November 10, 2006
Bruce Elliott, who with his wife runs the Old Town Ale House, couldn't quite achieve the expression he wanted. He was at his studio in Hyde Park, attempting to complete the portrait of an old friend and Ale House regular named Howie Grayck. On the easel in front of him stood a piece of cardboard; in his hand he held a palette of oils—the media with which Elliott creates the paintings of Ale House patrons that now pretty well cover every inch of wallspace at his bar, a dark and refreshingly squalid enclosure on North Avenue and Wieland Street. To paint a portrait, it normally takes Elliott about five days. He'd already spent three weeks on this one. "I almost threw it in the garbage," he says, recalling the struggle. To Elliott, it did not sufficiently convey the personality of this man who'd been coming into the Ale House every night for at least two decades. "He's a real sweet guy, everyone loves him, he always has a smile," Elliott told me. "But he's also got a certain sorrowful look. There's a sad quality to it. It's real elusive, and that's what I was trying to capture."
The breakthrough was equally mysterious. When Elliott returned to the painting the next day in a last-ditch effort to save it, he fiddled with the hangdog eyes, the easygoing smile, and suddenly the man was, for Elliott, alive on the cardboard—Howie being Howie—a middle-aged man with a receding hairline, a brow like a moon, an ample mustache and big dark soft eyes, smiling from the picture like a boozy father in the late bittersweet hour of his eldest daughter's wedding reception. Of the approximately 125 portraits hanging inside the Ale House, Howie's is among Elliott's favorites.
Elliott, who was born on the Southside and raised in Downers Grove, himself has been an Ale House regular for going on 45 years, but he came late to tavernkeeping. Now 66 years old, he and his wife, Tobin Mitchell, an administrator at the Riverdale, Illinois, school district, took custody of the Ale House in late 2005 from its longtime owner, Beatrice Klug, who'd fallen ill with cancer. She died in August of the same year. Elliott and Mitchell were old friends of Beatrice and her ex-husband, Arthur Klug, who served, essentially, as the Ale House's head barkeep until he died at 79, of a heart attack, in January 2005, about seven months before Beatrice. As she grew older, the desire to find a successor slowly overcame Beatrice until she essentially bequeathed the place to Tobin and Bruce, under one condition: That they, like their predecessors, remain adamantly opposed to change.
The Ale House was opened in 1958, just before the Old Town neighborhood entered its boom period (and becoming, for one frantic a decade, Chicago's version of the West Village). In 48 years the Ale House has had four owners. The founder, a career tavernkeeper named E.J. Van Gelder, patterned his saloon after Vesuvio's, the famous beatnik bar and anchor of San Francisco's North Beach. Elliott first began frequenting the Ale House in 1961, when he was 21 years old, and Vesuvio's in 1967, when he moved to Northern California for a nine-year stint. Elliott is a kind of scholar of the bar life; he has the experience, therefore, to make comparisons. "Van Gelder's Ale House was probably the most eclectic bar I've ever been in," he says. "Schoolteachers, lawyers, businesspeople would come in after work for happy hour. In the evenings, the old Rush Street crowd came in—society people. Robert McCormick drank there." Writers and artists of all kinds laid claim to the bar late at night. One representative customer of this era was Eddie Belchowski, a one-armed heroine addict. He was also a derelict, a painter of some renown (he once had a show at the Art Institute), and a former concert pianist whose musical career came to an end after losing an arm while fighting as a volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. After a night of drinking at the Ale House many years later he'd often break into old communist folk songs. (At the back of the Ale House today hangs Elliott's portrait of Belchowski. It depicts a gray-bearded old man shooting up, tightening a rubber-band tourniquet with his mouth.) Due to proximity, performers from the Second City made the Ale House their off-duty headquarters. Sketches brainstormed and all but written at the bar found their way, some years later, to New York and Saturday Night Live. Journalists and media people started their rounds after work at a place called Ricardo's, moved to O'Rourke's a bit later (both bars are long defunct), then ended their circuit in the wee hours at the Ale House, which had (and still has) a 4AM license. This was known as the Bermuda Triangle.
