The best bar in the world I know about
The first Chicago bar I drank in was the Old Town Ale House. That bar was destroyed by fire in the 1960s, the customers hosed off, and the Ale House moved directly across the street to its present location, where it has been named Chicago's Best Dive Bar by the Chicago Tribune.
I was taken to the Ale House by Tom Devries, my fellow college editor from the Roosevelt Torch. It was early on a snowy Sunday afternoon. I remember us walking down to Barbara's Bookstore to get our copies of the legendary New York Herald-Tribune Sunday edition. Pogo. Judith Crist. Tom Wolfe. Jimmy Breslin. I remember peanut shells on the floor and a projector grinding through 16mm prints of Charlie Chaplin shorts. I remember my first taste of dark Löwenbräu beer. The Ale House was cool even then.
I returned to the North Avenue drinking scene on New Year's Eve 1966, opening night of the legendary O'Rourke's, two blocks directly west. Its last call was 2 a.m. The Ale House had a 4 a.m. license, so many of us walked down the street to continue. O'Rourke's was the newspaper bar. The Ale House was the bohemian bar. Customers flowed freely between them.
The bar was owned in recent years by Beatrice Klug and her ex-husband Art Klug, who really did look like Paul Newman. Art was a movie fan so obsessed it was slightly alarming. The Ale House ambiance made an ideal outpost for Bruce Elliott, the left wing unemployed-by-choice gadfly and social spy. Art died. Then Beatrice grew ill, and was catered to and cooed over daily by Bruce, his wife Tobin Mitchell, and their daughter Grace Littlefeather Elliott.
At the reading of her will it was revealed Bea had given the bar to Tobin. Bruce could still preserve his proud record of never having worked a day in his life until his retirement at 65. (He did once, as a favor to a friend, drive a cab one Saturday morning during his San Francisco years, and has made a few bucks hustling golf for money on the public course in Jackson Park--a few times against Barack Obama, then a neighborhood organizer.)
Bea's gift inspired Bruce's blog, The Geriatric Genius, in which Elliott shows himself in the direct line of descent from the Host in the 15th century The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's character is the central figure and narrator of the Tales, the one who knows all the others and is their common bond, yet rarely takes an active role during their pilgrimage. It is he who names them, convenes their nightly meetings, observes what they do, hears their secrets, and tells of their weaknesses.
And briefly, when the sun had gone to rest,
So had I spoken with them, every one,
That I was of their fellowship anon,
And made agreement that we'd early rise
To take the road, as you I will apprise.
But none the less, whilst I have time and space,
Before yet farther in this tale I pace,
It seems to me accordant with reason
To inform you of the state of every one
Of all of these, as it appeared to me,
And who they were, and what was their degree,
And even how arrayed there at the inn.
The Host relates the stories of such as the Wife of Bath, the Nun's Priest, the Three Rioters and Old John the Carpenter, "who foolishly marries a lively young girl." Bruce's blog follows the nightly adventures of such regulars as Street Jimmy, Bruce Faggypants, Ruben Nine Toes, D Train, Porn Star, the Cougar, Buzzkill, Larry Asshole, Connie the Crack Whore, Craig the Drunk, Fatal Attraction, Sleepy John, Johnny Ale, and the Counselor, waging their battles against reality. Many people without code names also come in, including talent from Second City across the street and Zanie's comedy club around the corner, and yuppies, cops, robbers and respectable yuppies--whose tales don't interest Bruce. Yuppies visited the bar twice in the recent indie movie "Other Children," which completely failed to capture its character.
This is what the inane "Cheers" could have been, if a network had the balls. How could viewers prefer Shelley Long to Gracie Littlefeather? Nobody as boring as George Wendt's Norm has ever been allowed to anchor a regular bar stool. His code name would be Waste of Space. Bruce, is the house snoop, gossip, scold, vicious launcher of personal attacks, eavesdropper, sex guru, and the Host who tells a patron he's been over-served. Bruce is also chief of security. When the patron demands another drink, he commands a crack team of unofficial doormen to throw him out on his ass and pitch his coats into the street on top of them.
