Skirts Ahoy!

How the master of cheesecake art lifted a dress and uncovered an American madonna

Alary's, near the windswept intersection of Jackson and Seventh streets in St. Paul, is the sort of place where regulars present and past are immortalized on bronzed nameplates along the lip of the bar. One such plate, in the corner farthest from the street entrance, reads, "The Pope." The barstool before it is usually empty, presumably so that His Holiness would find a place to sit should he come wandering in from cold afternoon outside. The place's proprietor, a big, amiable man named Al Baisi Jr., likes to sit across from the papal perch on these afternoons, when only a handful of patrons hunch against the bar, to smoke a cigar. The moniker, he explains, is that of the fellow who built the fixtures. "We call him the Pope of West Seventh Street," he says. "After the movie." And a thin stream of smoke wreathes its way around his big head and up toward the ceiling.

Alary's is quiet. It is so most days, except on Sunday afternoons during football season, when Chicago Bears fans crowd in to gnash their teeth and howl at the big-screen TV beyond the bar. Baisi Jr.'s father was an offensive guard for the Chicago Bears during the Forties heyday of the Monsters of Midway. Baisi Jr. has inherited the build of a lineman--albeit one who has allowed gravity to begin its work--and has a thick crest of black hair. In repose behind the bar, he looks a bit like a contemplative bear. Baisi Jr. takes obvious pride in his lineage, and the décor of his bar reflects it. The place looks, in fact, like a shrine: Pennants innumerable hang on the walls, punctuated by glossy posters of glowering men shaped like thick cuts of beef.

"He came up here because that's where my mom was from, and he started the bar in--let's see--1949. His partner was named Larry and he was named Al, so they called it Alary's. It was one of the only strip joints in St. Paul." Baisi Jr. puffs mightily on his cigar and the resultant cloud envelops his head momentarily. "My dad would bring me downtown, then send me to a movie. He didn't let me see the gals till I turned 17." When he did, Baisi Jr. liked the business so much that he stuck around for ten years, working. His father's dingy burlesque club was a favorite of judges and cops, he says, until the Saintly City decided to phase out its small blue-entertainment district. Alary's was the last to go, and the clubs never came back.

©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups
©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups

Like all fine old buildings, the one in which Alary's has come to rest has a secret history. Baisi Jr. began to take casual interest in it a few years ago, when a passer-through mentioned the place's significance, and he now takes some pleasure in pointing out to visitors the art deco façade or the fading advertisement on the building's side for the long-defunct paint store named Elvgren's. On a recent afternoon, Baisi Jr. had agreed to show me around, so after a while, we went back through a locked door and into a rattling cage elevator. Baisi Jr. went at a slow, even pace, trailing a sweet-smelling wake behind him.

The elevator, which was very old and which clanged with the comforting regularity of well-worn machinery, carried us to the fourth floor, where we found what we had come for: the childhood haunt of an artist named Gil Elvgren. It was a narrow space, cluttered at the rear with piles of rickety furniture and cardboard boxes. A bank of frosted windows along the street side let pale winter light into the front of the space. Baisi Jr. waved his cigar distractedly, coughed, and began a story. "This is where Elvgren would come up to work, up above his dad's paint store. I suppose the light up here was good. It's funny, you know. The guy who owned the building before me said Elvgren's dad used to come up here and find him painting girls. He'd tell him, 'Why waste your time? You'll never get anywhere doing this.'" Baisi Jr. let out a chuckle that turned into a puff of steam in the chilly loft.

A year or so after he moved Alary's to its new site, Baisi Jr. heard that the building's previous owner had found four of the paintings stashed in this room. "Those girly pictures are worth a lot of money now. Imagine that." He said it with a wistful glance around him, as though a few more of the unlikely treasures might still be buried somewhere among the chairs and battered sewing machines. Then he shook his head, stuck the cigar, which had gone unlit at some point, between his teeth, and squinted with what I took to be a mixture of curiosity and bemusement.

 

Gil Elvgren, "The Norman Rockwell of Cheesecake," painted girly pictures. It ought to be said, also, that he painted them better than any artist in America. In the 1950s heyday of pinup illustration, aspiring actresses would ride the train from Hollywood to present themselves at Elvgren's Chicago studio, vying for the chance to model for him and to be reinvented as an Elvgren Girl.

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