The documentary film, Tales of the American, to put it simply, is an onion. It peels away years of cultural debris, exposing the history of a century-old hotel originally called The Canadian and built for African-Americans by architect Octavius Morgan. Over the decades The Canadian was transformed into the recognizable form we now know as The American. Once the African-American community abandoned it, the Japanese held sway over it until the eruption of World War II, only to see a revival of a new batch of African-Americans and immigrants establish a hold on the community once again.
The documentary is composed of chapters. Every chapter has a theme and these chapters move the story forward, either by opening another door in the hotel’s history or introducing and expanding the viewer to the faces and the folks who inhabited of the hotel. In either case these stories prove foundational to establishing the Hotel’s contemporary reputation as an artist haven in DTLA.
Tales of the American kicks off the first chapter “If These Walls Could Talk.” From this moment onward, the layers are peeled away, exposing nuggets of fascinating information and antidotal stories of mischief and the bohemian lifestyles lived by The American’s numerous inhabitants. The film offers a steady pace of the linear history of The American Hotel itself, then other segments are peppered with the occupants’ observations. The stories of these disaffected artists told through interviews focuses on the tumultuous nature of the American Hotel’s inhabitants. These interviews are somewhat random in nature and definitely personal—from the artists and musicians themselves—who have lived around downtown’s artist hub over the last four decades. Tales of the American effectively tells the story from a historical perspective, while plugging into the marvelously chaotic human element that makes this story so engaging.
Interview, Photo Gallery and Videos after the Break
A significant part of Tales of The American circles around AL’s Bar. Al’s Bar, as we know it, came to be after Marc Kreisel and his partners purchased the bar 1979. Kreisel, who bought The American, purchased the bar from Alfonso Vasquez with the idea of creating a nexus of Bohemia and creativity to the DTLA arts community.
“In addition to converting the hotel into galleries, studios, and a home for artists, Kreisel, who viewed the whole building as ‘one big art show,’ purchased the ground floor bar from Alfonso Vasquez, the bar’s namesake,” said Per Claudine Ise from “Considering the Art World Alternatives: LACE and Community Formation in Los Angeles.”
“Al’s Bar was created to give artists a place to discuss art over beer,” said Andy Furillo in “Al’s Bar: It’s Not Just Blue-Collar Anymore,” The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, December 6, 1981.
From this point on The American and Al’s Bar were the core support of the social fabric that became the DTLA Arts community. Al’s Bar was The American’s living room and it became a bastion of the disenfranchised aesthete, anarchistic derelicts, and the musicians’ and artist’s playground!
Al’s Bar and The American became a refuge to these artistic types for decades, who were contributors to the DTLA art scene and were essential to telling the doc’s story.
The players that make up The American story are numerous and surely some may have escaped making my acquaintance over the years because (Producer) Stephen Seemayer and (editor) Pamela Wilson interviewed 140 alumni from The American and that’s a lot of people to come to know.
These are the people who come to mind when I think of The American: there’s George Joaquim (who’s a painter), Toast Boyd (musician, who’s become a filmmaker), Nick Scott (drummer of POPDeFECT and The Swords of Fatima), Mike Watt (The Minute Men, The Second Men, Dos, and Firehose), Gus Hudson (who discovered Beck and was a contributor to Flipside Magazine), Gary Leonard (photographer), Stevie Casual (guitarist), Colette Miller (Glaobal Angel Project and member of Gwar as Amazina), Emmeric Konrad (painter), Jerico Wagner (painter), Anna Broome (host of The Anna Broome Room), Mona Jean Cedar (spoken word artist) are a few I know.
Other notables interviewed in The American whom I’m not as familiar with who are: Joe Baiza (Saccharine Trust, Minutemen), Bill Bateman, Ella Black, James Duck, Carlos Guitarlos, Jake LaBotz, Bruce Moreland, David Travis, Richard Duardo, Gary Lloyd, Alex Schaefer, Kent Twitchell, Marnie Weber, Oliver Manhattan (fashion designer), Kyle McCulloch and Michael Shamus Wiles (actor), among many others.
One of the salient moments in Al’s Bar history was the 5-year stint of Girl George performances on No Talent Night. Girl George’s performance was legendary and further distinguished The American and Al’s Bar’s with an anything goes DTLA Art’s District attitude. The poet S.A. Griffin introduced Girl George to Al’s Bar on poet’s night. It wasn’t long till Poets Night morphed into No Talent Night, where Girl George led the charge every Thursday in moral abandonment, revelry and rebellion with her rambunctious set that always included the song that set AL’s Bar on fire, “You Make Me Feel Like A Whore!” Girl George always attracted a huge crowd for all of those years. The American’s living room was alive and pulsing with lowbrow Rock N’ Roll splendor, soaked in alcohol with smoke-filled rebellion at full throttle, every Thursday!
