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Sampling the art in the bars of Northeast (somebody has to do it)

You can find everything from original paintings and photographs to prints, drawings, murals and sculptures that run the gamut from tacky to irreplaceable.

map of NE Bars
MinnPost illustration by Andy Sturdevant
The bars of Northeast

My immediate predecessor in this space at MinnPost was Max Sparber, whose Max About Town kept readers informed about arts-related activities he’d attend around the Twin Cities, as well as the various cocktails he consumed while doing it. I always admired Max’s taste in cocktails, and have sometimes worried that this column lacks that louche, be-fez’d man-about-town quality Max conveyed so well in his work. My taste in cocktails is somewhat more suspect – there was a month where I drank nothing but Coke and peppermint schnapps after reading that it’s what the staff of the Chicago Tribune drank in the 1970s – but I spend a fair amount of time in bars, taverns and restaurants. Most people in arts-concentric orbits do.

Something I have always enjoyed while spending time in the Twin Cities’ bars, taverns and restaurants is the treasure trove of artwork to be found in there. I’m defining the term “artwork” broadly, as I always do in this column, but you can find everything from original paintings and photographs to prints, drawings, murals and sculptures that run the gamut from tacky to irreplaceable.

On a recent weekend afternoon biking from Northeast Minneapolis back south through downtown, I passed through the great passel of taverns congregated around the convergence of East Hennepin, Central and University Avenues in Old St. Anthony. It was near here that a fellow named John Cheever established one of the city’s first drinking establishments under a 100-foot tower in 1849. “Good ale and good beer / At the tower I keep here,” read the sign outside.

Some of my favorite pieces of bar art are located right in this neighborhood, so I ducked into three establishments to report my findings. 

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The first is the newly christened Otter’s Saloon, at Central and East Hennepin. From a purely architectural perspective, this is one of the great commercial structures in the city. Central and Hennepin, unlike the vast majority of right-angle intersections that make up the urban fabric of Minneapolis, cross each other at a diagonal. The building that sits at that intersection is then wedged-shaped, giving it a vaguely East Coast flavor you don’t come across very often.

For many years, Otter’s Saloon was known as the U Otter Stop Inn, an establishment that crammed at least three puns into only four short words (actually, “U” is a letter, so three). It was well known for the mural on the side, which was truly one of the most bizarre pieces of public art in a city with no shortage of bizarre public art. The mural depicted the inside of the U Otter Stop Inn as it might appear on a lively weekend night, packed full of what I guess you would call “otter people.” They were figures with regular human bodies wearing human clothing, but with lutrine heads. But they were also clearly underwater, because there was also an octopus and some fish and bubbles floating by. The otter people were painted with a soft-focus, almost airbrushed quality, with strong attention to detail. Strong enough, in fact, that it seemed clear that the figures were probably modeled on bar regulars.

The new mural on Otter's Saloon.
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The new mural on Otter’s Saloon

In its place is a new mural, which is undoubtedly well-executed. The bar’s new name is written out in an old-timey saloon-styled typeface, and on the right side, an otter peeks its head out of the water. Not an upright-walking otter-man with opposable thumbs, or even a cartoon otter with big, Disneyesque eyes, but a pretty naturalistic-looking Lontra canadensis. It’s a fine sign by a business clearly seeking to reinvent itself, but the loss of the strange old mural is sad. (You can see it in all its departed glory here.)

A block away is Whitey’s Saloon, which boasts one of the few remaining links back to Hennepin Avenue’s heyday as the region’s premiere destination for lawless, alcohol-drenched mayhem. Above the bar is a Wild West-looking dancer, strangely inert and lying horizontally.

She once stood upright, across the river at 415 Hennepin, outside an establishme
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
She once stood upright, across the river at 415 Hennepin, outside an establishment called the Saddle Bar.

She looks so inert, perhaps, because she once stood upright, across the river at 415 Hennepin, outside an establishment called the Saddle Bar (pictured, in part, here in a Stroll from several weeks ago). The Saddle Bar was a standard-issue strip joint that served the thousands of thrill-seeking Minnesotans that frequented the old Gateway District in the mid- and late 20th century. If you ever want to get a taste of what Hennepin Avenue at this time was like, take an hour to watch Jon Lightfoot’s documentary “Down on Skid Row” sometime (it’s viewable online here). The whole place is so spectacularly, violently and giddily out of control that one gets the sense that the Keilloresque re-imagining of Minneapolis’ civic identity as a repressed, polite, semi-rural Nordic enclave in the ‘70s and ‘80s was a conscious conspiracy on the part of terrified city fathers to whitewash this particularly rambunctious past out of existence. I once watched “Down on Skid Row” back-to-back with a documentary on New York’s Bowery in the ’50s at the Trylon Microcinema, and after considering both environs, I would hands-down have rather taken my chances in the Bowery.

I’m not sure when the dancer found her new home at Whitey’s, but Stroll reader and cartoonist Steve Stwalley wrote me after my earlier column to mention he’d come across her at the great Bauer Brothers Salvage industrial surplus store in North Minneapolis a few years back, only to return a week later and find her gone. Whitey’s is a good home for her. It’s a nice place to get a drink, and I should note that of all the brandy old fashioneds I drank that afternoon, theirs was the finest. 

Last is the Red Stag, a few blocks away on East Hennepin. The interior decoration is Wisconsin supper club, but one artifact in particular stands out. On one wall is a large framed print of a 1970 drawing by late Texas artist Warren Hunter, depicting the great film comedian W.C. Fields.

The Red Stag's W. C. Fields illustration manages to be both idealistic and cynic
MinnPost photo by Andy Sturdevant
The Red Stag’s W. C. Fields illustration manages to be both idealistic and cynical at once.

“Great balls of fire!” he exclaims, auto exhaust fumes wafting under his nose as a factory behind him churns out industrial runoff into a river. “At last I have an excuse legitimate for not drinking water. I think I will go inside for a breath of fresh air and a little libation.” 

W.C. Fields was a fairly popular comic during his heyday, but like his contemporaries the Marx Brothers, his work enjoyed a massive revival in the late 1960 and early ‘70s among counterculture youth. (My dad, born in 1950, was and remains a big fan, screening “The Bank Dick” for me and my brother as soon as we were old enough to express an interest in such a thing.) Fields’ unapologetic misanthropy and love for consciousness-altering concoctions endeared him to the youth of the Johnson and Nixon eras, who embraced him as one of their own. This generational prominence was perhaps best evidenced by his position on the cover of the Beatles’ “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” where he shares space with the likes of Bob Dylan, Aldous Huxley, Lenny Bruce, Carl Jung, Aleister Crowley, and other heavyweights from the Western canon.

This makes Hunter’s depiction particularly interesting: Fields’ misanthropy here is not just a free-floating expression of alcoholic nihilism, but a period-appropriate pro-environmental statement. The natural world is so polluted and so foul, it says, that the only logical recourse is to head indoors and have a drink. It manages to be both idealistic and cynical at once. It’s a great find.

But there are great finds in almost any Twin Cities dining and drinking establishment. Next time you’re biking or driving across town, stop in somewhere for a drink and pay close attention to what you find on the walls.