Affable, Talented, Funny: Mike Oviatt is Living the Dream
By Sue Todd
Glacier City Gazette
Mike Oviatt is a standard fixture around Girdwood, but who is he, and what is his story? I sat with him recently to get the goods, and here is what I learned.
Oviatt was born right in downtown Palmer. It was a home birth. He went to school at Palmer High School, and then he worked as a carpenter doing framing and roofing work. Though he found completing projects to be very satisfying, carpentry was not to be his career.
At age 17, along with a friend, he caught a flight to the west coast, with no real plan other than to hitchhike and busk for the money he needed. He wandered between Oregon and Washington, and happened to run into another Palmer native at a punk rock show in Seattle.
She invited him out to San Luis Obispo, where she lived. Oviatt took her up on the offer and later moved on to Santa Cruz. Still busking for funds, he enjoyed hanging out with friends, drinking beer and wine, and sleeping outside. As entertaining as the west coast was, though, he returned to Alaska when he was 19.
At age 21, he took off in another direction – Duluth, Minnesota. To make ends meet, he worked in a pizza shop and played music as much as he could. He even participated in a jug band competition, and his band won first place.
It was not the first time he had earned a music prize. When he was eight years old, his dad was competing in a contest called the Great Alaska Riff. Oviatt told his dad he wanted to compete, too. His father said, “Why not?”
At the competition, Oviatt was amazed at the talent he saw. He was the youngest player by far. Though he did not win the contest, the organizers recognized his participation by awarding “the little guy” an acoustic guitar. A picture of Oviatt receiving it was displayed on the register at Mammoth Music for years.
When Oviatt left Minnesota, he fell in with some guys he had just met and headed to the west coast in their bread van. Every one of them was broke, so when they ran out of gas, they would busk for gas money. The group ran into trouble with the law in Dickinson, North Dakota. A policeman hauled them in to his station to explain that they were not allowed to busk.
What the policeman really wanted, though, was for them to move on. With no money, though, they had no way to go. After much discussion, the frustrated officer finally gave them a gas voucher and told them to hit the road and to not stop until they reached Montana.
Before they left Dickinson, they met some guys who owned a bar in South Heart, North Dakota, and they were invited to play there. They accepted the invitation, traveled to South Heart, played in said bar, and made a whopping $500. It was more than enough to get them to the west coast. Their band name was Gas Voucher.
The reason the bread van was headed to the west coast was because they guys had friends getting married in Seattle. The group arrived in Washington in time for the wedding. Almost as though it had completed its task, the bread van heaved its final breath only 10 blocks from their destination. What perfect timing.
Mike moved on and stayed with his mother in Bellingham, Washington for a while. Later, he moved down to Portland and stayed with his brother. For his music fix in Portland, he joined a punk rock band called Puke and Rally.
Several months later, he moved back to Palmer and worked at Brown Jug. He attempted to get a fishing job, but it did not work out. On a whim, he applied for a job operating the Alyeska tram. He was hired, so at age 24, he hitchhiked to Girdwood and lived in the woods for the summer while working on the tram. As fall approached, it got cold, so he found a place to live and moved indoors.
Oviatt still works the tram. He claims that working with interesting people, meeting different folks from around the world, seeing the beautiful mountainside every day, and getting to tell great Alaskan stories all make it a very fulfilling job.
For the last two years, he has been booking music for Forest Fair, which originally drew him to Girdwood.
“It is a dream task,” says Oviatt. “It’s a thrill to contribute to my favorite music festival,” he says.
Last fall, Oviatt began working sound at the Sitzmark and said, “I cannot believe I get paid to do what I love.”
Plus, working sound has turned out to be a great networking tool for him, working with acts like The New Dubliners, Great American Taxi, Lucas Nelson, Keller Williams, North Mississippi All Stars, Chris Robinson, Clinton Fearon, and so many more. He has to pinch himself occasionally.
When The Silvertip reopened and got their beer and wine license, he was invited to host open mic every week, and it has become very popular. Oviatt says encouraging new talent and collaborating with other musicians has been very rewarding.
Since he was a child, Oviatt loved music. It has been central to every move he has made. Now he is participating at a level he never expected – booking music for Forest Fair, hosting open mics, and working sound for major acts. It is his dream life.