Van Gelder had a knack for opening nightspots (he also founded John Barleycorn's, on Lincoln Ave., after sensing that the action was moving away from Old Town and into Lincoln Park) but not for maintaining them. A small man of Dutch extraction, Van Gelder went through spells of unaccountable surliness and had the mercurial habit of banning loyal regulars whenever the urge overtook him. He eventually sold the place in the late 1960s to an Ale House bartender named Joe Diaz. Diaz had a pork-chop mustache, wore three-piece suits, and constantly smoked a pipe. "He looked like Lord Beaverbrook until he opened his mouth," Elliott says. "And then he sounded like an absolute moron." Inverting the ancient barkeeper's role of playing amateur psychologist, Diaz had a tendency to regale the drinker with his own problems. "He was incessantly bitching and moaning. Within six months he just annihilated the place."
At the time Arthur Klug bartended at Figaro's, another legendary saloon on Wells. Sensing an opportunity, Klug assembled a group of Old Town cronies as investors and bought Diaz out in 1971. Not long thereafter, a fire gutted the bar, and the Ale House moved to its current location, right across Wieland from Van Gelder's original site. Though Klug and his pals survived this setback, they did little to improve the bar's prospects—essentially they viewed it as their own private social club—and the business remained unprofitable. Often they consumed so much of the Ale House inventory that, last call, they forgot to lock the doors after stumbling out of them. "All those guys were fuckups," Elliott concisely explains. Arthur's wife however, was not. Among other work pursuits, Beatrice had bought, renovated and flipped apartment buildings. She knew a rehab project when she saw one, and she essentially bailed her husband out. She acquired all the shares held by Arthur's partners and almost immediately brought the Ale House back to life. She cleaned the place up, banned the unruly, and kept a sharp eye on the balance sheet. She also kept Arthur, by then her ex-husband, as chief bartender.
Married for six years between 1955 and 1961, they were better friends divorced than betrothed. They also made for good business partners. Beatrice was the ruthless behind-the-scenes manager, Arthur the loquacious front-of-the-house showman. Very nearly a teetotaler, Beatrice allowed herself six drinks per year—always a gin and tonic. Arthur, meanwhile, required quantities of lubrication. "Arthur was always the big draw," Elliott says. "People would come in just to talk to him." Dark-haired and handsome and highly literate, Klug was born in Burma, where his father worked as an oil executive. A semaphore signalman with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific Theater, he sunk while aboard a landing craft off the coast of the Philippines during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. After the war, he used the G.I. Bill to study at the writing workshops at the University of Iowa, where he befriended two graduate students: Flannery O'Connor and Tennessee Williams. But he did not pursue thereafter a writing life. He was perhaps less interested in applying his imagination to the page then in perfecting the art of conversation. His art was of the oral kind. From across the bar of the Ale House, he was an accomplished yarn-spinner (of his childhood meeting with Gandhi on a boat back to Asia from the U.S., of his alleged cowardice at sea during the war, of the many outsized personalities he'd met in the bars of Old Town), joke teller (he was an old friend of Lenny Bruce, whom he'd met while working at Figaro's), and womanizer (the reason, obviously, for his divorce). He remained a voluminous reader, and his apartment resembled the rooms of an unprofitable used bookstore. According to Elliott, who parsed through the collection after Klug's death, the shelves held more than 10,000 volumes.
About fifteen years before his death, Klug began having heart trouble, which worsened in the last five years of his life. His eyesight also deteriorated, and toward the end he could no longer read. On a volunteer basis, Bruce and Tobin started pitching in around the bar. Beatrice, meanwhile, worried about her own health and about Arthur's fate should she die before him, so she taught Tobin the business and slowly ceded control to her protégé until, eventually, her health indeed worsening, she signed over the deeds and the licenses.
Tobin considers Beatrice more than just a mentor. "She was incredible. One of her favorite sayings—she used to say this all the time—'The greatest gift a woman can give another woman is independence.' Her idea of independence was the ability to work for herself, to be her own boss. She was big on control. She'd say all the time, 'Business could turn bad one day, but at least I'm not working for someone else.'"
The two couples had long been close friends and over the years they'd become de facto family. The Klugs were like grandparents to Bruce and Tobin's daughter, Grace, now 22 years old. From the time she was 12, Grace would join Arthur on his nightly rounds about the city, especially at the Chicago Chophouse and the bar of the Four Seasons hotel. "That's what she thinks life is all about," Elliott says. "Guys with dough trying to have a swell time. It's kind of wrecked her."
