She's behind the bar, leaning elegantly beyond conversation or reach. Her expression is impassive and dreamy. And she's naked. Look away and you find she has company. Twelve other gold-framed nudes floating in pastel form a garland decorating the dark wood-paneled walls. Is that Mickey Spillane and Mike Hammer nursing Rob Roys in the corner Mahogany booth?
No, it's Harvey the jewelry rep and Dan the loan broker cursing the lack of “a decent shoeshine stand in this burg.” Nearby, the piano bar crooners—contemporaries of Jerry Vale and Al Martino—are warming up with cocktails and conversation. A group of 20-somethings begins passing a giant glass boot filled with beer. Everyone is ignoring the lone TV blinking mutely in the ceiling corner. We're at Albie's Beef Inn, the Mission Valley bar that time forgot. Those legendary nude paintings—each individually lit—envelop the room as sensual reminders of a time gone by, and they guarantee that anyone who pads in on Albie's royal-blue carpet can still live it.
Albie's arrived in San Diego in 1962 during the explosion of Vegas-style hotels along what was once a two-lane road lacing through a quaint dairy farm featuring a vegetable stand, pony rides and cows ambling through their own underpass beneath the traffic. When the corporate denizens of urban sprawl turned the two-lane into an interstate, the farm was doomed. Each invading, land-leveling hotel had its own theme and identity: Tiki-style Polynesia, a medieval castle, sedate baronial splendor and a Palm Springs-like resort complete with golf course. In a bit of cruel irony, owner Al Stadtmiller's new restaurant-bar was named Albie's Beef Inn.
Apparently, Al had seen enough bars filled with framed sports heroes. Perhaps he found it curious that the most common décor for a predominately male bar clientele was photos of sweating muscular men often wearing tight-fitting spandex. In any case, for his new place, Al went with naked women in original oils. His chosen artist was Larry Garrison, an affable retired Marine who was gaining a national reputation for his evocative nudes bearing the enigmatic signature “Vincent.”
Back in the Corps during World War II, Vincent was already known as a deft and accomplished illustrator. He built a cottage industry of selling made-to-order drawings for his shipmates to include in their letters home. After the service, he attended the New England School of Art in Boston. But Vincent only seemed to endure the comprehensive and varied subjects presented him. He knew early on that life study—a woman's natural elegance and form—would be his exclusive subject. Vincent moved to San Diego with his first wife, Elizabeth, and found almost immediate success painting portraits for celebrities. But his passion was for nudes.
By the time the famous fire at the MGM Grand Hotel in Vegas destroyed several of his paintings that had been on display there, his work was already exhibited in more than 300 galleries worldwide. Vincent remained a lively raconteur and tireless worker in his Mt. Helix home studio until he died last year at age 82.
“I wanted to put women on a pedestal,” an obituary in the Union-Tribune quotes him as saying.
Stylistically, Vincent's nudes are like a combination of the notorious Vargas drawings seen in Playboy and the ripe, sensual realism of France's 19th-century master, Gustave Courbet. Sometimes they descended into the world of kitsch, appearing on collectibles like porcelain plates where four or five blondes and brunettes are arranged like flower petals around Vincent's beaming face. On another, a bevy of women are standing like sentries while one in semi-dominatrix mode places her arched leg and heel triumphantly on a reclining, smiling fellow's chest.
But Vincent's highest artistic sensibilities are revealed in the Albie's nudes. Each full-figured model appears in smooth, almost photographic detail, softened by transparent silk and a lightly shaded background that gives off a warm glow. They all share the countenance of radiant prom queens—high cheekbones and full lips framed by long, cascading hair and eyes resting in some other world. Two in particular are striking: a profile study, where a brunette holds her curls behind her head in counterpoint to the firm line of her arched back, and the reclining figure over the bar where the tension created by her voluptuous curves and her languid pose combine in perfect balance.
“They were all stewardesses with PSA Airlines,” exclaims Albie's new owner, Ted Samouris. “Vincent married one of them. Over there above the piano, the blonde, that's Coleen, she became wife number three.”
In today's cynical, post-modern world, the paintings are an anomaly, at once quaint and defiant. Arriving in the wake of the '60s, their fleshy, sensual curves are a last vestige of a media feminine body ideal that's become increasingly and alarmingly emaciated. They've survived the healthy onslaught of '70s feminism (OK, in a concession, the nudes in the family dining area were moved, joining their sisters in the bar at that time). They languished bravely through the self-absorbed, humorless conversation of Reagan-era yuppies. And now they grace a room that has stubbornly resisted the gradual city-wide disintegration of bar conversation by the onslaught of multiple wall TVs, blaring sound systems and all manner of hand-held electronics designed to connect you to someplace, anyplace, but where you are.
The nudes at Albie's seem to be saying, “Why this penchant for conversing with someone who's not even here and the arrogance of sharing your half of it with your unsuspecting neighbors? You could instead stare or occasionally glance at me. I won't hurt you.”
Ultimately, the Albie's nudes are yet another example of the traditional dominance of the male gaze in Western culture, which is illustrated by owner Samouris' favorite Albie's story. In one of his first months of greeting patrons in the lobby, he saw a 10-year-old boy break from the family ranks and take 10 steps into the bar. Returning wide-eyed to the family fold, he blurted, “Dad's gonna love this place.”