At The Palm restaurant in West Hollywood, the walls have ears. Thanks to Bill Lignante, they also have eyes, lips, noses and hair.
That’s because Lignante is the artist who has covered the walls with illustrations of longtime Palm patrons, from obscure garmentos to notables like Kirk Douglas, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra.
It’s part of what gives the entertainment industry-supported restaurant its clubby feel.
“I’ve never been a caricaturist and never hope to be one,” says the 60-ish Lignante from his home in Carlsbad. “I’m an illustrator. It was determined by the customers that they didn’t want certain parts of their anatomy to be accentuated.”
Lignante is also a cartoonist and courtroom artist. For the past 25 years he’s illustrated courtroom scenes for ABC News, covering the trials of Patty Hearst, Charles Manson, Sirhan Sirhan, Angela Davis and John DeLorean.
Those drawings, which used to just “sit around the house for years,” are on packs of trading cards published this month by Eclipse Enterprises in Forestville, Calif.
Called “Crime and Punishment,” they come 12 to a pack and feature dramatic courtroom scenes, accompanied by writer Bruce Carroll’s text on the back. (They’re available at Golden Apple in Los Angeles.)
Lignante says that when attempts to get his courtroom illustrations compiled into a book didn’t work out, he tried trading cards.
He believes these are the only pictorial records of the trials, and says the cards will appeal to “anybody who wants to learn about them. . . . The few times they were shown on television seemed to be a waste, and to tell the story on TV in a minute and a half, you really don’t get the full report of the trial.”
His pictorial history of star-conscious Los Angeles can be seen at The Palm. Lignante started covering the restaurant’s walls when it opened 17 years ago.
Originally, another artist was brought out from New York to do the work but felt the task was too great and asked for Lignante’s help. When the first artist died, Lignante took over and has been the sole illustrator since. (He also does illustrations for five other Palm restaurants, including ones in Dallas, Houston and Chicago.)
After leaving Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., he had his own syndicated comic strip called Ozark Ike, drew The Phantom, and spent years as a designer at Hanna-Barbera on shows featuring Scooby Doo, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
When he lived in Los Angeles, he’d go to The Palm himself to do the artwork; now that he lives in Carlsbad, he sends in the portraits and someone else applies them to the wall. A back room is reserved for Olympic athletes and foreign delegates from the 1984 L.A. games.
General manager Gigi Delmaestro chooses about three or four subjects a month and sends their photos and any other pertinent information (business affiliation, hobbies) to Lignante.
What Lignante likes about the work is “the satisfaction of making people happy. I feel sorry for people in a business that doesn’t--like the IRS. It’s always been really satisfying where I could make money and still make people really happy.”
Rarely does he hear a complaint from an immortalized patron. When he does, it’s usually from husbands and wives who have split and want their pictures separated.
(These days couples are placed in different areas of the restaurant to avoid future problems.)
“One time in Dallas,” Lignante recalls, “an irate wife came in with a knife and cut her husband’s picture out.”
Getting up on the walls is serious business; the artist admits he’s amused by the importance patrons place on becoming immortalized in pastels and India ink.
“It doesn’t matter what station in life they are,” he says. “They all react the same way.”
Manager Delmaestro concurs: “They sort of feel very proud of the fact that they’re up there, they want to show to their friends that they’re good patrons. It’s ego. It’s all ego.”
Although some clients send Delmaestro gifts of cash in order to secure a space, he makes it clear that the walls are not for sale. A place must be earned, not bought.
The Palm has chunks of portrait space remaining, but Delmaestro knows there will come a day when it’s at a premium. “People who died eight, 10 years ago, we might replace them,” he says. “But we try to keep as many as we can, like Redd Foxx.
“But Ronald Reagan, I think we’re going to replace him with Bill Clinton. Reagan never comes in here anymore.”