Stars behind the bars 

A few top tenders revealed

Page 4 of 4

There's a brief lull. Alick returns to the laid-off girl and asks if she's ready for the inspirational quote.

She most definitely is. She claps in excitement.

Alick leans in. She and her pals lean in, too.

"Never buy a bartender a drink when he's behind the bar," he says—"because it's like buying a whore a piece of ass."

—Jason McMackin

Can you be too nice?

If Super Mario Bros. took place in a bar, it would probably look exactly like Donny Morey bartending at Flippers Casino. For one thing, Morey sports the Mario moustache and a perma-grin. He's short and seems to clip around the room with the kind of energy suited for cheerfully battling piranha plants, goombas and dragons. In his case, it's about cheerfully serving food and drink to barflies, overzealous Griz fans and herds of college students. Morey never sees it as a battle.

"I get along with the old ones, the young ones, the university students—everybody," he says. "I get a few gamblers who only come when I'm working because they say they have fun and I make them laugh."

On a recent Friday night, Foreigner's "Head Games" is playing on the jukebox as Morey weaves through the tables of chattering patrons to deliver burgers and pitchers of Kokanee. It seems like every 20 minutes he's giving someone a hug or a handshake. One young woman shows him her engagement ring, and he beams with pride. He gives her a hug, too. Does anyone not know Donny Morey? At least on this night, it seems like he's the host of his own party.

When I first noticed Morey, in 2003, I had hung out in Flippers Casino only a handful of times. I knew him better as a patron of the coffee box I worked at in the Food Farm parking lot. When you work in a drive-thru coffee box, you learn that the least flashy people are often the most generous tippers, and that was true of Morey, too. He'd buy a coffee worth a couple bucks and tip me five. It's not something you forget, especially when people in fancy SUVs are tipping 50 cents. Morey tips McDonald's and Burger King employees, too.

"At McDonald's or Burger King, they say, 'I can't take a tip,'" he says. "But I tell them, 'I'm not going to take it, either,' and I drive off, so they have to take it." He laughs. "They're doing a service like anyone else. Some nights I get pretty good tips and I don't mind sharing. What comes around goes around."

Bob Collins, a trucker and Flippers patron, says Morey's a unique friend. "I go out and party with him and he's genuine," he says. "You see him how he is."

Collins sits at the bar plenty of nights, but on this occasion he's proudly showing off two wood sculptures—a howling wolf and a bear on its hind legs—that he bought from a local chainsaw artist. He's decided to leave the wolf at Flippers as a present for the bar. This is exciting to Morey.

"That's the kind of thing people do for each other here," he tells me.

click to enlarge Donny Morey of Flippers Casino has quite the nice streak. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

But Morey's the king of generosity. On New Year's Eve, he gambled in the casino for the first time in five years and turned $30 into $110. He tipped out the waitress, bought two pitchers of beer and two pizzas from Papa Johns and shared them with everybody he could. Then he went down to the Golden Rose and got drunk and staggered home. "That was a good night," he says.

Morey grew up in Monterey, Calif. and moved to Ashland, Mont. in 1977, where he worked the insert machine in the mailroom of a Catholic Mission. He finally moved to Missoula in 1991, got a job at the Holiday gas station and then, in 1998, started his stint at Flippers.

His father, who died when Morey was 8, was a mystery to him. One day, he found his father's birth certificate, which said that he'd been born in Homestead, Mont. "People always asked me, 'Why do you like Montana?' And I never really knew the reason why, but maybe that's why. In the blood."

One dark winter morning at 4 a.m., a man came into Flippers. No one else was around. The man was wrapped up, his face obscured by what looked like a ski mask that made Morey's hair stand on end.

"I didn't hear him come in but I seen him come up," he says. At the time, he had a gun behind the bar for protection.

"I started reaching for it and he screams at me, 'Donny, it's me, Wes!'

"He'll come in and joke about it now: 'Remember when you almost shot me?'" He chuckles. He feels lucky, he says, that nothing worse has happened to him.

Once I started coming into Flippers more, even if it was just once a month, Morey figured out my name and never forgot it. He'd start pouring a pitcher of PBR as soon as he saw my group of friends walk through the door.

"He has a Rolodex of everyone's names in his head," says Alex Bittner, son of Flipper's owner Ross Bittner. "Some people won't have been in for five years and so when they come in, I say, 'Donny, who is that?' so I can recall their name."

Bartender Aaron Roos concurs. "He remembers what people like to drink. He remembers when they got a raise. He remembers everything. And he's the nicest guy in the world."

It's easy to see how a bartender's patience with people could wear thin over the years. For Morey, it's the opposite. He's even been known to drive a few patrons home when they were too sloshed to make it.

"I have more patience for people now than I did when I started," he says. "I think people just want to get along and they want to fit in. I can tell when somebody walks in and something bad has happened, or if they're lonely. I hear their problems. Last Friday, someone said he got dumped on New Year's. I said, 'What! I'm so sorry. Let me buy you a beer.' I told him, 'Hey, that's okay. Something better's gonna come along.'"

—Erika Fredrickson

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