From 1981 to 1992, Jerry Dowling painted caricatures of 142 regulars on a 44-foot wall. The characters are still there — on the mural, anyway — but the character has changed. Customers who enjoyed happy hour then come for hamburgers today, grandkids in tow. But preserved by cigarette and beer stains, as Dowling half-jokes, the mural is a memory of fun, foolishness and figuring things out.
Thirty years ago, Arthur’s was a place to eat lunch every day, then “drink beer until time for dinner,” Phil Dickinson of Mount Lookout says. “This place was a family.” Others arrived at 5, and a third barfly set closed the place. Dickinson, a Vietnam veteran, recalls a generation looking for direction after the war.
“Arthur’s was a microcosm” of ’80s society, says musician, producer and diver Ernie Waits. “You can see the whole picture in this microscopic view” that is Dowling’s mural. “We had ‘suits and straights’ along with the avant-garde in that one spot, and everyone got along.”
Overseeing the sociology was owner Lou Yecies, who dreamed up the mural and decided who appeared.
“You had to be a steady customer and a steady character,” Waits says.
“Lou held it over your head. The more he made it difficult, the more you wanted it,” says Dickinson, who was among the first 25 caricatures. He’s in tennis whites, as he taught Yecies how to play.
Dowling, a former Enquirer and CityBeat cartoonist, met few subjects. Yecies usually took snapshots, including a profile so Dowling could highlight a big nose or squinty eyes — sometimes to the patron’s annoyance. Yecies shared hobbies, jobs and which customers to cluster.
“I thought I was hot stuff to be on the wall at Arthur’s,” says Dickinson, a business owner who almost bought the bar. “I still have an ego about it. It’s a little bit of immortality.” At the time, “I thought it looked like my father, but I grew into it,” the 70-year-old says.
“Being on the wall,” Waits remembers, “was not unlike seeing a face at the post office” on a wanted poster.
A bearded, bespectacled patron at the mural’s center is the only anonymous one. Dowling covered his name. “He didn’t want his boss to know he spent all that time at Arthur’s.”
Saturday afternoon was when Dowling spent his time there. How many caricatures he did “depends on how many beers I had,” Dowling says, estimating five per session: “Two beers each.” Without irony, he points to the wall and says, “I hated stuff like this freaking Budweiser can,” whose logo required extra detail. Dowling still has the 14-foot tracing used to map the mural.
The left side was done last. There is Lester, “the mayor,” who still occupies a stool at the bar. Dowling remembers Lester taunting, “You’re not going to put me on the wall.”
“You bet I am,” Dowling retorted after years of having Lester watch him.
“But you don’t have any pictures of me.”
“I don’t need any,” Dowling responded. “You’re sitting right there!”
A misconception is that all the caricatures are famous people, says Joe Santorelli, a current owner. “They’re just famous here.” Or infamous, says Dickinson, who admits he “probably did” ride a motorcycle through the bar. (One celebrity is Derrek Dickey, the late former University of Cincinnati basketball star who played for the National Basketball Association’s Golden State Warriors.)
Waits is the son of a local, notable, late civil-rights pioneer Ernie Sr. When the mural was begun, Waits says, the nation was “just 10 years removed from pretty dramatic social change.” His mother was denied service at a restaurant downtown. “To go from that to having my face on the wall at Arthur’s” was a statement.
Dowling says Yecies knew filling the wall would take years. By starting at the center, they figured the mural would always look finished. But work halted for three or four years in the mid-’80s after Yecies sold to Harold and Shirley Flannery. That’s them in their Duesenberg by the window.
“They didn’t want anything done,” Dowling says. In fact, they might have flirted with painting over the mural. Waits recalls the Flannerys requesting a fee to stay on the wall. He quickly anted up — $50 or $100, he thinks.
“I felt enough a part of it to see it stay,” he says. “My best friends from 30 years ago (at Arthur’s) are still good friends today.”
Santorelli heard similar sentimentality after a fire last January. Arthur’s received 200 calls asking if Dowling’s work was saved, though it never was in danger.
Dowling completed the mural after the Flannerys sold to Joyce and Walter Solch and Ed McCarter. With new ownership came new portraits. The Solch children — Heir #1 and #2, upper right — are the mural’s only youngsters. Just before the current group bought Arthur’s in the late ’90s, Dowling, who left the Enquirer in 1995, started painting caricatures on the back vent. Illness stopped him at seven.
“It’s Jerry’s wall to continue as long as he’s around and wants to,” Santorelli says, adding that customers still ask how to get on the mural.
Dowling, who lives in West Chester, now is working on a book of Hollywood caricatures, with commentary from Nick Clooney. He’d do another mural, he says, “as long as I don’t have to stand on tables and chairs again and twist this way and that.”
The truth is, the moment has passed. The shift started almost as soon as the mural began. People got older. Awareness grew about drinking and driving. The barflies left. Families replaced them.
Maturity was coming through the crowd and the country, Waits notes. “We were stretching and growing. The changes in that place, you can see and feel” on that wall. “Some people found out who they were at Arthur’s.” ©
ARTHUR’S is at 3516 Edwards Road in Hyde Park. www.arthurscincinnati.com