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Immortality on 44th St.

Cartoonists from a bygone era resurrect memories of an old watering hole

By Patrick Arden / Metro New York

NOV 20, 2005

MIDTOWN - Costello’s occupies a special place in the annals of New York watering holes. Opened as a speakeasy under the elevated tracks on Third Ave., the bar became celebrated as a writers’ hangout -- only with more character. In a series of stories that ran in the New Yorker in the 1940s, John McNulty told of the horseplayers, cabbies and “sour beer artists” who frequented “this place on Third Avenue.”

“Costello’s had a great literary history,” said John Kates, a reporter for the New York Daily News, recalling the place in its final location on 44th Street. “There was a shillelagh that Ernest Hemingway was supposed to have broken over his head in a bet with John O’Hara.

“That bar culture is long gone in newspaper work,” Kates said. “It was profitable journalistically -- it created an energy, and the competition was intense. It was also very profitable for the bar, because newspapermen would come in on a Friday and cash their paychecks.”

Perhaps the most well-known Costello’s anecdote concerned James Thurber re-creating his cartoon “Battle of the Sexes” as a wall mural in order to pay off his bar tab.

A cartoon mural

In 1976, owner Tim Costello asked Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo to create a mural opposite Thurber’s.

“But I thought it was too presumptuous to go up against Thurber,” remembered Gallo. “I finally said, ‘I’ll get cartoonists to fill that wall, if you give us a party from noon to closing.’ Forty guys showed up, some sober, and maybe in 20 minutes that wall was done.”

Contributors included Stan Lee (“Spider-Man”), Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”), Al Jaffee (Mad magazine), Dik Browne (“Hagar the Horrible”) and a who’s who from the world of newspaper comic strips.

“When Tim sold the place, he took his Thurber panels,” Gallo said. “Then we heard that this< lady was going to tear down the wall.”

Gallo approached Kates, who wrote an article. “We got calls from the Smithsonian,” Gallo said. “The lady pulled back and didn’t tear it down.”

Bid for immortality

That mural is still up at 225 E. 44th St., but the bar’s now called the Overlook. One of the owners, Jeff Pruzan, called on Gallo to paint the wall where the Thurber piece used to be.

“I said, it will have to be the same deal,” explained Gallo, 81, who oversaw the creation of a new mural by about two dozen cartoonists yesterday.

“Cartoonists are a band of brothers,” said Irwin Hasen, 87, the creator of Dondi. In the old mural, Hasen had painted his war orphan smiling, but the new drawing has Dondi peeing on a tree -- an irreverent reaction to his character getting killed off by the newspaper syndicate 20 years ago. “They owned it -- I didn’t. It’s harder today, though -- cartoonists have been taken over by animation, computer-induced creativity. In my time it was raw, a whole ’nother ball game.”

At one point yesterday, Gallo made a speech.

“This is 30 years ago,” he said, pointing to the old mural. “And this is today. All you cartoonists are now immortal. Your work will live till somebody buys the place and has a notion to tear down this wall. I hope that never happens.”

 

[Originally ran with photo by Bill Lyons/Metro] Don Orehek, 77, re-creates a cartoon he published in Playboy magazine during the 1970s.

 

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