Bruce Elliott and Liz Garibay

Old Town Ale House

12/23/2014

Bruce Elliott is the resident painter and philosopher of the Old Town Ale House. Liz Garibay is a historian and the founder of History On Tap.

You both have history with this establishment.

LG: I’m a native Chicagoan born and raised in Old Town, and a historian that focuses on telling Chicago’s history through taverns and beer. The Ale House is the bar I was sitting in when I realized how valuable saloons and their histories were to telling the stories not only of everyday individuals but really about cities as a whole.

BE: I started drinking here in 1961, so I guess I proved that if you drink in a place long enough eventually they give it to you. Liz is a terrific partner of ours because we get pub crawls, which we kind of hate, when a bus with a bunch of drunks will pull up, but with Liz--- these are the pub crawls that we really like, she brings in knowledgeable people for all the right reasons, so we’re very happy with Liz.

I grew up in a bar family, my grandfather had a bar on Stony Island Avenue, way back in the day. I remember as a little boy going into his old-fashioned bar, there was always a card game and he had a green visor on, and I loved the atmosphere. To me, it’s sad when you hear of these old-school bars going, because it’s more and more bars with flat-screen TVs, people don’t talk. You go over to Europe and you see all these great, 300-year-old bars, and people talk.

I think that’s what we try to do here. We’re old-school. In Chicago, a bar from 1958 is considered old-school, but people’d laugh at you in Europe.

The jukebox makes it truly old-school to me.

BE: I’m very sensitive to that. I mean I think I’m borderline autistic and I can’t take too much auditory stimulation. I let one of the bartenders, a guy named Tim, in charge of it. We call him the Jukebox Czar, and he’s invaluable--- I mean I don’t get any of the heat for it, but there’s no rock and roll, that’s pretty much a rule, there’s no rock and roll here. Certainly you’ll never see hip hop in here. But Tim’s very eclectic in his musical tastes, lots of jazz, lots of blues, stuff like that.

So why is Old Town Ale House still standing, still old-school?

BE: I think that a lot of it was luck. The guy who created the bar copied a place in San Francisco called Vesuvio’s, in North Beach. It’s a legendary San Francisco bar, and I think that was his idea when he built it in ‘58. Originally there was no jukebox, it was classical music, there was an old hi-fi behind the bar, there was no cigarette machine.

It was a very eclectic crowd of artists and musicians, blue collar people. It was kind of an interesting mix. This guy eventually sold it to kind of a half-wit guy named Joe Diaz. Diaz screwed it up badly, so bunch of these crazy--- one of them happened to be a very good friend of mine--- hipster guys from over on Rush Street, from a bar called Figaro’s, they got the dough together, about six of them, and bought the Ale House.

No sooner do they buy it, I think it was about 1971, it caught fire--- it was where the hardware store is right across the street. So almost without a moment going by they rented this place, it had been a butcher shop named Pete’s, they just carried the bar out ‘cause nobody knew how to break it down. They just carried it out in the middle of the street, blocked all the traffic, walked it in, and kept it going.

The bar would change as far as customers would go, from just hardcore early day drunks, then blue collar guys getting off work, then the Second City kids would come over. We’ve always had this relationship with Second City. And almost anybody who was in Second City at least came here, not necessarily hung around. It’s gone through a number of transformations, I don’t know exactly how you categorize it now. Back to the old, eclectic, I think.

LG: What Bruce is also not telling you is that, after the fire, he eventually is a part of this and keeps that legacy going. The paintings you see on the walls, those are all done by Bruce, and that’s the reason why I was inspired to do something about telling about Chicago’s history, because all those portraits you see are individuals that came here to drink.

And if each of those people have their stories, you start connecting the dots, and all of a sudden you have all these stories intermingling that give you the history of this bar, and then the history of the neighborhood, and eventually the history of the city. I think that Bruce’s role is incredibly significant in keeping the legacy and the preservation of this bar as it is.

Out of all the young comedians from the Second City to make it big, do any alumni stand out?

