern California and considered Casey's in Orange and the original Mulberry Street location of Heroes in Fullerton their home gigs. Having started on rhythm guitar, Chaille later switched to bass because the band couldn't find anyone who could play or would travel. "Back then," he says, "you could make a living playing gigs."
Last Call got scouted by a promoter who made them the house band at the now-defunct Wave Waikiki Nightclub on Oahu. Next came Guam, where Last Call got to live the rock-star life, playing for locals and members of the military dumped off for R&R, diving and hitting the beach between shows. After that gig dried up, it was on to Chilkoot Charlie's in Anchorage, Alaska, where Last Call started playing in 1991. When they weren't playing, band members would go to the nearby comedy nights at Pierce Street Annex, where Chaille later began booking standups on the side. After the closure of the Anchorage Pierce Street Annex, which was part of the nationwide chain that began in San Francisco and included the Costa Mesa location that closed in January, Chaille pitched bringing comedy to Chilkoot Charlie's, where he would meet two touring standups who would play massive roles later in his life, Hedberg and Stanhope.
Chaille quit the band in 1996 to "make good money" working as the morning-show producer for an Anchorage rock-music station. Family matters, career opportunities and girls next had him bouncing between Fullerton, Seattle, Alaska and Florida. Working as a prop-warehouse manager in Tampa, Chaille also moonlighted as the webmaster for Hedberg's website. The comic called one day asking Chaille to take over his tour management, so he quit the warehouse job that day. Chaille last saw Hedberg two weeks before the comic died on March 29, 2005, in a New Jersey hotel room from a heroin and cocaine overdose; he says Hedberg never took hard drugs in front of him.
Chaille next returned for a while to Fullerton, then in 2007, he was in Bellevue, Washington, working at his brother Michael's special-effects and haunted-props business Ghost Ride Productions. Chaille continued booking comedy for Chilkoot, and the first night he arrived in Anchorage to see his longtime friend Brett Erickson perform in the club, he was introduced to "Ms. Tracey," whom The Doug Stanhope Podcast listeners now know as the better half of "The Chailles" and the Funhouse's lovely bartender.
Years ago, Stanhope was taping a travel show that brought him to Bisbee. Living on the Los Angeles coast at the time, he was asked off camera by a local if he was there to buy a house, and the comic answered that he would consider it. Stanhope called a real-estate agent, found and bought two side-by-side lots in Bisbee's Warren neighborhood and later added the small building that became the Funhouse bar/studio, the nearby Rape Trailer and other RVs sprinkled throughout the property.
Chaille was still in Alaska, working full-time at Chilkoot Charlie's, when he became Stanhope's tour manager in 2009. Four years later, he accepted Stanhope's offer to join him "out in the desert," and Chaille has been working full-time for the comedian since. The Chailles live in a house on the other side of the fence from the Stanhope compound, with a gate allowing passage.
Bisbee is the closest place to feeling like being home for Chaille, although he confesses he and Tracey do come down often with the travel bug. His title is road manager, but he also loves the solitude of driving the tour van, as he did all those years with Last Call. Besides manning the merch table in the lobby during and after Stanhope's shows, Chaille produces the podcasts, maintains the comic's websites and heads up online merchandise sales through a small space packed with T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters and recordings. He also produces and co-hosts Near the Wild, Alaska Podcast with two old comic friends he met in Anchorage: John Norris, who was part of the open-mic scene Chaille developed, and Mat Becker, whom he has known since Stanhope brought Becker up as an opening act in 1995.
Indeed, a collection of eclectic individuals swirls around Chaille and Stanhope, whose hardcore fans are known as the Killer Termites. USA Today named Bisbee the Best Small Town in America, surely deserved and the result of Killer Termites stuffing the online ballot box. But beyond the Stanhopians, Bisbee has drawn a winning mix of artsy fartsies, hippie burnouts, Arizona rednecks, small-"l" libertarians, Mexicans (Naco is just 7 miles away) and really anyone who desires a far-off place to live life on one's own terms. The population is only 5,575, says the 2010 census, and at 5,000 feet elevation, it's cooler than those furnaces known as Tucson and Phoenix. Locals love festivals, including Bisbee Pride (June 16-18); Bisbee 1,000 Stair Climb—much of Old Bisbee was built into steep hills, so stairs are the only way to reach structures, thus this unique and grueling marathon—on Oct. 21; and Sidepony Express Music Festival, which stuffs more than 100 underground and independent bands from the Southwest into any available venue (Nov. 10-12).
