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Brothers in Arms

At Pal's, Veterans Had a Place Where Everybody Knew Their Names

November 17, 2002|MICHAEL T. JARVIS

Pal's bar in West L.A. was the closest place to home for many a veteran who passed the time in the now-vanished storefront tavern's red leatherette seats. The regulars spanned World War I to Vietnam, and they 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 wistfulness endures in a series of hand-colored photos by Venice artist George Small, now at TAG, The Artists' Gallery, in Santa Monica.

Small vividly remembers his first visit in 1977 to Pal's on Sawtelle Boulevard, a block from the Veterans Administration Medical Center. "Vietnam was still fresh in everyone's mind," he says. "There was a community at Pal's. They had a place to go where they were safe and cared for and friendship was really valued. Ethnicity knew no bounds. They took care of each other. When you 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 the veterans, Small says. "Owen got them jobs, cashed 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 and do contests. He had heart."

Small and his camera spent about a month behind the bar for the project, originally a collaboration with writer R. David Stephens (who taped hours of conversation with the vets) for a magazine article 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 the bar's Venetian blinds. Not all of the regulars were vets, he notes. A woman in her 70s known as "Mama" came in daily to savor a pitcher of beer and reread the same packet of letters.

Small, 56, was born in Phoenix and raised in Los Angeles. He studied art and graduated from Cal State Northridge. A high draft number kept him out of Vietnam, and he practiced bronze casting in Mexico and taught at the Art Studio in Santa Monica, which he owns, while working as a sculptor. Last 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-44-inch prints before hand-coloring them with chalk, pencil and watercolors. "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, coat and tie clasps the hand of a tattooed Vietnam vet with hair past the collar of his denim jacket. "When you have that in common, it's everything," Small says.

*

The Pal's show runs through Nov. 30 at TAG, The Artists' Gallery, 2903 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 829-9556.

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