“Barfly” is an unsavory and ironic word. It dredges up images of a stool-bound demimonde, forgotten yet undead, sopping booze into their empty bellies and veins while dragging on their cigarettes. The patrons documented in The Kress Lounge are anything but barflies. And the titular place where they meet and greet is more than a bar.
A mellow buzz — that’s the vibe of the Kress. “You know that jukebox?” a dapper older gentlemen holds court with an elegance approaching Duke Ellington’s and old-schools us on the lore of the lounge. “The music on there is almost as old as the bar ... same swing, little jazz ...”
Tracee is twentysomething, but her rosy cheeks and long auburn curls suggest a grown-up Shirley Temple who’s let her hair down. “It’s nice to go to a bar and be able to talk with your friends and relax,” she says reminding us that “lounge” is also a verb.
But “Kress” is a proper noun, the surname of Irene, the queen of the joint. As she stands behind her polished bar, her perfectly coiffed, spun-pewter hair, immaculate white blouse and elegant black suit recall Manet’s painting “A Bar at Folies-Bergeres” with a more elderly subject.
More than 60 years ago, barely out of her teens, Irene journeyed to Lansing, took her own Shirley Temple locks down and proceeded to make unsung (and unknowing) feminist history: She became the first woman in Michigan to successfully apply for a liquor license. She returned home to Detroit and opened a lounge that only barred admission to malcontents whose characters lacked the required respect, not those with colored skin.
Irene and her patrons spin amusing yarns about cops, robbers (the notorious Purple Gang were once guests) and stars (Veronica Lake and Vivian Leigh may have been among the most glamorous, but Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger was literally the biggest). There’s even a mystery: Who was the subject of the kitsch nude oil paintings that decorate the walls? Irene isn’t telling.
The Kress Lounge is more than a local documentary about a bar that may already be forgotten. Director Renie Oxley commits the spirits of a fabulous and fading Detroit to the cultural memory of film so that we may learn our history by heart.
Showing exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak), Monday, June 17 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $10. Call 248-542-0180.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].