And now, ladies and Termites, here are Greg Chaille's Bisbee recommendations:
Mornings Café. Listeners know from the May 20 "swapcast," on which Stanhope joined fellow comic drunk Bert "The Machine" Kreischer in simultaneously recording their podcasts live before an audience in Old Bisbee's Royale theater, that Mornings is the favorite breakfast spot of Chaille's boss because it is within stumbling distance of his Warren home (though he still drives to it). As my breakfast with Chaille proved, Mornings is worth the drive because it has damn fine food. Highly recommended is the Bluefest Omelet (eggs, blue cheese, diced ham, fresh tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and spinach, $9.95). 420 Arizona St., (520) 366-1494.
Old Bisbee. It's the long stretch of quaint shops, eateries and other businesses that exude small-town charm. But about midway up Main Street, you'll find two places often mentioned on the podcasts: Floyd's eBay store (a.k.a. Miners and Merchants Antique Center, 7 Main St., 520-432-4009)—with Floyd of "incredible ass cancer" fame—and Café Roka (35 Main St., 520-432-5153; caferoka.com), whose ripping regional cuisine makes it the only five-star restaurant in Bisbee, according to Stanhope. I actually met one podcast regular in Old Bisbee, engineer Shawnee, his face in a package of cookies, and I saw sometime guest and "Bisbee legend" Margo Wollenberg, who stumbled to get into a car.
Brewery Gulch. Miners flocked here in the early 1900s when they weren't hitting Bisbee's multiple brothels. It's where you'll find St. Elmo Bar (36 Brewery Ave., 520-432-5578), established in 1902 and the oldest continuously operating bar in Arizona. There used to be an actual brewery in the Gulch; now there is a craft-brew house. Go figure. The place Chaille most recommends is the tiny upstairs Silver King Hotel bar (43 Brewery Ave., 520-432-3723), whose five seats make it the smallest one in the state. You want intimate? Less space is devoted to customers than to bottles of every conceivable type of booze. Tip: Don't make travel plans for July, as it is monsoon season and the Gulch floods, in which case, you'll wade up to the aforementioned Copper Queen Hotel saloon balcony (11 Howell Ave., 520-432-2216), which lets you combine two great pastimes: people watching and day drinking.
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Thuy's Noodle Shop. If you need a quick bite, Chaille says this Vietnamese counter joint has "by far the best food in town." The specialty is Saigon-style pho made from scratch by immigrant proprietor Thuy, who is the subject of that age-old question: How the hell did you wind up in Bisbee? I was too busy stuffing my face with her yummy bánh mì thit sandwich to care. 9 Naco Rd., (520) 432-9169.
Shady Dell. Owners Justin and Jen have populated their property next to a cemetery with midcentury travel trailers, buses and even a boat for overnight guests seeking something funkier than a Best Western. I slept in the El Rey, a 1957 chrome trailer that is often mistaken for an Airstream. With a bed, head, kitchenette, outdoor patio and turntable—loved playing the Buck Owens and Louie Armstrong vinyls I plucked out of the cabinet—the trailer is très comfortable, especially if you crank up the swamp cooler resting on the roof. Touring the grounds is a hoot, as you'll find tiki heads, old signage, vintage Pepsi vending machines, cars from the 1950s and even a drive-in-style movie screen, on which I caught the end of Dr. Strangelove with the park's owners, front-desk manager, the Chailles and a couple of dogs. We'll meet again—don't know where, don't know when . . . 1 Old Douglas Rd., (520) 432-3567; www.theshadydell.com.