Tucson Oddity: Lantern sign now brightens yard

The Ye Old Lantern sign now serves as yard art at the home of Dirk Arnold in the Dunbar-Spring Neighborhood.

MAMTA POPAT / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

When it comes to quirky streetscapes, an intersection on North Fourth Avenue may have the market cornered.

Some of Tucson's most colorful characters are immortalized there on a stucco wall behind a city bus stop.

There's Stella, the chain-smoking 70-something who once wowed crowds with her tap-dancing, and Betsy the "human jukebox," who strolled the streets inside a makeshift prism, belting ballads for a buck.

"Hillbilly Willy" fiddles in perpetuity atop a unicycle, while Dennis the one-man band plays percussion on washtub while plinking a box guitar.

These and other eccentric inhabitants of the avenue are pictured in a panorama that's been turning heads since 1996.

They're part of an outdoor mural titled "The Thinkers," at the southeast corner of North Fourth Avenue and East Sixth Street.

The "cartoon realism" painting - measuring 17 feet by 70 feet - was commissioned by the Fourth Avenue Merchants Association, which paid about $2,000 to its creator, Eleanor Kohloss

Though faded by sun, the mural remains popular with tourists and locals. Photos of it have served as cover art for a local band's CD, and its GPS coordinates are plugged into an online scavenger hunting site.

"It's the essence of Fourth Avenue," said Tucson musician AmoChip Dabney, a two-time Grammy nominee.

Dabney once dragged his living room sofa onto the sidewalk in front of the mural for the cover shot on "Barrio Jam," a 2004 album by local band the Wayback Machine.

Kohloss said creating the mural "had its highs and lows."

Figuring out who to paint was the fun part, she said.

Some of the characters are fictional, like the woman in a hat contemplating a piece of chocolate cake, but most are people who actually set foot on the avenue, either once, as tourists, or often, as regulars.

A police officer shown in the mural, for example, is a likeness of a former Fourth Avenue beat cop.

All the characters have thought bubbles over their heads, including a dog named Beano who daydreams of a steak dinner.

The painting took a few months to finish, Kohloss recalled, and as weeks passed, it seemed the whole neighborhood was weighing in on it.

More than once, she said, she'd be up on a ladder painting while a passer-by below was chewing her out over something she had, or hadn't, included.

Years later, it's gratifying to see ongoing interest in the work, she said.

"I think in the end, it all worked out."

Contact reporter Carol Ann Alaimo at calaimo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4138.

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Call the Star newsroom at 573-4142 or e-mail oddity@azstarnet.com

Birthday celebration

The Tucson Oddity feature will mark its third birthday next month. To celebrate, the Star will publish a special Oddity feature Monday, June 11, and we would like to include you. If you are one of the many idea contributors who have made this feature so popular, we want to publish your name in a list of fans. Please send your name, age and city or town where you live to oddity@azstarnet.com by June 4 for inclusion in the birthday edition. Questions? Call 573-4232.