The legendary Dirty Shame Saloon was brought out of foreclosure in February, purchased by longtime friends and current co-owners, John Runkle and Ray Falzone. By the end of July, the new owners plan to return the Yaak cornerstone back into a roadhouse as dirty and shameful as it ever was.
The pair met in 1981 as roommates stationed in Italy as U.S. paratroopers in the 509th Airborne Battalion combat team. Runkle and Falzone became life-long friends although taking different directions just two years later. They kept in contact for the next 30 years, ultimately leading to a reunion in Yaak to revive one of the most notorious saloons in western Montana.
The Dirty Shame earned a reputation as the toughest biker bar hidden 40 miles in the woods. Several festivals that routinely attracted thousands of visitors to the outpost during the summer months punctuated its rich, debaucherous history. The annual Crawdad Festival and its predecessor, the Yaak Attack, may well be interpreted as small-scale Sturgis events, drawing rough-necked bikers and adventure-seekers from across the region.
Locals said the most captivating stories about the Dirty Shame would be inappropriate to appear in a family newspaper.
“When we came up here, we had to pull bullet slugs out of the wall,” Runkle said. “One of the owners used to shoot pool balls off the table with his .357, you know.”
Years later, the saloon was purchased by former Episcopal priest Don W. Belcher. Belcher took steps to reanimate the anarchic establishment into what he described as, “an attractive bistro,” even putting carpet down on the bar floor. Belcher was convicted in the summer of 2011 on molestation charges in Maryland was sentenced to five years probation.
The Dirty Shame was foreclosed upon after Belcher’s conviction, giving Runkle an opportunity to expand his business holdings in Yaak by buying a bar that he had his eyes on for years.
Runkle reunited with Falzone after purchasing the Yaak River Lodge nine years ago. At that time, Runkle asked his old friend to help with renovations, drawing from Falzone’s 12 years experience at Home Depot. A few summers later, Runkle presented a proposal Falzone couldn’t resist.
“Do you want to get into the saloon business?” Runkle recalled asking his friend.
On Tuesday afternoon, the front of the Shame appeared a little tilted, and old planks that once lined the inside walls were scattered among the tall grass and weeds. Runkle, Falzone and their contractor took a short break beneath the shade of the front sign to observe the progress of their reconstruction project.
Inside, sawdust carpeted a barroom that has apparently undergone several transformations – the original Dirty Shame burned down nearly half a century ago – but pillars remain etched with names, hearts, years that stand as proof that Jen loved Jake, Steve loved Deb and somebody “danced with Shep.”
The new owners said they will be happy to continue this tradition, encouraging more names to be carved forever into the Shame. “Just no sharpies,” Falzone said. “That’s cheap.”
Since the purchase was finalized in March, the team has repaired the plumbing, old wall paneling, and replaced the bar top, this time with a beautiful coat of ebony paint to compliment the Harley Davidson orange that will line several angles of the lounge. Runkle is still contemplating leaving the shotgun pellets to rest inside the side door leading out.
“The best part,” Runkle said, pointing to the space next to the bar, “my 1981 Harley Shovelhead is going right here.”
Falzone, native of Las Vegas, was most ecstatic about the new menu he plans to serve. He displayed each and every item to clarify that the bar has no intention to stock frozen food imported from around the country.
“A potato this size” Falzone said while using his hands to demonstrate a sizable spud, “costs less than a nickel. We don’t have French fries out of a bag.”
Falzone revealed a few of his kitchen secrets, in a presentation that could have made even the most figure-conscious supermodel yearn for one of his upcoming “Shame-wiches” or a “Cardi-Yaak Arrest” pizza.
The new owners are excited to bring back the summer festivals that once brought people to Yaak, including the Crawdad Fest and Yaak Attack. Endeavors for new holidays include an art festival – Falzone also was a professional artist more than 30 years – and a music festival they’ve already named “Yaaktoberfest.”
These festivities were intended to bring the Shame back to full action in the Yaak, but the new owners remained fully aware of their responsibility to the public.
“We’re not contributing to white crosses,” Falzone said. “If people are getting on a little too loud, we’re just going to ship them down to the lodge.”
The business market in Yaak is small, but suitable to the residents. The return of the Shame will undoubtedly boost the number of consumers entering the Yaak, and locals are proud to see it back in the hands of businessmen.
“I think it’ll be great for everyone” said Chris Kunkle, bartending across the street at the Yaak River Tavern. “It’s not necessarily competition. The word ‘competition’ doesn’t really fit, it’s a nice community up here.”
“It was a good move, first thing to take out the carpet,” she jokes.
Today, Runkle and Ralzone will host a reunion of the 509th at the Yaak River Lodge. Forty-four members are set to attend and get a preview of the Dirty Shame Saloon before its grand opening later this summer.