A schoolteacher by day, a thespian by night, Steve Meltzer knows well Shakespeare's admonition that "the play's the thing."
"We're all here for the work," Meltzer said last Tuesday night after a performance of a one-act drama called "Eighth Race at Belmont" at Al's National Theater. Still, he acknowledged, "It's depressing when there's more people on stage than in the audience."
Actually, the attendance that night was six--the same as the number of performers.
That's how it goes some nights at Al's Bar, reincarnated as Al's National Theater. Then again, on other nights, Al's crowd has been known to spill out into the streets.
In a metropolis with museums named Getty and Simon, with grand performance halls named Chandler, Taper and Ahmanson, Al's is one of the more unusual venues of Los Angeles cultural life and probably the only one named for a truck driver. But if your taste runs to beer, rock music, experimental theater and low-rent, avant-garde oddness, the saloon Alfonso Vasquez opened about 20 years ago has it all over the Getty.
Whether Vasquez would approve is hard to say. He died nine years ago, about a year after he sold his saloon, name and all, for $4,000 to a young artist named Marc Kreisel, who reinvented the trucker's hangout in his own image.
Tucked on the bottom floor of an old brick hotel at 712 Traction Ave., east of Little Tokyo and not far from the Museum of Neon Art, Al's Bar has long been a social hub of the downtown's little art colony. It draws a clientele of artists, posers and curiosity seekers to its dark and Spartan confines. The stage is known for its decidedly liberal booking policy.
For the last several years, for example, Thursday has been devoted to "No Talent Night"--"a kind of Gong Show of the avant-garde," as Kreisel puts it. Anybody can do just about anything, short of breaking the law.
The weekend musical acts are usually unknowns, but they draw the crowds that pay the bills. Sometimes Al's gets so crowded that the fire marshal pays a visit such as the February, 1987, night when the group Love Tractor drew a crowd of 260, more than double the club's capacity at the time.
Overcrowding had often been a problem at Al's, and a judge was so annoyed by such practices that he sentenced Kreisel to 1,600 hours of community service. "That's more than Oliver North or Zsa Zsa Gabor," Kreisel said. (North's sentence included 1,200 hours, Gabor got 120 hours.)
"I guess running a bar is worse than lying to Congress or slapping a cop."
Irreverent but proud, Kreisel is serving his sentence by helping out at another downtown art venue, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.
One of the artists who pioneered loft-living in downtown Los Angeles in the 1970s, Kreisel bought Vasquez's bar, he said, to help foster a sense of community--"a place where artists could get together and socialize." Al's offered its first stage plays about five years ago, but it wasn't until this year that theater became a staple.
He also envisioned Al's as "a money pump" that would help underwrite a gallery. Al's is a sponsor of the nearby American Gallery, a cooperative venue set up by Los Angeles artists to show their works.
Dreams of an artists' mecca like bohemian SoHo in New York City have never materialized, however. Instead, artists often found designers, architects and even lawyers taking over the loft community they helped create. Kreisel turned that into inspiration as well, and last summer the bar-cum-theater featured a musical called "Loft Maiden." Kreisel wrote the book for the musical. It is a story, he says, of the way artists gentrify, and thus lose, their community.
"Girl gets space, builds loft, loses loft--in two acts," Kreisel said. One of the songs is a paean to bureaucracy called "Paperwork and Permits."
Despite sparse attendance, Al's National Theater gets high marks from the play people at work there now.
"A wonderfully raunchy place. Pleasantly raunchy," sums up John Buchman, author of "Eighth Race at Belmont," a 40-minute drama about five horse-racing fans watching the 1975 match race between the great thoroughbreds Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure.
"It's a wonderful place to work out the kinks in a play," he added.
"It's just theater. There's not a whole lot of embroidery," actor Kevin Gregory said. "And you kind of expect Tom Waits or Charles Bukowski to walk in at any moment."
Nick Loicano and Lisa James, who made up one-third of Al's audience Tuesday night, had front row seats. Usually, they go to the Music Center. They had seen "Phantom of the Opera," for instance.
Their first visit to Al's, they said, probably would not be their last.
"I'm always looking for something different," Loicano said.