Tale of the American is an expansive story recounting the history of The American Hotel spanning for nearly a century. The film documents the stories of individuals and events that made The American and the Arts District bloom into its contemporary relevance and a center for the arts. Tales of the American is such a resounding voice for all those who contributed arts community over last few decades, whether it was music, a variety Artistic disciplines or the sublime irreverence to cultural norms that became distinctive to the LA Arts community.
Tales of the American hits every high note and doesn’t miss a beat, peeling back the layers of this milestone in LA history. What resonated with everyone at the Downtown Independent screening of the film, and sums up Tales of the American best, was the quote from Dustin Shuler as interviewed by a Television reporter three decades ago at the Pinned Butterfly installation above Al’s Bar:
The reporter asked: Is this art?
Shuler: Because I’m an artist, and I’m doing it!”
That was the heart of what The American was all about.
In closing, I had a brief moment to interview Girl George who was a mainstay for No Talent Night at AL’s Bar for five years during the peak Al’s Bar and The American’s historical heyday in DTLA’s Art scene. There was alcohol involved in this interview so it has a bit of an abrupt ending but it all makes sense.
LA Beat: What was the first gig you did at Al’s Bar, what was the last gig?
Girl George: Okay, the first time Carlos brought me in—I’ve known Carlos since the 70’s in North Beach in San Francisco—, when I first came in town he said, ‘You have to go to Al’s Bar.’ And I said, ‘Okay!’ So he takes me into Al’s Bar, I walk in the door—I was wearing a sword at that time—so we walked in the door and everyone clapped! I said, ‘This is my kind of place! They get it!’ Back then it was before the music and it was all poets. It was S.A. Griffin and other poets. They were the one who threw cups at one another and heckle each other. That’s what started it for me. They love my song “You Make Me Feel Like A Whore!”
LA Beat: That’s almost an anthem for Al’s Bar!
Girl George: Every week I write the poets a new song. Anyhow, S.A. ended up leaving. Mark came in and took over and gave everyone a bad name. Then the musicians started coming because the poets got pissed at him (Mark). With the musicians, everything got louder and louder! At first, I was the loudest and then it became loud, loud, loud! Being that they let me do this and once they saw what I was doing others said, Oh, we can do it too. They came in and took their clothes off and did anything they wanted to because they knew they could do anything! I kind of gave them permission to do any fuckin thing they wanted to do. And, if they didn’t like it they could kick me out!
LA Beat: Do you remember the last show you did at Al’s?
Girl George: Do you really want the nasty story on that?
LA Beat: Yeah!
Girl George: It’s a dirty story, but Mark’s an asshole anyway. The real story of what happened at Al’s. I played there for about five years, or so. As it would build up it’d be packed [for Girl George’s gig] and then it would get busted on the weekend for having minors in [Al’s]. Then only 20 people could come in there (Al’s). It would go down to nothing again, and I’d build it up again. Art students loved me because I’m loud and obnoxious. This cycle went on like this for five years. Then that play happened. Joel had written a play… play [Showdown in Sonoratown] about some political bullshit when the Mexicans had taken the land from the Indians and then the white people came in and took it from them. It was about that political intrigue. There were three guys that came around and sang. They tried to get the guy from Sandy Duncan’s Eye to do it but he wouldn’t. So they said ‘Get George, she can do it!’ There was Charlie, the bass player from PopDeFect, and they got an actor to do the other part. I wrote all the music. So I was in that play. Mark was in that play as a banker, an uptight banker, you know, it was all typecast, typecast … He was the asshole banker who ripped everyone off. Our job [as performers] was to laugh at everything! So I was laughing at him, because that was our gig. It had nothing to do with him personally. And he got pissed off! He said, ‘What are you doing laughing at me?!’ ‘I’m not laughing at you, it’s my part in the play,’ [she said] He wouldn’t let me play No Talent Night the next night and then he switched No Talent Night to Sunday. It was always supposed to be there for Thursday. I’d been there for five years and it was every Thursday. I told him I’m not playing on Sunday and I never came again. I started playing at Cantors and the Kibitz Room. There was no more No Talent Night because I wasn’t playing it anymore. Because the energy was me and I was okay …
LA Beat: You were the permission…
Girl George: … the permission to be crazy wasn’t there no more. People stop going, it was boring and the place was empty. It all fell apart. I was told that Mark was ripping everybody off and stealing the money is why the bar actually closed. I have to give him credit. He was the satan that made it happen. He was the energy we had to fight! He made me tough. I was never that tough in San Francisco. He made me tough! You had to be or die. It became get fucked or get on top of it! I became real strong. When I came back to San Francisco after twelve years here (in LA) they were all ‘What the fuck is that?!’