Mike “Sperm Whale” Critz
DJ, Bartender and Event Impresario
If you had been in the metro area restaurant and bar scene in the late 70’s into the 80’s you would have no doubt had your favorite go-to establishment and a favorite bartender. Back in those days, bartenders were king. The places themselves were different. The Wharf Restaurant had a huge island bar upstairs and a stage where acts such as Mary Ann Redmond, Mary Blankemeier, Al Williams, Johnny Artis and Eva Cassidy would perform. Where the Starbucks is at the corner of King and Union was the Seaport Inn Restaurant where you could listen to Rodger Henderson. The bars were different then as well. Bullfeathers was where O’Connell’s sits now and there was a bar upstairs at the Warehouse that had Margarita Tuesday specials. Where the Columbia Firehouse Restaurant sits on North St. Asaph Street was everyone’s go-to late night place…Portners. In the early 80’s Mike Critz began to make an impact in Alexandria.
Critz graduated from Fort Hunt High School in Alexandria n 1978 and entered the U.S. Air Force. He served as a Security Specialist and was stationed at Malstrom AFB in Great Falls, Montana. Critz had the idea to start Keg Night at the Rainbow Hotel, so he bought 20 kegs of beer and charged $5 to get in that included all the beer you could drink. Soon this was so popular that they were hurting the other bar business in the area. The general manager of the Gold Rush Restaurant hired Critz at $10 an hour to DJ and promote his place. With a stack of 45’s and 33’s, he moved in. “It was great,” he tells me, I lived on mustard sandwiches and beer.”
So….about the name “Sperm Whale”. The owner of the Gold Rush, Michael Romanchuck, upon introducing him the first night told Critz, “you look like a beached whale!” “Well, if I am going to be called a whale, I want to be a Sperm Whale,” he responded. The name stuck.
When he was discharged from the service he moved back home. In 1982 he got a job tending bar at the main bar in the Fish Market Restaurant in Old Town. “I went home the first day and complained to my mother that I had only made $2.80 that day in tips,” he remembers. “Don’t worry, it will get better.” And better it did.
Soon he was moved to the Raw Bar that stood on the corner of King and Union Streets. “The crowds were huge and we had to have four bartenders on Sundays just to keep up,” he says. “Friday nights were keg roll night,” he continues. “The beer trucks would arrive late Friday night and the bartenders would help unload the kegs and roll them into the walk in box for the weekend.”
The camaraderie of the restaurant people crossed over state lines. Greg Shiner, then part owner of Pierce Street Annex in D.C. and today still a close friend, brought the whole staff to the Raw Bar for an afternoon of “socializing”. “What a day,” Critz says.
As the bar scene exploded in Alexandria and the DJ became more popular, Critz expanded his horizons. “I started bartending at Bullfeathers and spinning tunes on the weekend.” He would play music at the popular costume party at Portners every Halloween, s well as entertaining folks at King Street Blues.
About this time, Mike Anderson and Tom Jackson had opened two restaurants in the west end of Alexandria. Shooter McGees and Eastport Raw Bar were doing pretty well but the two owners wanted to ad a little entertainment, so they called Critz. “It took three interviews with Anderson and Jackson as well s their bar manager Christe Harsey,” he says, “it was intense.” A great relationship was formed, that lasts to this day, and Critz remained at Shooter McGees for three years.
As his reputation and following grew, the general Manager Mr. Critzberg at the Old Town Holiday Inn (now the Monaco) called Critz with an offer. On North Royal Street and attached to the hotel, they had a bar/restaurant that was going unused. The offer was accepted and he opened “The Whaling Company” with bands and DJ’s most every night. The place was packed. “We were a huge success for a few years and then one day Critzberg tells me that he has to close the place,” Critz tells me. Seems that the Whaling Company was making too much noise for the hotel guests and complaints began to surface. The hotel had to put the guests first, and Mike Critz now has the distinction of running the only club that was closed because it was too successful.
In the 90’s Critz attended the “Night Club and Bar” trade show in Las Vegas. After listening to a few speakers, he decided that he could do this too. He began a seminar based on “Wild & Wacky Promotions” which became a big hit. He was invited back for the next 10 years with his last seminar being “The Dying Art of Bartending”, something he feels that is happening today. Malcolm Scott, one of the regular attendees, was so impressed with Critz that he wanted to hire him. Scott was the food and beverage at the Breckenridge and Keystone resorts in Colorado.
In October of 2002, Scott called Critz and said, “Don’t say no.” Critz flew to Colorado and was met by Scott and put up for the weekend. They were opening a new venue called the “Green Light” and they wanted Critz to run it. “They offered me anything that I wanted and it took off,” he says. “We would sell coffee and donuts at the slopes in the morning and hot dogs and brats in the afternoon and soon were taking in over $1,000 a day.” When the skiing was finished for the day, everyone went back to the Green Light. He was soon DJing at the Paradise, and with a simulated radio station set up; he became the “Voice of the Village”.
After three years, Critz moved to Jackson, Wyoming where he ended up working at the Mangy Moose, but with housing in short supply, he returned to Billings, Montana. He worked as a restaurant manager at the Flying J Truck Stop in Bozeman, MT. Soon he got a call from Bruce Sandground, the owner of the Sign of the Whale in Fairfax saying. that he was opening a Sign of the Whale in Tempe, Arizona and would Critz work there and he took the job. After 18 months the recession hit in 2009 and the place closed.
Wanting to stay in warmer weather, he drove to Austin, Texas where he immediately found work DJing at weddings and events. One of his best contacts was Martha Boltz, who was manager of Texas Old Town. Mexi Mart, as Martha was known, soon became a great friend of Critz. “She was my drinking buddy, road trip pal and true friend,” Critz tells me. The friendship would continue.
Critz eventually moved to St. Petersburg, Florida where he had some friends and slowly began to work again. In October of 2015 Critz stepped on a tack, which he pulled out and never thought about it. “I had been in ‘diabetes denial’ and should have been taking better care of myself,” he admits. The wound became infected and soon it had spread to his ankle. He was admitted to the VA hospital in Bay Pines, Florida December 31, 2015. There was a concern that the infection could become too severe and he may lose his foot. After 5 months of care and attention, Critz was finally discharged from the hospital with all body parts intact. He had lost 30 pounds and moved in with his sister in Charlotte, North Carolina to recuperate.
He returned to Alexandria once again this September. His health is good and he hasn’t had a drink in 9 months. He is currently working with Jon Paul at Mega Watt, where he does what he does best…entertaining people. He hopes to get back behind a bar soon, and I am sure he will. He gives credit for his success to restaurant owners Mike Anderson, Tom Jackson and Stephen Mann. “They made it easy,” he says,”They had my back.” “I just want to bartend again, you know, like the guys at Cheers…where everybody knows your name!”