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At Gale’s Central Club, Petaluma kitsch and tall tales

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Part five in the Argus-Courier’s ‘Old historic bars of Petaluma’ series.

“I have no problem with the term ‘dive bar,’” allows John Gale, the soft-spoken, amiably loquacious owner-manager of Gale’s Central Club, its front door tucked in alongside an old-fashioned barbershop on Petaluma Blvd., smack in the middle of the downtown area. “And yes,” Gale says, “this is by definition a dive bar, a term that might have once been considered an insult. Nobody wanted to be a dive bar. They wanted to be upscale.”

Gale laughs, glancing up and down the room, quiet now at about 11:00 in the morning. The place opens daily at 10 a.m.

“These days,” he continues, ‘dive bar’ is a term of endearment. It means a neighborhood bar, a place that hasn’t changed a lot, that doesn’t try too hard, a place where locals feel comfortable, where there’s a core group of regulars who come in every other day or so. Almost nobody goes to a bar every day anymore, though decades ago, that was certainly the case. It’s a sign of the times. People are more aware of the long-standing effects of alcohol. Some people come in here and don’t drink at all, or they drink less than they used to, or start later in the day than people once did. There used to be bars in this town that opened their doors at 6 in the morning.

“And this was one of ‘em.”

The Gale family has operated the bar in this particular location since 1971, having run drinking establishments under the name of Gale’s in locations on Kentucky and Petaluma Blvd., beginning in the early 1960s. Bob and Emily Gale were the original owners.

“My father bought the first bar, then moved it around, and we finally moved here in ’71, and then my mother ran it for years,” says Gale, who’s been running the place since 2003. Narrow and long, atmospherically under-lit, crammed from end to end with memorabilia and bar-room kitsch – all of it dominated by a framed painting of a topless woman sometimes called “The Velvet Goddess” - the interior of Gale’s Central Club is simultaneously soothing and frenetic. It is – as Gale affectionately acknowledges – a quintessential “dive bar.” Its authenticity and history are rooted in every corner, from the stuffed bear in the corner – shot in ’67 in Alaska by Bob Gale - to the well-worn pool tables in the back, watched over by a mounted set of moose antlers, to … well, to the Velvet Goddess herself.

“I don’t know how long she’s been here, but we think of her as our mascot, or maybe our patron saint,” Gale says. “You wouldn’t believe how many people over the years have offered to buy her.

“The story goes that the painting was given to my father sometime in the early 70s. When my mother was at the helm, she called the painting ‘the naked lady,’ and one time, she rolls in to do some banking or something, and the painting is gone. She goes, “Where’s the naked lady?’ Somebody here had basically sold the painting to another bar in town, I can’t remember for how much. So, my mom goes, ’Who? Where?’ She was angry enough to do who-knows-what.”

As i turns out, the Velvet Goddess had been sold to a long-gone bar called Raoul’s, on Bodega Blvd.

Part five in the Argus-Courier’s ‘Old historic bars of Petaluma’ series.

“Now, my mom is four foot nothin’, right?” Gale continues. “Well, she gets in her car and she drives over to Raoul’s, goes inside, and there’s the painting on the wall behind the bar. ‘That’s my naked lady,” she says. ‘I want her back.’ She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and they finally got tired and handed the painting over. She brought it back, and it’s been hanging here ever since.”

Another sign of a good historic bar, ‘dive’ or otherwise, is the number of stories its residents can tell about the place. As just demonstrated, Gale’s Central Club has earned more than its share of stories over the years.

“There was a time when all the bar owners in town used to get together and go hunting together, swapping stories,” says Mike Johnson, aka Coach Mike, a daytime bartender at Gale’s on Mondays and Wednesdays. Referring to a recently-retold story of the time a woman rode a horse into The Aquarium,” Johnson says, “Oh hell, everybody’s ridden a horse into every bar in this town, one time or another. We used to have a guy who’d ride his horse up, park it out front, come in for a couple of horns – as we call them – and then ride his horse home. There was another character who was an actual singing cowboy, he’d come in here, too. People are funny.”

Johnson points out the difference between the vibe at Gale’s during the day, when it’s generally quiet, and the evenings, when younger, volume-oriented folks replace the more sedate daytime folks.

“During the day, we keep it quiet,” he says. “Even the dogs we let people bring in during the day have to be quiet. We don’t allow yappy dogs. You bring in a yappy dog, we ask the dog to leave immediately, and to take you with it.”

The culture of bars is changing, Johnson notes, pointing to the irony of young patrons and “hipsters” seeking out bars for their authentic vibe, then gradually replacing the old-timers who are such a big part of that very authenticity.

“I’ve been here seven years,” Johnson says. “I’ve seen people come and go. Some of our regulars have passed away, of course, others have quit drinking, some have moved to a different town. It’s the way of things. Daytime bars are not as busy as they used to be. It ebbs and flows throughout the year. It’s a ‘fluid’ business, as they say.”

But for now, such places still serve a purpose.

“Day or night, bars are where people go to be with other people,” Johnson says. “You can sit at home and tell stories to yourself, or you can come here and maybe hear something you’ve never heard before. Whether or not you have a beer along with those stories, is up to you.”

(Write David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)