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Façade facelift: Lee’s Palace iconic mural is back

November 19th, 2010 · No Comments

Al Runt stares down one of his monster creations. Beth Macdonell/Gleaner News

By Beth Macdonell

In 1987, Al Runt was working behind the bar at Lee’s Palace (529 Bloor St. W.). He was let go for drinking on the job, but the owner, “Mr. Lee,” noticed Runt was a talented painter.

According to Runt, Mr. Lee was looking to attract cool eyeballs from Queen to Bloor. Mr. Lee noticed that many of the trendy bars and clubs such as the Bamboo Club and Cameron House had murals, and wanted to bring the same aesthetic to Lee’s.

“I was a much better artist than a waiter,” says Runt. “I was doing a lot of different murals around the city … I did the side of the Bamboo Club and there was a couple of murals (I did) in Kensington Market.”

“Make it pretty,” were the only instructions Mr. Lee gave Runt. He was paid $1,500 for the job.

Lee’s distinctive facade has been synonymous with the bar since its early days but the mural has been replaced twice, the most recent version completed on Oct. 8.

It took Runt over four months, working every good-weather day, to complete it. He pencilled in the drawings, retraced them with marker, and then filled in the colour with two coats of paint. Lastly, he did a thick black outline and used a sponge for shading.

He says painting on the scissor lift with lots of people walking by was tough. The pigeons were also a nuisance.

“One pooped on my tongue and on my lip,” Runt explains. “I went and bought some mouthwash and gargled for the next two hours.”

Over the summer Runt says he got the chance to talk to lots of Annex locals. One regular came by almost every day and brought him a beer. He even made some $15 in tips per day thanks to his “tips” paint tray that was left on the sidewalk.

Sometimes he would hear people describing the history of the mural while he was sitting right there painting it.

“I would be in the middle of something and people would just have this need to tell me what they think of it,” Runt says. “I would try and be courteous… my favourite is when they think it’s the same mural. I just say no, it’s the same style.

“I only got one negative reaction the whole time, and someone just walked by and said it’s too busy, but I can’t really help that,” he laughs.

“I knew people liked it, but I didn’t know people liked it that much. It’s more the people in the area that really like it. They’d say, ‘Oh I’m so glad it’s back. I was almost going to stop going to Lee’s or the burrito place,’” Runt recalls. “It’s amazing how people really connected with it.”

Runt never attended art school. He is a carpenter who does art when there’s work available.

“I think he saw other artists making murals and said ‘I can do something similar,’ and it took off,” says friend Robert McGirr, adding that his style can be linked to a love of comics.

In 1992, while sick and undergoing cancer treatment, Mr. Lee called Runt up to do another mural because the wall had been painted over.

Lee was also asked to spruce up the washrooms and McGirr helped him. “The washroom was not in the best shape,” he says. Overall though, “I just remember Runt and I having a good time, listening to music on his boom box and having a few beers after work in various places around the neighbourhood.”

Mr. Lee saw the completion of the mural, but died about a year later.

The second mural was torn down in the fall of 2009. For a while, it was unclear if a new mural would be re-painted.

“When the mural wasn’t there I was really thrown off,” says Ruhee Dewji, 21, a flute and tenor sax player in the band Entire Cities, that play at Lee’s. “I always associate (Lee’s) with this crazy mural. It was so bizarre that it was existing without that mural there. It was just one of those things that made it a landmark.”

“The shock of it going down affected a lot of people … It totally lacked a certain vibrancy,” Lisa Shepard says.

Shepard is the co-owner of Big Fat Burrito, which moved into the front area of Lee’s last year. Shepard and her husband Mike jump-started the effort to replace the old mural, with the support of Lee’s.

The 2010 mural is bigger and goes higher on the facade than the previous mural. All three were we painted in the same style, but all are different. Al Runt says it’s like “cartoon art.”

“It stems from a whole bunch of influences… there’s a certain juvenile aspect that I like as well… tonnes of boobs up there and penises, but nothing really shocking,” he says.

Some of his favourites include “rock-out head” and a woman with several breasts waving her arms.

Proud of his completed mural, Runt says that with three coats of protective urethane, it should last for a long time.

Unlike the previous murals Runt has painted on Lee’s, it was done on a stainless steel background with high-quality paints.

“It’s my Titanic, or my Avatar,” he says.

Runt is surprised more requests for his work haven’t come through since this mural was so successful.

“I haven’t got one job out of this. I thought with this I’d get hired to do someone’s room or something.”

Runt believes the mural is helping to define the Annex neighbourhood. “It’s right up there with the Honest Ed’s sign. It’s unbelievable how photographed it is. There have been times when I’ve seen five or six people photographing it at the same time.”

Without the mural, “the Annex would get by and it would be sort of sad but I think it’s just one little thing that makes the area interesting.”

If you would like to hire Al Runt to paint your room, or a wall, or anything, contact him at runster2001@yahoo.com.

Tags: Arts · People · General