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The Nightcap: Halloween at The Avenue

on October 28, 2011

It’s Halloween at The Avenue, a dive bar on Telegraph Avenue and 49th Street, right in the heart of the Temescal district.

In one corner, there’s a scene from the movie The Exorcist: a creepy bedroom with an even creepier priest, and a girl sitting up in bed whose head spins around and eyes light up when a button is pressed. On the other side of the front entrance is an equally detailed scene from Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal Lecter standing in his jail cell, looking back through a plate of glass.

Fake cobwebs cover the place, as well as the sign out front. Plastic chains hang from the ceiling above a pool table, and look real enough that they fooled a customer into thinking they’re really made of metal and could drop on someone’s head at any time.

It’s actually been Halloween for a month at The Avenue. Owner Curtis Howard put up the decorations, which cover just about every inch of the place, at the end of September with the help of a couple bartenders. “It’s been getting bigger every year,” Howard said of the display. “People really love it.”

The decorations are all Howard’s. The 40 year-old Oakland native, a punk rock and heavy metal fan, has owned The Avenue since 2007. Howard used to be a skater and still dresses like one—he has long blond hair that’s typically tucked below a backward Raiders’ cap and on a weekday afternoon as he sat at one of The Avenue’s round tables, he was wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a punk band, jeans, a chain wallet, and black Vans. He’s got the raspy voice of a smoker, and an easy-going demeanor, quick to laugh or share a funny story.

Howard collected the decorations over the years, buying some from Halloween stores, but building a lot of them himself. A graveyard scene is built on a futon that an ex-roommate left in the garage. Howard spray-painted the futon to look like a rock. On top of the futon, right in front of water dyed with red food coloring that drips down to look like bloody rain, is a coffin that came from Mountain View Cemetery, right down the street from what used to be The King’s X. Howard worked at that bar for 14 years. “A friend of mine who still comes in here worked at Chapel of the Chimes,” the nearby mausoleum, Howard said. “He was like a grave digger, so he brought me that coffin.”

Just about every inch of The Avenue is covered in Halloween decorations, like the cobwebs and fake torches around the bar.

Howard has worked at bars around town since he turned 21. It was at King’s X, around 1994 or 1995, that Howard started decorating a bar during Halloween and accumulating decorations. Back then, they’d dress the place up to look like the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland.

“I even ended up getting the soundtrack from the actual ride,” Howard said. “So at the King’s X, when you walked in, [above] the front door had a little parrot talking to you, and it had this little brick entryway. We had a little skull that said, ‘Dead men tell no tales.’ We had all that stuff, man.”

Howard said that after a few years, he switched up the theme at King’s X to a more traditional Halloween look, and started collecting the decorations that now cover The Avenue. After he bought The Avenue—previously Connolly’s, and The Birdcage before that—Howard amped up the decorations even more, giving it a kitschy horror-film themed look. “I just love doing it,” Howard said.

When the Halloween decorations aren’t up, The Avenue has a typical dive bar look—no windows, aging red carpet, and a cast of regulars parked at the long bar drinking pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon. There’s also a jukebox, a pool table, a few TVs usually tuned to sports or skating videos, and a couple arcade games. Caricatures of The Avenue’s bartenders hang above the bar, and some of the bartenders can often be found hanging out at the bar when they’re not working behind it.

The Halloween decorations also cover up some of the unique decorations Curtis has up the rest of the year. He’s a big sports fan—he grew up rooting for the Raiders, A’s and Warriors—and has a Cal football jersey and helmet signed by Oakland Tech grad and now-NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, and a Warriors jersey and A’s hat, both signed by former players (Antawn Jamison and Eric Chavez, respectively). The corner where the Silence of the Lambs scene now eerily sits is usually occupied by the foosball table, with Howard’s soccer jersey when he played at Skyline High hanging on the wall.  “I used to be a soccer player for years,” Howard said. “But you can’t be a soccer player if you smoke or drink.”

Howard also decorated one of the walls with skateboard decks, electric guitars, rock records and paintings and drawings of rockers he did himself. When the Halloween decorations, he said, “It’s skateboards, music, art—that’s pretty much what I’ve always done.”

Press a button next to the “Silence of the Lambs” display, and Hannibal Lecter speaks.

Howard’s favorite drawings are ones he did of Slash, the guitarist from Guns N’ Roses, and the punk rock band Econochrist. His final assignment at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco was to draw something in motion, so he went down to the old punk club on Gilman in Berkeley and drew Econochrist performing.

Howard also likes to dress up like a rocker for Halloween. His favorite costume so far was when he dressed up like Nikki Sixx, bassist for Motley Crue, from the “Shout at the Devil” tour: leather pants with studs, fishnets on his arms, long hair and a headband. “I even got a bass guitar and found the shoulder pad thing,” that Sixx wears, Howard said. “It took a lot of work but was worth it. A friend of mine dressed up like Tommy Lee, too.”

Howard’s love of rock music also connects him to the Temescal neighborhood. He remembers hanging out in the neighborhood when he was a teenager, going to metal shows at the now-defunct Omni.  Back in those days, Temescal and Telegraph Avenue looked a lot different than it does today. There were no trendy restraints like Burma Superstar—now across the street from The Avenue—or Pizzaiolo and Dona Tomas down the street. “It was a horrible neighborhood for a long time,” Howard said. “Horrible neighborhood. It’s gotten so much better in the past, shit, since I’ve owned it. But since the ’90s it’s like night and day. It used to be a dead street.”

Howard was working construction when he started looking for a bar to own. He was working on a patio deck when he got a call that what was then Connelly’s was for sale. He had his dad go check it out, loved the place, and decided to buy it in 2007. He said he didn’t know the area was in the midst of a revival. “To be honest, that didn’t influence my decision to buy the place,” Howard said. “I always liked bartending, and this place came up for sale. I probably would have bought a bar anywhere because I wanted to get back to bartending so badly.”

Owning The Avenue has worked out well, Howard said. He decorates the place the way he wants—the bar is also covered with holiday lights around Christmas, and he and his dad serve a turkey dinner on Thanksgiving. He also has free catered food, often pizza from Lanesplitter across the street, on Sundays during football season. He knows the regular customers, and loves the mix of working-class and young people that frequent the place. “No one is above anyone else here,” he said.

The Avenue’s sign out front is covered in fake cobwebs for a month around Halloween.

On Saturday, The Avenue will play host to its annual Halloween party, with a DJ and a costume party. Howard expects the place to be packed. “My favorite part about our Halloween party is if you don’t come in a costume, you look like a jackass,” Howard said. “Everybody else is in a costume.” His dad will be out front to hand out candy to kids trick or treating.

The day after Halloween, the decorations will come down and move a couple blocks down the street to the storage unit Howard rents just to hold all the stuff he’s accumulated over the years. Next year, though, they’ll be back up.

“It’s a lot of work,” Howard said. “But it’s totally worth it.”


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