In addition to his other gifts, Bruce Cameron Elliott is a locally-celebrated artist. During the 2008 campaign, he received national publicity for "Nude with Hunting Rifle," his painting of Sarah Palin. Later "Strip Search" was painted after the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Both paintings have inspired Ale House t-shirts. I own Bruce's painting of Houdini, bound in chains and being thrown off a bridge on the river while Ale House regulars look on.
Bruce in his studio, in a Chicao Tribune video:
Bruce Cameron Elliott has mastered what Irv Kupcinet called the Lively Art of Conversation. In the silent years after I lost my voice, I have devised dinner parties simply to invite him. He needs a foil, and that usually means my best friend, John McHugh. It is Bruce's gift to know the dirty gossip about everyone I know, and many of those I read about in the paper. He specializes in the actionable, the salacious, the perverse, and personal secrets.
I read The Geriatric Genius every day. The Genius provides a daily chronicle of life in the Ale House. Bruce arrives early in the day, and will soon hear Street Jimmy's secret knock on the side door. He admits Jimmy, and enquires where he slept the night before ("the janitor at Moody Bible Institute lets me be sleepin' on the loading dock, but the janitor at Saint Michael's, he a cracker tight ass and throws me off the steps"). Bruce sends Jimmy to Walgreen's to bring him a bagel and the New York Times. At about this time Bruce Faggypants will arrive after his Meta commute from a Western suburb, and begin his job of sweeping out the bar. Street Jimmy, back from Walgreen's, is paid with a beer and a bag of BBQ chips dowsed with hot sauce the bar keeps handy for Bloody Marys, and Bruce Faggypants, who at 47 with his mother, will hand him a small brown bag containing an extra sandwich his mom happened to make. How his mother makes an extra sandwich seven days a week I cannot say. The mother and son sound a lot like the characters in A Confederacy of Dunces. After he enjoys his sandwich, Street Jimmy curls up on a bench to sleep.
Although Tobi owns the bar, the manager is Grace Littlefeather Elliott, who at 28 rules with a wise and sexy manner. I've known her since before her birth, and she would have been capable of handling the job after about the age of 10. Bruce and I met Tobi on the same frigid night in Pat Colander's apartment above the Four Farthings Pub as we snuggled on a sofa under a blanket. We were both groping, but Bruce's gropes went more sure and true.
So that's when I met the nascent Littlefeather. Tobin's big sister, Karen Conner, strongly opposed Tobi's marriage to the older and never-employed Bruce, who responded with biting sarcasm about her husband, who combed his hair back straight from his forehead, the better to display a good half-inch of silver before the shoe polish set in. Karen has since gone through a divorce. Tobin and Bruce's marriage has proven sturdy. Who were these parents Tobin obtained? Bruce I've described. Tobi taught in the Chicago schools to support Bruce in his new role as a stay-at-home dad. Gracie has incorporated traits from both.
Knowing the Elliotts over the years, I've observed how they raised Gracie as an equal partner in a grown-up family. Everything was discussed in front of her; given Bruce, anything else would have been impossible. She was always mature beyond her years, and blossomed with her mother's beauty and sardonic wit, and her father's untamed independence. She has her father's nose. She doesn't smoke, do drugs, or drink very much. In addition to managing the Ale House, she shows Arthur, one of her chooclate Field Spaniels at dog shows, and as I write she texted me from somewhere on the turnpike. Ignoring the urgent advice of both parents, she is driving into the face of the blizzard to show her dog at the Westminster Kennel Club's annual dog show. Also in her van is a rescue dog--to rescue her and the first dog, possibly. Note: Grace arrived safely ("Not a speck of snow on the highway") and and emailed a photo of Arthur inspecting the Empire State Building from Grace's window.
