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Cafe Mural Gives Patrons Something to Chew On

September 01, 2000|STEVE CHAWKINS

Is anybody thinking about the good old 20th century these days?

Until 12:01 a.m. last Jan. 1, we were bombarded by listings of its most important inventions, biggest news stories, greatest athletes, most embarrassing moments involving sitting U. S. presidents.

But now, it's as if we've been stuck in the '00s forever. Having skipped merrily across the bridge to the 21st century, only a handful of people are looking back, including:

a.) Researchers still trying to find the hidden meaning of "Woolly Bully," the rock master work by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.

b.) Insomniacs lulling themselves into blessed sleep via exposure to the History Channel.

c.) The gang kibitzing artist Arnulfo Jacinto as he compresses 20th century world history onto a 288-square-foot wall at the Chili Hut cafe in Santa Paula.

The Chili Hut is a biscuits-and-gravy kind of place, a local institution since 1941. Not coincidentally, Jacinto's mural starts in 1941, juxtaposing the opening of the Chili Hut with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

He has been working on the piece on and off since April and won't be done until 2001. Sometimes he paints at slow times during the day. Other times, he'll work all night, greeting the prep cook at sunup. In fits and starts, he's made it through the 1950s.

"Hey, you got Eisenhower just right," yells the grill man.

Grizzled veterans glance up from their coffee and pick nits: When bombs dropped from the B-17, they didn't point down like that. And those fuel tanks on the Japanese Zeros--well, they might look that way in the books, but that sure isn't how they looked in combat. . . .

And what's with the barely dressed woman staring out from around 1947?

"That's when the French came out with the first bikini," Jacinto explains. "It was the start of a new era of assertiveness for women."

A waitress rolls her eyes: "Arnie will put a bikini anywhere he can . . . ."

Paint slowly enough for your public to take in the details and suddenly everyone's a critic. As I bite into a turkey sandwich, I spot Glenn Miller playing his trombone.

"Say, didn't Glenn Miller wear wire rims?" I ask. "You've got him wearing black horn rims."

Jacinto nods regretfully.

"It was 3 a.m., my airbrush exploded, and I had this black blotch," he says. "So he's wearing horn rims."

He takes the second-guessing in stride, changing bits and pieces here and there to comply with the demands of historical accuracy.

At 39, he's been an Olympic kayaker and a Santa Paula firefighter. Now he owns a graphic-arts service and coaches competitive kayakers, grooming one of them for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. So a bit of carping from the peanut gallery in a local cafe is no big deal.

"This is an artist's dream come true," he says. "I came up with this idea and now I just get to run with it."

Jacinto has been coming to the Chili Hut since he was a small boy. Last Christmas, he decorated the windows for its new owners, British transplants Bob and Carol Coleman.

"He proposed the mural and I told him yes, a bit of history would be lovely," Carol said, adding that her only suggestions have involved Queen Elizabeth's coronation and the Queen Mum's 100th birthday.

Every other choice has been Jacinto's.

Some have been slam-dunks: Who could paint 1945 and leave out the mushroom cloud? But as Jacinto paints his way into the 1990s, he knows that the choices will be a lot murkier.

"Do I throw in Britney Spears?" he asks. "Who knows whether she'll be popular years from now? And what about all those judge shows on TV?"

But he has miles to go before he must rule on dot coms, blended mochas, Monica's beret, bottled water, Bill Gates, StairMasters and "you've-got-mail."

Until then, he hits the library, the Internet and the occasional geezer, seeking accuracy.

"I've got to go," he explains at the end of lunch. "Somewhere, I've got to find a photo of Kukla, Fran and Ollie."


Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at

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