BE: I mean, I remember some of them hung around, some of them didn’t, but I remember Gilda Radner, Peter Boyle, people like that, before they became famous. And some of them were real funny to be around, some were real uptight. John Belushi used to come in--- probably seen him in here hundreds of times, he’d always sit by the jukebox, and the one thing that was very noticeable, I never once saw him crack a smile. It was almost like he was thinking he was incognito or something and I knew he was doing drug deals and stuff, whispering to people.

John Candy and that whole Canadian gang, Eugene Levy and Rick Moranis, all those guys would come in. I never got to know those guys but you’d just sit there and see them and hear them and you’d laugh, they physically looked so funny. And George Wendt, I can remember when he’d come in, for some reason he insisted on sitting right there by the front door, and everybody going “Norm!” and he’d get irritated. I’m going, “Sit in the back--- generally speaking nobody’s gonna bother you but you’re sitting right in front, you’re gonna have to learn to accept that.”

But I’m not gonna ever complain because we have such a great relationship with them. I don’t really know who the upcoming stars are until they become big. I mean the bartenders do. They know, plus they’re late. I’m not like I used to be, I used to close the joint but I don’t do that anymore. That’s kind of the impetus for the paintings. My ex-wife thought it would be a good idea to have me do portraits of current regulars. Then we thought, “Well, we should probably do some of the Second City people,” you know, just put that one wall up.

A certain portrait has become your calling card, for better or for worse.

BE: I think for better. Some people would disagree. We got over two hundred death threats when that portrait went up.

LZ: Is that the only time you’ve ever gotten a death threat?

BE: Well no, but that was the largest number at one time.

The political stuff I did, which started out with Sarah Palin, that was just pure luck--- I mean, I had my studio in the basement and after the Republican convention in 2008 I thought it would be funny, because they had sexualized her with her harlot red shoes, heels and all, so I just went down and did a naked painting of her. Then I went over to the zoo to see a polar bear so I could do the polar bear rug, and I got a book at the bookstore on assault weapons and made my own assault weapon, and then I put a moose in the background.

I thought it would just be good for a laugh, and when the kids from Second City came from class they started taking pictures. I put it up around six o’clock on a Thursday, I came here in the morning to count the dough in the morning, at eight in the morning, and I got a call from Paris, and a very thick French accent wanted to know if they could use the picture in their paper. I don’t know anything about the Internet. The picture was all over Europe.

LG: Did someone just like, tweet it?

BE: I think somebody actually tried to get me, because I tracked it down to this real right-wing guy that didn’t used to be, and he posted it on some little right-wing website, and they spread it so that Drudge put put our name, our address and our phone number right in the beginning of his report. So that’s where all the death threats starting coming from.

I also talked personally with Greta Van Susteren. I did not realize at the time that her husband almost discovered Sarah Palin, but I knew from a cousin that actually listens to Fox News that Sarah Palin in particular was going after me, saying “Is he gonna do a painting of Hillary naked? Is he gonna do a picture of Michelle Obama naked?”

So she calls me up and asks if I’d be interested in being on her show. I knew she was never gonna have me on, she just wanted to work me over a little, and she asked, “Well, are you gonna do one? Are you gonna paint Hillary or Michelle naked?” And I had already thought about this one, I didn’t just take this one off the top of my head. I said, “No. I have a confession, I’ve very intimidated by highly sophisticated, intelligent women. But I’d love to paint you naked.”

I mean I just had so much fun, it was great. Those guys, they’re such assholes.

Liz, how did you develop History on Tap?

LG: I would sit in bars and listen to a lot of the old timers, chatting about days gone by, a kid down the street, or their perspective on a major event. I was witnessing living history in a way. Their take on what happened. I just started to jot down a lot of these stories, and then the historian in me really wanted to see, really, what’s fact and what’s fiction. They’ve been drinking there for thirty, forty years. I kept writing things down, and in my research I would also discover new things they hadn’t talked about.

