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At Pal's, Veterans Had a Place Where Everybody Knew Their Names
Pal's har in West LA. was the closest place i i > home for many a veteran who
passed the time in the mm-vanished -.torefiunt tavern's red leatherette seats. The
regulars spanned World War 1 to Vietnam, and ihe\ convened on endless
afternoons to share cigarettes, drinks and war stories beneath the bar's glowing
neon signs and ceiling fan. An office building displaced the decades-old bar in the
early 1980s, but Pal's Hopperesque wistfulttess endures in a scries of hand-colored
photos l>> Venice artist George Small, now at TAG, The Artists' Gallerv, in Santa
Small vividly remembers his first visit in 1977 to Pal's on Saw telle Boulevard,
a bknk from the Veterans Administration Medical Center. "Vieuiain was »ull fresh
in evcrvone's mind," he says. There was a community at Pal's. They had a place to
gu where they were safe and cared for and friendship was really valued. Ethnicity
knew no hounds. Thev took care of each orher. When von have that in common,
it's everything."
Owner Owen Klein, whose father purchased the bar during the late 1940s,
served as in-house patron saint for die veterans. Small says. "Owen got diem jobs, i
ashed their checks and served meals, including Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner.
He made sure the vets didn't get into trouble. He'd have them write stories ,md
do contests. He had heart."
Small and his camera spent about a month behind die bar for the project, originally
a collaboration with writer R. David Stephens (who taped hours at conversation
with the vets) for a magazine anicle that was never published. For many shots
Small literally aimed "from the hip" at waist level without a flash, lighting his tableaux
with the afternoon sunlight that filtered through die bar's Venetian blinds.
Not all of die regulate were vetss he notes. A woman in her 70s known as "Mama"
came in dailv to savor a pitcher of beer and reread the same packet of letters.
Small. 56. was horn in Phoenix and raised in Lus Angeles. He studied an and
graduated from Cal State Nortluidge. A high draft number kept him out of Vietnam,
and he practiced bronze casting in Mexico and taught at die An Studio in
Santa Monica, which he owns, while winking as a sculptor. Iiist year Small displayed
photos of re-created 1930s and '40s scenes at TAG.
For the Pal's show, he located his hundreds of negatives and enlarged selected
black-and-white shots to "life-size" 34-by-I4-uich prints lietore hand-coloring
them widi chalk, pencil and watercoloi s. "I wanted to give it that richness," Small
says. "The back room is cool. But in front it's hot and smoky—like stills from a
movie, each scene colored and lit. Life is rarely one-dimensional.'" Indeed it isn't.
In one shot, a WWII veteran in a fedora, O at and tie clasps the hand of a tattooed
Vietnam vet with hair past the collar of his denim jacket. "\Slien you have diat in
common, it's everything," Small says.—MICHAEL T. JARVis
The Pal's dww raw through S'ov. 30 at TAG. The Artist* Gatten. 2903 Santa Monica
fi LOS ANGELES TIMKS MAtiAZIXE. November 17 2002 Photographs courtesy of George