Harlequins, Pantaloons, Scaramouches, buffi, Emmett Kellys, clownscapes of all design leer at patrons of this tavern in the Inner Sunset -- portraits on black velvet, watercolors, oil paintings, iconic renderings on wood boards, sad studies in pencil or chalk. Gumby-like figurines with bendable limbs fight for space behind the bar with creepy Czech marionettes. And although there are no originals by Red Skelton or John Wayne Gacy, there are some highlights. One gold-framed canvas thrusts a large red knob from its surface, which, when turned, activates a hidden circus music box. This week many of the larger clowns are wearing Halloween masks provided by beer distributors.
"None of it's very valuable," says bartender and owner Jack Bouey. "Nicotine ruins everything."
Neither clowns nor smokes have ruined business for the Embers, which Jack has operated since 1969 at its present Irving Street location, and run in other Geary Boulevard incarnations since 1955. The clown motif began with Jack's wife, who installed four clown pictures originally to fill up a blank wall of the joint. Customers latched onto the idea and kept bringing in more and more clown artifacts, many from all over the world, until today the bar is literally packed with clown images.
"Some girl brought me in one last week," says Jack, a spry 70-year-old in blue striped sport shirt and khakis.
Non-barflies often stroll in just to check out the collection, but this afternoon the bar stools and red vinyl bench seats are quiet. A solitary customer sits at one end of the plank, absently eyeing a cable TV version of Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. Jack talks about how saloon owners in the '50s rapidly renamed their establishments "cocktail lounges," to encourage female patronage.
"It was kind of a disgrace in those days," he says of the idea of women wandering into a bar. If they weren't accompanied by a man, they were thought of as floozies. Jack credits the popularity of vodka for helping ease the feminine sector into a healthy relationship with alcohol. The tasteless, clear potato squeezin's made an ideal companion to trendy tiki tropical drinks, ungodly concoctions with names like Queen Puffpies.
"They drank the fuckingest drinks." Jack shakes his head. "We had two blenders going all the time."
The Embers also once employed a doorman and waitresses, the standing-room-only throng chain-smoking away like an old Cary Grant movie. Nearby Kezar Stadium often dumped sports fans into the Sunset, who celebrated at the bar -- much more so if the Niners won, of course. There was even a saying back in the old days: "If you can't get laid in the Embers, you can't get laid at all."
"People used to propose marriage," says Jack.
We are interrupted by a little 7-year-old kid, who scurries around behind the bar and gives Jack a hug. One of his seven children has dropped by this afternoon to say hello, along with one of his 18 grandkids. The youngster gratefully guzzles a Coke. The family has done well. One of Jack's sons has ended up both president of the Olympic Club and director of the Port of San Francisco.
But times have changed. The Inner Sunset doesn't go out to drink much anymore. The weekends, on the other hand, are attracting a young clientele bored with gimmick-soaked nightclubs. It's quiet enough to have a conversation, you can smoke without somebody calling in the ATF, the jukebox has both Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Mills Brothers, and there's the unsettling clown decor to boot.
Jack recognizes me from a week ago, when I came in with a small group of friends. He pops open the register and retrieves a forgotten tube of lipstick left by one of the women.
"My girlfriend says it's pretty expensive," he says, setting it on the bar.
He could have given it to one of the nurses who drop by in the mornings, off duty from the neighborhood hospital. But that's the kind of guy Jack is -- honest, born-and-raised San Franciscan, a D-Day and Battle of the Bulge veteran from Double-U Double-U Deuce. And he's outlived most of his regulars.
For a period of 10 years or so, the Embers used to have a group of old-timers called the Breakfast Club, who gabbed away their mornings on the stools. Jack says they had maybe one drink an hour: "Not knockin' their lights out." But almost all are dead now.
One regular who refuses to die makes Jack feel like a teen-ager. An 85-year-old woman arrives every day at 4:30, sits in her chair at the end of the bar, and stays two hours. "She has five, six, seven light drinks," says Jack still with a trace of wonder. "Just a splash." The splash being bourbon and soda.
"If she doesn't come in," says Jack, keeper of the clowns, "I get worried."
The Embers, 627 Irving at Eighth Avenue; open 7:30 a.m.
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By Jack Boulware