Beatrice was diagnosed with lung cancer on her birthday in August 2004. When Arthur found out, he began drinking even harder, ignoring his doctors' warnings. With his life-ending heart attack in late January 2005, he avoided the prolonged bed-ridden suffering of a terminal illness. Not so Beatrice, who spent her last two months confined to her bed, cared for daily by Grace and Tobin. She died on her birthday, precisely one year after being diagnosed. She'd just turned 73. The last coherent words she spoke to Bruce Elliott were, "Arthur, that son of a bitch. He got off easy again."
Aside from the explosion of Elliott's artwork on the walls, the new Ale House owners have succeeded in avoiding change. They fix chairs instead of replacing them. They let nothing on the juke box but jazz. (Beatrice as a young woman once dated a professional roadie, joining him and the Rolling Stones on an American tour. She returned to Chicago after a year's worth of experiences and refused to listen to rock and roll the rest of her life. The Ale House juke ever since has reflected this prejudice.) Like Beatrice, Tobin owns the bar as well as the space it's situated in. Like Arthur, Elliott's name is on nothing. When asked why, he snorts as if the answer is obvious. "Well," he says, "it's just practical." Elliott readily admits that he's never in his life held a real job, and that this is, emphatically, for a lack of trying. "I pretty much decided when I graduated high school that I was not cut out for work," he says. "I'm work-phobic." He once drove a cab for a year in Chicago in the middle 1960s, but that's about as close as he's got. He moved to San Francisco in 1967 to be part of the antiwar movement, and, as he tells it, he somehow managed to get himself enrolled, largely by accident, at Berkeley. He emerged in 1971, at the age of 30, with a degree in history, but about the only place he's ever used that book knowledge is in barroom conversations.
Elliott is a little circumspect about discussing his career before tavernkeeping. "I just always seemed to have money in my pocket," he says. When pressed, he will explain that over the years he has made his money through minor credit-card fraud ("One of the good things about being a Berkeley grad," he says, "was that they kept sending you credit-card applications"), personal injury lawsuits, sports gambling, and golf. He's a scratch player—or the equivalent of it, since he's never had an official handicap. For 30 years, he played in money games every day at the Jackson Park and Joe Louis public courses. Every year he wintered in Sarasota, Florida, doing the same. With friends he played straight up; with strangers, he hustled. His hair had thinned and turned white early in life, and he once clipped a guy in Florida by posing as a 70-year-old with a bad hip. To finish the ruse, he wore a hearing aid. On the 10th hole, he doubled down and immediately began bombing his drives 280 yards up the middle. Elliott no longer involves himself in big-money matches; he developed knee problems and his play has suffered. His only goal on the links now is to shoot his age.
Toward the end of autumn these days, Elliott will lose interest in golf, or become frustrated with his game, and return to Hyde Park and his studio, which he'll have neglected all through the warmer months. Elliott began painting in his late teens, and he's largely self-taught. What technical education he has, he absorbed while sitting in the living room of the Hyde Park townhouse owned by Gertrude Abercrombie (American, born 1909, died 1977), the surrealist. He'd spend hours there watching her make paintings. An uncle of Elliott's was part of Abercrombie's circle, which included jazz musicians, writers, painters, actors, and they often socialized at her house. Nelson Algren was a regular. When he played Chicago, Louis Armstrong sometimes slept on Abercrombie's couch. From the age of 16, Elliott would accompany his uncle on visits to the townhouse. Parties were usually going on while Abercrombie worked, and the painter almost always had a drink in her hand. "She was a colossal alcoholic," Elliott says. "And she was mean. You couldn't ask her any questions. But she would let you sit there and observe." From Abercrombie, he learned how to prepare masonite (For his non-portrait work Elliott uses masonite, not cardboard or canvas), how to mix color, how to create certain effects. He also learned about cost-saving measures. Abercrombie would buy old picture frames at yard sales and flea markets, then cut slabs of masonite to fit the frames. Elliott does the same.
