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The Faces On The Barroom Wall

August 2018

A Landmark Of Comic Art Is Saved From Destruction

The newspaper comic is among the most ephemeral of art forms, but for almost 30 years a mural featuring cartoon characters has been lovingly preserved by the owners of a bar in New York City. The longtime showpiece of Costello’s, at 225 East Forty-fourth Street, was a wall decorated by America’s most famous cartoonists, but when the bar’s owner sold it earlier this year, the mural seemed in danger of going the way of yesterday’s crossword.

In its first location, around the corner on Third Avenue, Costello’s displayed a mural by the writer and cartoonist James Thurber, who drew it in lieu of paying his bar tab one night during the Depression. With this as his inspiration, in May 1976 the cartoonist Bill Gallo—a friend of the owner, Tim Costello—brought together greats of the cartooning world of the day, such as Stan Lee, Dik Browne, Bil Keane, Mort Walker, and Milton Caniff, to fill Costello’s with a new band of characters. The resulting mural covered an entire wall and included in its pantheon Spider-Man, Hagar the Horrible, Beetle Bailey, and Steve Canyon, along with Gallo’s own creation, the New York Mets fan Basement Bertha.

A favorite hangout of employees of the Daily News , Costello’s changed hands in 1992, acquiring a new name, the Turtle Bay Café, and a new clientele, United Nations workers and actors from the soap opera “Guiding Light,” which taped nearby. When ownership changed yet again this January, word got out that the new proprietors had closed the restaurant for remodeling and planned to demolish the mural. The news sparked objections from the New-York Historical Society, the Museum of the City of New York, the Daily News , and the Turtle Bay neighborhood association’s newsletter. But their concern, while well intentioned, was unfounded. “Of course we weren’t going to tear it down,” proclaims Jeff Perzan, one of the new restaurant’s proprietors. “It was one of the selling points of the building.”

During renovation, the mural was covered with transparent plastic sheeting to protect it from flying debris, allowing a three-foot-tall Bullwinkle to keep an eye on the proceedings as he chatted with a caricature of Woody Alien. Later the plastic was replaced with a sturdy plywood covering, and since the restaurant’s reopening in May as the Overlook Lounge, patrons can view the mural through a thick pane of glass.

Over the years many patrons added their own touches to the mural, and the lower half of the wall is covered in names and dates and the occasional amateur doodle. Perzan did not try to remove the graffiti. “Anytime you clean something like this,” he says, “you lose something.”

Visitors may be surprised at how current the characters in the decades-old mural seem. With some exceptions—Steve Canyon’s run ended when Caniff died in 1988, but Gallo still draws Bertha for the Daily News —the wall’s characters have survived the retirement or death of their creators. Hi and Lois ’s Trixie, created by Mort Walker and painted on the wall by Dik Browne, today appears in newspapers under the care of their sons Brian Walker, Greg Walker, and Robert “Chance” Browne. Hagar the Horrible, whose popularity was at a peak when his creator, Dik Browne, included him in the mural, is now written and drawn by Browne’s younger son, Chris. Greg Walker helps produce Beetle Bailey with his father; The Lockhorns is now drawn by John Reiner in place of the late Bill Hoest; and Blanche ’s Dagwood has had numerous artists since his premiere in 1930. Luckily enough, in comics, as in the restaurant business, a change of ownership doesn’t always spell the end of familiar friends.

—Benjamin T. Oderwald and Christine Gibson