19 May Al’s Chickenette, Hays, Kansas
It’s not often that I paint from anything other than my own photos, but when a friend says “Have I got a photo for you”! I stop, listen, and then look! Good friend and artist, Loel Barr gave me a snapshot of one of her favorite hometown diners from her childhood, which I couldn’t resist painting.
She shares her memories here in this wonderful portrait of Al’s Chickenette:
“In the 1950’s and 60’s when I was growing up, Hays, Kansas was not exactly a diner’s paradise. The local industry was farming, and people mostly ate around their own kitchen tables. Eating out was reserved for Sunday (noontime) dinner, when churchgoers and folks from the nearby tiny towns and farms were all dressed up. Al’s Chickenette, a diner with turquoise and pink plastic and neon light decor, was for quite a while the fanciest place in town. You could get a decent burger at the bus station or the Mecca, which was frequented by the Fort Hays College students, but for dinner with all the fixin’s…mashed potatoes and gravy, delicate biscuits dripping with butter and honey, long-boiled green beans, iced tea and of course a variety of pies, Al’s was the place. It opened in 1949 and closed its doors in October 2009, a sad day for Hays. Al’s had a special secret batter and method for frying its birds and the drumsticks were crunchy, moist and tasty, gourmet fare for hungry Kansans.
After years of absence, I returned to Hays to visit old friends, and before we drove back east I insisted on a nostalgic last meal at Al’s. I was delighted that it was still there, surprisingly unchanged. Same neon, same plastic, same grimy booths, same collection of china and stuffed chickens, maybe the same waitresses and fly spots. I ordered my old favorite, fried chicken livers, and was dismayed to discover that it seemed they were still using the same old grease. I did my best to eat the small hard greasy chunks I was served, took some photos, and bade farewell to Al’s. Despite the final disappointment, my memories of Al’s and the Sunday dinners there with my parents and aunt and uncle and cousins remain fond. When Mary Anne told me about her Vanishing Roadside project, I happily shared my picture of Al’s famous sign with her, and am thrilled with her beautiful painting which will keep Al’s alive forever. I just learned that the restaurant has been purchased and will re-open with a new owner…a happy ending after all. The sign will stay.”
Oil on canvas, 40×40″