What do I know about Bruce? He was an original member of SDS. He was born in Downers Grove, known in the blog as Uppers Grove. His brother Scott, a dealer in the artifacts of Frank Lloyd Wright, lives in a Wright house in Benton Harbor, Michigan, having relocated there specifically to live in the house. Chaz and I have dined there several times, welcomed by Scott's wife Eileen Cropley, who was a principal dancer with Paul Taylor. She also danced with Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
We were shown around the house by Scott, an admirer of its low doorways and ceilings, which at times slanted lower still to suit the midget Frank Lloyd. We marveled at the way Wright sank a well into the ground inside the house so that in summertime electric fans could draw up cooled air from the ground, taking advantage of the location on the St. Joseph River. Bruce runs an art gallery in downtown Benton Harbor, and is a frequent Congressional candidate as a liberal Democrat. The district is permanently Republican, leading to McHugh's analysis: "Bruce, you've got your work cut out for you."
Bruce spent several years in Berkeley, whether as a student or not I do not know. He is formidably well-read. He returned to Chicago in the early 1960s during the Great Gathering of Drinkers. He met and was befriended by McHugh while running naked down Wells Street with nothing but the lid of a garbage can to shield his genitals. They became friends at the Old Town Gate about the time the dumb mick accidentally reinvented the Roquefort Burger because, although working as the grill man, he didn't know it was American cheese stacked inside those little plastic sheets.
Bruce brought along his half-Indonesian girlfriend, a big-bosomed stripper named Indy--who, stranded without funds, one night offered to accommodate me for room, board, and a reasonable monthly stipend. "I'd take her up on it, Roger," said Bruce, seated on the other side of Indy at the bar in O'Rourke's. "She's an honest woman, and those tits are real."
Bruce walks all over Chicago. We've both lived in the Old Town and Lincoln Park neighborhoods, and I'd encounter him on my rounds. One terrible hangover morning, I woke in my attic apartment at the Dudak's house, yanked on a track suit, and walked directly outside with fear and trembling. Not feeling able to speak with confidence to anyone I might know on the sidewalk, I went down the back stairs and through the back garden, which Pop Dudak had graced with a small pond made by digging out a shallow basin, plastering it and hanging bright Christmas lights from the shrubbery growing above it. The pond's fountain was a non-functioning shower head. "Is only for show," explained Pop, the anachist Ukrainian playwright and window washer. The pond was occupied by a floating frog with a florescent orange golf ball glued to its forehead. "Honey, are you sure this is the best you can do?" my mother asked.
Walking into the back alley from the side of the garage, I saw Bruce Cameron Elliott approaching from behind St. Clement's School. "Roger has one of his haaang-ooovers," he cried. Drawing closer, he said: "Seriously, Roger, you've got to do something about your drinking. I'd have a shot of peppermint both schnapps, with a beer chaser."
Bruce gave their daughter the middle name of Littlefeather on grounds it might help her qualify for scholarships.
A MENU for these videos:
Introductions take place on the first video, made by me at our country house in Michigan. You will notice Bruce introducing everyone to a person he clearly doesn't know. That is Marie Haws of Vancouver, who edits and produces The Ebert Club Newsletter. She started reading Bruce's blog and became obsessed with the bar. In August 2011, I was living full-time at the Michigan house writing my memoir. My minder Millie Salmon was keeping an eye on me. Bruce, Tobin and Gracie have a house over near the Indiana dunes. I invited them for dinner, and had the idea of making a video introducing them to Marie.
I am the camera. On my left hand: Tobin, my best friend John McHugh, and Millie. On my right hand: Bruce, Gracie, and Mary Jo Broderick, John's love.
These videos by Duane A. Gray (D-Train) show highlights from recent Ale House Winter Talent Shows. Then the regular customer Sergio. Then Gracie sings and dances with "Mein Herr."
After the ambiance is established by the Aleers, with Bryan Hollowell on piano and a new drummer Gracie didn't know, Bruce Elliott introduces emcee Andy Shaw, the former Ch. 7 political reporter, now the head of the Better Government Assn.
Then the regular customer Sergio. Then Gracie sings and dances with "Mein Herr."
An encore by Grace Littlefeather Elliott
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Gracie sings "Halfbreed." Wearing the white jacket at the bar is Ruben Nine Toes.
#10 Gracie Gaga