His paintings explode with color like a parade on a feast day. Though most of the works are straight-forward portraits, some depict sordid, noirish milieus—a voyeur in a window in the background, say, and a couple engaged amorously in the fore. They often approach the pornographic. He has painted many ensemble barroom scenes. He is drawn to lowlife in all its forms. He has made posters—mock Ale House ads—that purposely evoke the bar as if it were the Moulin Rouge. They say across the bottom, "L'Old Town Ale House," and they are an homage to the tastes of Beatrice Klug, which ran to fin-de-siecle French poster art. In many of Elliott's paintings, the people have a yellow-green pallor on their faces, suggesting illness. He leaves the backgrounds of his portraits an unpainted cardboard-brown. In both subject matter and technique, his style is cartoon Toulouse-Lautrec.
On a recent Tuesday at around 11AM, an old regular customer was sitting at the bar. "Hey Bruce," the man said, turning from his beer. "You ever thought about having an exhibit?" Elliott, on his way to the bathroom, made a waving motion with his hands.
"No," he said, walking away. "This is my exhibit right here."
About his work, Elliott says, "It's hardly avant-garde; I know that. But I paint what I like and what I'm interested in. Faces fascinate me, for instance. There are a lot of great faces in this place. I think there's a lot of truth in these pictures in that way."
His portraits do not generally flatter. Full of crags and creases and lines and bags, they are studies in the physiological effects of unorthodox lives, good portions of which have been spent inside bars. If there's sadness to this, it's also cut at Elliott's tavern by a sense of gallows humor. On painful mornings at the Ale House, these men and women don't "fight the mirror"—an old saying meant to describe a barfly with a hangover attempting to come to grips with his life by staring into a pub's looking glass—since the mirror that hangs here is almost completely obscured by Polaroids and bric-a-brac and, of course, Elliott's paintings. They will, however, look up and see the sculpture of an anonymous bust, on the head of which rests a ballcap that says, "Betty Ford."
Sometimes, when Elliott hangs a new picture, his subject will take serious offense. A newspaper reporter had been waiting for years to see his likeness displayed in the Ale House gallery. "The minute the portrait went up," Elliott recalls, "he said if we didn't take it down, he'd bring in his gun and shoot it." The picture came off the wall. Another time, a local tavernowner who has since moved to Arkansas tore his portrait from its moorings, threw it to the ground and began jumping on top of it. "Amazingly," Elliott says, "the picture survived. He was barred for awhile, though. It takes me four or five days minimum to do one, so if you do that, it doesn't make me happy." Elliott remains steadfast to his principle of truthfulness even with his closest friends. In one of Elliott's documentary works, the Chicago-based comic and Ale House regular John Fox is being chased by a woman with a baseball bat. Policemen are attempting to restrain her. The scene actually happened. The woman was Fox's girlfriend at the time (now ex). "Lucky me," Fox said not long ago, looking up at the composition, which hangs prominently above the bar. "Fucking Bruce shows up in his car right behind the paddy wagon, sees the whole thing, and memorializes it."
Despite all this, Elliott is constantly badgered by customers who want their portraits made, but he says he can only complete a successful piece if he knows the customer well. Nor will he accept paid commissions: "It would be too much like work." Tourists will sometimes enter the Ale House, take a liking to a picture, and make Elliott an offer—$2,000, $3,000, as much as $5,000. But the artist is too attached to his pieces, and to remove them from the setting for which they were intended would be too much for him to handle. "They're specifically meant for the bar," he says.
A picture conspicuously absent from Elliott's gallery is that of Tobin, who first began frequenting the Ale House while dating Elliott 28 years ago. Her full-length portrait does hang, however, in one of the bedrooms at the studio in Hyde Park. The picture is based on a photograph taken on New Year's Eve, 1981, when Tobin was 25 years old. She's wearing a long green sleeveless evening gown, has her thick blonde hair worn up, and looks altogether glamorous. Recently, when asked for her opinion on this particular piece, she did not immediately answer. She was sitting next to her husband at a table inside the Ale House. She looked up toward the ceiling. "No woman likes her portrait. I don't even like photographs of myself." And then, after another pause, she said, "But I remember the dress. I remember the night."
