De Grazia with a Twist

Mention any giant of the art world and one magnum opus immediately springs to mind. Whistler had his mother, Da Vinci had his Mona Lisa, and Warhol his Campbell's Soup can. But Ettore "Ted" De Grazia? Just let the name of Arizona's most beloved artist fall from your lips and no one knows where to begin. Angelic peons on wind chimes? Pinata party on spoon rest? Prancing ninos on keychain?

A self-proclaimed "artist of the people" eager to bring his vision within the realm of everybody's pocketbook, the late Tucson painter's creations have reportedly appeared on more than 100 million objects, prompting Arizona Highways to dub him "the most reproduced artist in the history of the world." Calendars, posters, tumblers, coasters--over the years few surfaces went unsullied by the prolific dabbler's kitschy-coo creations. Any wonder, then, that it's virtually impossible to identify one single work as the quintessential De Grazia?

Much simpler to single out a pair of little-known oddities in the earthy aesthete's oeuvre--a couple of odes to inebriation plastered across barroom walls.

Eyes scanning the wild melange of Indians, moonshiners and dancing girls that dominates the interior of the 307 Lounge, a neighborhood gay bar near Roosevelt and Central, James Harrison tries to make some sense out of the garish 47-foot-long mural. "You've got these guys over here making liquor for ceremonial purposes, then the white man gets into the act with his still and, of course, you've got your cancan dancers," he explains. "From what the old-time customers tell me, De Grazia was supposedly doing a history of booze."

Along with an equally surrealistic companion piece (on another wall, a De Grazia ballerina executes a pirouette inside a martini glass), the panorama of potent potables has been delighting the 307 patrons for the past forty years. Or so Harrison discovered last October when the mural was covered with decorative panels for a Roaring Twenties Halloween party. Not realizing that the cover-up was temporary, many customers considered the act tantamount to hanging a disco ball from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. "You should have heard the way some of them carried on," exclaims Harrison. "It was like, `Oh, my God! What have you done? I'll never come in here again! You've destroyed a piece of Arizona history!'"

The exact story behind the 307's barroom bacchanal is lost in a smoky haze of hearsay. De Grazia died six years ago, and while his widow Marion remembers visiting the bar "many years" ago, she claims to have no recollection of either the mural's subject matter or the circumstances under which it was painted. Toward the end of his life, even De Grazia himself had pretty much forgotten about the cocktail artistry of his salad days.

"He was rather amazed that I knew about the mural," reports Valley art dealer Jack Schreiner, who quizzed De Grazia about the 307 oddity shortly before the artist's death. Explaining that the lounge was once a favored haunt of friend Raymond Carlson--then editor of Arizona Highways, one of the struggling painter's biggest boosters--De Grazia said he'd created the mural in return for free drinks. Says Schreiner, "His comment to me was, `I always assess the value of my work in shots of whiskey.'"

Although Harrison hasn't bothered to have the curio appraised, he's listened to plenty of elbow-benders with "ridiculous ideas" about the mural's supposed value. Recalling one guesstimate of a quarter-million dollars, Harrison smiles wryly. "If it's worth what they say, they can haul it away tomorrow morning."

Should that art transplant ever take place, the 307's number would almost certainly be up. "Because it's painted directly on the wall, it really couldn't be moved without a tremendous amount of damage, both to the mural and the building," says Schreiner, who conducted a feasibility study after the Valley National Bank Center expressed interest in buying the piece in the Seventies. "The appraisers were even reluctant to put a value on it because it's hard to put a value on something you can't move. After all, what the hell can you do with it?"

Schreiner's own appraisal of De Grazia's historical hoochfest? "As far as any artistic judgment, it's atrocious. It's not in balance, it's got no proportion, it's really God-awful. And speaking for myself, I didn't see a whole hell of a lot of improvement over the years in his newer stuff."

In 1956, six years after completing his 307 masterpiece, De Grazia unveiled his last-known piece of barroom artistry--"The History of Tequila," a motel lounge mural executed in throbbing fluorescent paint.

"Ted was a fabulous man, a real great guy," says long-time De Grazia friend Danko Gurovich, innkeeper at the Copper Hills Best Western midway between Miami and Globe. "Money meant nothing to him."

This last statement will come as news to any tourist who ever shelled out $12 for a couple decks of De Grazia playing cards emblazoned with featureless Indian cherubs, but Gurovich has a pricey piece of motel art to prove it.

Chalk it up to friendship (or perhaps the creative challenge of working in the exciting new medium of black-light paint), but the selfless artist reportedly refused to accept a dime for his artistic labors, a painting that Gurovich claims is worth $135,000 today.

Although it would be another ten years before mass-produced fridge-door decorations made the artist's name a household word, De Grazia's magnetism was not lost on Copper Basin culture vultures who descended upon the work-in-progress 33 years ago. "It took him about eight weeks to complete the thing, and we had students coming down to watch him work every single day," recalls Gurovich. "While he was painting, he'd even lecture to them about art."

"At the time, the kids thought he was just super," recalls Olga Purlia, a retired junior high teacher who supervised several of those scholastic forays into the cocktail lounge. "They'd never had the opportunity to see anyone that famous paint."

A confirmed De Grazia junkie (she admits buying a copy of De Grazia and Mexican Cookery "just for the pictures"), Purlia got another chance to see the master in action when he returned in 1979 to touch up the fading mural.

"We were sitting here in the booth watching him and his assistant, and I finally had to say something," she recalls. "I said, `Listen, De Grazia--you're going to get too damn many stars up there if you're not careful.' Well, the more tequila they drank, the more they painted." Pointing her cigarette at the mural--the right side of the painting resembles a Day-Glo meteor shower--Purlia smiles. "And let me tell you, they went right ahead and put in more damn stars."

"His comment to me was, `I always assess the value of my work in shots of whiskey.'"

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Dewey Webb