Dali of the Dive Bars: A Brief History of Mid-Century Barroom Artist Frank Bowers
This smoldering Bowers painting colored the walls of Embers Lounge since the 1960s
Artist Frank Bowers' work––colorful oil paintings featuring groups of men and women engaged in activities not suitable for polite discussion––has kept watch over inebriated patrons from the walls of dive bars around southern California for over sixty years.
Despite having a story largely buried by the sands of time, Bowers' work as a muralist has achieved a unique level of fame in the many years since his death.
His paintings, like the long-lived bars that house them, have no doubt comforted alcohol-saturated brains with the illusion of permanence.
But earlier this summer in the city of Santa Fe Springs, that illusion flickered like a busted neon sign as social media users announced Embers Lounge had shuttered its doors for good. The bar, which had been under the same ownership for 58 years, featured a 4-foot tall Bower’s mural depicting a swinging hell-scape.
The image portrays a devil figure in Dracula-esque cape surrounded by bare breasted demonettes in satin panties. The figures frolic around flaming cauldrons. A stud with a pitch fork stirs the pot—the cocktail party scene that didn’t make the final edit of Dante’s Inferno.
So, who was Frank Bowers? And why are multiple examples of his work found in dive bars?
Over the years, his story has yielded some verified nuggets to dogged internet sleuths. Legend has it that before his death in 1964, he struggled with alcoholism, and painted murals to pay off bar tabs.
Between the Bars
A blogger at Blue Heron Blast wrote a comprehensive piece on Bowers back in 2013. The author mentioned his own work as a sign painter and the headaches that constant exposure to toxic paints and solvents wrought. The best antidote it seemed, was booze.
“The only thing that could chelate the old painter’s blood from the preferred Ronin (sic) and One Shot brand lead paint happened to be alcohol.”
It’s no stretch to think that a man who spent hours painting lurid scenes for bars across the western United States might have been feeding an alcohol habit. But like many aspects of Bowers’ life, it is difficult to confirm.
What Is known is that he was born in Berkeley, California in 1905. A 1940 draft card shows he was married to a woman named Pearl, resided in West Los Angeles and identified as self-employed. He was married multiple times. In a 1930 census listing, Bowers identified himself as an artist working for an unnamed film studio.
An October 8, 1933 Los Angeles Times news and gossip column featured drawings done by Bowers of Mae West and Cary Grant promoting their film “I’m No Angel.” These images, in which Bower’s signature contrast and curves are on elegant display, appear to have been done by a steadier hand compared to his later work.
Beyond the Bars
Courtesy Andrew Laverdiere, Living New Deal
Newspaper stories in the Times archives suggest the 1930s were a fruitful period for Bowers.
An October 23, 1938 article details the unveiling of a 33 -foot-by 15-foot mural Bowers painted on the side of the First United Methodist Episcopal Church in Huntington Park. The massive image, borne of 85 tons of white lead covered in 70 pounds of paint, depicted the scene where Jesus stands on the shores of Galilee and tells his disciples he will make them fishers of men.
Bowers reportedly modeled the characters in the scene on real life church congregants.
During the 1930s, Bowers worked regularly with an artist named Arthur Prunier. The two men created murals for Southgate City Hall depicting the daily life of workers and school children. The project was funded by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration in 1941.
The two men also created a mural for the California Fruit Grower’s Exchange Building, also known as the Sunkist Building in Downtown Los Angeles, depicting a scene from California’s mission era. Sadly, the building, and the mural are long gone.
Following announcements that Embers had closed, I called a number posted outside the bar advertising the sale of the business’s equipment. The phone was answered by Dennis Gagnon who has owned the establishment for the last 58 years.
According to Gagnon, the bar was built by the owner of a Southgate refrigeration company. Construction of Embers was completed in 1963 according to a permit on file with the city of Santa Fe Springs.
Gagnon said the company sold the lounge to him after running into legal troubles. Bowers’ paintings were already in the bar by the time Gagnon assumed ownership. He never met Bowers, though he spoke to him once on the phone. Gagnon said he was told Bowers’ was painting sets for MGM Studios at one time.
Initially, Gagnon said he intended to accept offers on the paintings that hung in the bar (which he expects will be torn down). However, in a follow up call, a woman who answered the phone said they planned to keep the paintings in the family.
The Paintings that Remain
Through Facebook, I contacted Jennifer Higdon. Her mother, Gerri Fraser, has owned the Buccaneer Lounge in Sierra Madre since 1990.
Though the bar has been temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic since March (except for three days in June) the two women graciously opened their doors to allow me to see the paintings within.
The Buccaneer’s walls are adorned with five portraits featuring visages of famous swashbucklers: Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, Captain Kidd, Jean LaFitte and Henry Every.
Gerri said she bought the bar from a World War II pilot who initially named it Club 60. It was originally located at 60 W Sierra Madre Blvd. It moved to the current location at 70 W Sierra Madre in 1984.
A phone directory from 1960 shows a listing for Frank and Vicki Bowers at an address located less than a block from the Buccaneer.
Eagle eyed horror fans will spot some of the Buccaneer’s paintings in the 1982 film Halloween III Season of the Witch. In a scene where protagonist Dr. Daniel Challis (played by Tom Atkins) sips a cocktail, LaFitte’s orange pantaloons are visible above the good doctor’s right shoulder.
But the Buccaneer’s main attraction hangs above the bottles and glasses behind the well where bar tenders sling suds. It is a sprawling two-paneled mural depicting swarthy pirates on ships, and in a tavern. Some are jolly, some are just drunk. The expansive scene shows the colorful freebooters drinking, sword fighting and carousing with topless lasses.
As Gerri thumbed through a folder with news clippings and photos she’s compiled on Bowers over the years, Jennifer peppered me with questions about what I’ve learned.
Gerri produced an undated 8x10 black and white photo of Bowers working on a large mural. A dark-haired woman, believed to be Bower’s last wife Vicki (a possible collaborator), is standing next him.
Jennifer asked if I’d heard that Bowers had painted sets for the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. It’s a lead I had not heard until that moment, but my mind flashed back to Dennis Gagnon’s comment about Bowers working at MGM.
I followed up on this lead with a reference librarian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library, where a portion of the MGM archive is housed.
The library is closed to staff and the public until 2021 due to the pandemic, the librarian said via email. She informed me that “below the line” film workers are often uncredited, and therefore can be difficult to reference.
Man of Mystery
Did Frank Bowers have a thriving Hollywood career followed by an alcoholic slump? Did he die in debt to bar owners across the west coast? It remains a mystery for now. Hopefully, more will be revealed.
It’s possible the brooding devil that leered at drunken patrons at the Embers for decades offers a clue about Bower’s final years.
While Bower’s earlier work portrayed idyllic scenes of padres and biblical characters, then topless minxes, gamblers and jolly pirates, the Embers painting, possibly one of his last, is markedly darker.
Aside from the fact that everyone depicted is in hell, there’s something pensive about the devil’s expression. It’s his soirée, yet he’s not a part of the fun. As the party rages around him, he sits alone with his thoughts—it seems as if the old flames don’t burn like they once used to.
Examples of Bowers’ work can still be found in Wilmington at the Foc’sle Bar, as well as the Buccaneer Lounge in Sierra Madre. Other works can be found in Las Vegas (Hard Hat Lounge) and as far north as Ketchikan Alaska (Sourdough Cocktail Bar).