One of Elliott's favorite portraits is that of Michaela Tuohy. Everyone called her "Mike." In the painting, Tuohy is wearing a prim business suit. Her hair is steel-gray and styled short, like an upstanding grandmother's, but these details stand in opposition to the look on her face. She has one eye drunkenly shut. A cigarette dangles from her lips as she attempts to light it; you can almost see her hands wobbling with the Bic. In the bars of Old Town, Tuohy was famous for her mouth, in two ways—she took grandiose pleasure in verbal sparring, and she was often misplacing her dentures. She had a sidekick named Bill "Tracy" Berg, another practiced wisecracker. "The two of them were just vicious," Elliot says. "When they walked into a bar together, people would cringe." Berg, who wears a yellow blazer draped around his shoulders in his Ale House portrait, committed suicide in the early 1980s after learning he had AIDS. He threw himself out a window on the 14th floor at St. Joseph's Hospital. Tuohy died of heart failure in 1998 at the age of 61, and was not alive to see her portrait.
Toward the end of Tuohy's days, Elliott says, "she had finally straightened out, kind of got her life together. She was working for the city at the department of special events. And she had money and her own place, really for the first time in her life. But she kept the pedal to the metal. Her doctors told her to slow down on the drinking and smoking, and that was not ever going to happen.
"The thing about the bar life is this. Lives tend to be a lot shorter. But, on the other hand, there's not a night in this bar I don't have a huge belly laugh. That's the trade off. There will be health issues; there will be domestic issues. But then there's the fun-factor that people who live an extra ten years don't necessarily enjoy."
Once Elliott finds his groove in the studio, he will spend up to nine hours a day painting. "Some days I'll leave the bar at eleven thirty in the morning and won't get back from Hyde Park till nine o'clock at night. Seven days a week." He works from photographs and from memory. If he's having trouble with a portrait, he will occasionally come back to the bar in order to study the subject's face.
Elliott began painting with this kind of prolific rage about five years ago, when Tobin suggested that he make, and hang, portraits of Ale House regulars as a way to extend the famous mural that had long adorned the tavern's east wall, opposite the bar. Painted in the early 1970s by a Carson Pirie Scott fashion artist named Maureen Munson, the mural is a compendium of faces—Ale House regulars from time immemorial—or, at least, from a time that fewer and fewer people are alive to recall. "At least 70% of the people in that mural have to be deceased," Elliott says. It was Tobin's original notion that Elliott's portrait gallery consist of current bar regulars, mainly as a way to enhance the already strong sense of community within the Ale House crowd. Since the Munson mural was largely of the past, Tobin thought: "What about the people who are drinking here now?"
"Now" of course is a relative term, and as each year goes by another longtime regular seems to fall ill and take his or her leave for good.
Terry Yum, for instance, a recovering alcoholic who for decades ran the Golden Dragon restaurant on Wells Street, died of lung cancer this past spring. Lazar, for another instance, a career bartender, died two months ago—he was in his 70s—of complications from stroke. His full name was Robert Lazar Vakulin, but for unknown reasons he only wanted to be known as Lazar. "If you called him 'Bob,''' Elliot says, "he wouldn't speak to you for six months." Lazar was famous for once burning an authentic $1000 bill (it had belonged to a rich Ale House regular named Ernie Kahn) because Kahn had suggested that he wouldn't do it. Elliott has dedicated one corner of the Ale House to these fallen comrades. It's become the most-revered section of the gallery, and it's called the Dead Wall.
Tracy Berg and Mike Tuohy are both on the Dead Wall, and Arthur and Beatrice Klug are nearby, as is the legendary Ale House regular Hank Oettinger, a retired Printer's Row printer, an outspoken leftist and a career writer of angry Letters to the Editor of the Tribune.
He often wore handmade political buttons on the lapels of his Salvation Army suits. His latest, from 2004, was his favorite. It said, "Redefeat Bush." Elliott had been friends with Oettinger since the younger man first started haunting the saloons of Old Town, in 1961. Elliott has kept all of his old friends' letters, storing them in a file in the basement of the Ale House. "Hank was the gold-standard of customers," Elliott says. "He drank everyday till he hit 91, though the last year of his life he slowed down. But he still ordered grapefruit juice."
Oettinger died two years ago at the age of 92, but he was alive to see his likeness painted by Elliott, and to render an opinion on it.
"He didn't like it. He thought it was too small."
Elliott has since put Oettinger's portrait on a piece of wall near the front of the bar. Nearby is a bank of windows, where the sun pours in on clear days, warming the area. "This is where Hank used to sit," Elliott says. "So I hung him here."