Next thing I knew I would have the history of a saloon, I could connect the dots and get the history of a neighborhood, and ultimately get the history of a city. So I started to have this database of bars. It was just for fun, it was my little side project, and some of my friends really encouraged me to share that and start a blog. When I started working at the Chicago History Museum I already had about eighty histories of bars in my back pocket. And I realized that I really wanted to do something with them.

I started a program at the museum based on my research. Basically what I wanted to do was take people out to the bars and teach them about some aspect of Chicago history, via the saloons and the research I had done. And lo and behold it became the most popular thing the museum was offering. I realized there’s a lot of value in taking people out to go drink, and also learn something.

How do you think the Ale House fits in with the larger tavern history of Chicago?

LG: I think the reason that this place is so important is because it’s genuine. I always describe it as walking back into the 1960s in a way. Nothing has really changed, you can see some of the faces from Maureen Munson’s mural, or Bruce’s paintings, you have regulars that have been, you know--- gosh, how long has Reuben been coming in?

BE: He grew up here. In 1961, I’d say he was eleven years old, and he lived right around the corner.

LG: And now he just got wheeled in. He’s on one leg but he’s still getting wheeled in. So I think there’s just a genuineness to it in terms of being a neighborhood staple, and the world changes but this place really doesn’t. That is a key element when you talk about the history of a bar. A lot of the events and experiences or tours that I do go to buildings that are historic, from say the Victorian era or the early 1900s, but the bar’s only been there for ten years.

You talk a little about the building or whatever, but the actual entity of the bar, in a way, isn’t necessarily history. But that’s how the Ale House differentiates itself a little bit.

It’s good to see a place last this long. Every time I drive past Western and Roscoe I think of Riverview. I wish it was still around for me to see.

BE: I just wrote about Riverview the other day on my blog. It was a reference to being an acrophobe, being terrified of heights. I never was until I went on the parachute jump at Riverview. I’ve lived in terror of heights ever since that. It’s kind of interesting that we’re talking about beer because the guy that was on top, that went up with me, coaxed me into going on it at Riverview, and was like jiggling--- I said, “I’ll kill you, when I get down, if I ever get down, I’ll kill you”--- he’s the guy that founded Mendocino Brewing Company.

He went out to California. Ever since we were in high school in Downers Grove he made his own beer. I mean I couldn’t drink it, it was undrinkable as far as I was concerned, but he was always making his own beer. When we lived in California together he made his own beer. I lost track of him, and somebody we knew in high school said, “You know, John’s got a brewing company out there, Mendocino Brewing.” I think it’s like one of the first microbreweries.

LG: It was.

BE: And interestingly, Lagunitas is a town directly next to where I lived in Marin County, and the guy that founded Lagunitas Brewing Company also went to Downers Grove High School.

LG: Tony Magee. Here’s the crazy part: Tony grew up in the suburbs and moved out to northern California. He was drinking Mendocino when he was like, “I want to make good beer like this,” and started Lagunitas.

BE: Is that right? No kidding.

LG: See, it all comes back to beer and Chicago. That’s my point.

BE: That would be interesting. Maybe one of these days I’ll go out to Mendocino and say hi to my old friend. We both ended up in the bar business, one way or another.

What about the notion that this is “Chicago’s Best Dive Bar”?

BE: “Le Premiere”.

That’s what you say. I’m more interested when a third-party says it, like the Chicago Tribune.

BE: You know what? If Liz said that it would have meaning. If the Tribune said it it’s irrelevant. Please, we know Rossi’s, we could never compete with that. I know real dive bars, we can’t even begin to compete with them.

LG: I don’t consider this a dive bar at all.

BE: Well…

LG: I don’t. To me this is just your epitome of an old-school neighborhood bar.

BE: But if you looked at the seats, you know. They need new upholstery, stuff like that.

LG: You could do some touching up here and there, but that would terrible.

BE: There’s dive bars, and then there’s dive bars.

Old Town Ale House