May 22, 2000
The list of hit songs that Allee Willis has written is as long as a conga line, but all you need to know is that she became an enemy of the Russian government for writing the Pointer Sisters' "Neutron Dance" and an enemy of everyone else for writing "I'll Be There for You," the Friends theme. Plus, she's not only a modern Pearl Mesta whose wacky parties are L.A.'s best-kept secret but also a tireless talent scout.
One Sunday afternoon, Willis invited friends into her backyard for an auction of paintings by her latest discovery, Bubbles the Artist -- an elusive but prolific painter whose canvases make the works of Grandma Moses seem sophisticated. (Back in the 1980s, Willis discovered the Del Rubio Triplets, a sister act of guitar-strumming, go-go-booted, miniskirted septuagenarians, whose campy country-western versions of "Light My Fire" and "Walk Like an Egyptian" made Nancy Sinatra seem gifted.) So there was some advance buzz on Bubbles.
Willis's bright-pink house in North Hollywood was built in 1937 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer specifically for entertaining the East Coast studio brass. Inside, it's now a hubbub of fluorescent poly-shag this, boomerang-shaped that and atomic-kitsch everything else. Out back, around the pool, the glamorous underarm of Hollywood royalty turned out for Bubbles's debut: Karen Black, Michael Lerner, Lesley Ann Warren, Rosanna Arquette, Michael Des Barres, Taylor Negron, Mink Stole, Mark Mothersbaugh, Pamela Des Barres, Lily Tomlin, RuPaul, Dweezil Zappa and his sister Diva, his mother Gail and his girlfriend Lisa Loeb. And even though the sun was out, Elvira, Mistress of the Night, made an appearance. One hundred paintings were pegged on clotheslines around the perimeter of the yard. The art, on sixteen-by-twenty-inch canvas boards, depicted scenes from the curiously pedestrian lives of Bubbles' family and friends and had evocative, Raymond Carver-style titles: Someone Get a Chair for Grandma, Bob Was Very Excited to Catch a Trout of That Size, I Was Sunbathing When Frank Came Over Unannounced, Does Anyone Have Any Tums? Kitchen staff circulated, offering trays of peanut butter-stuffed celery, in homage to Still Life: Peanut Butter on Celery, Bubbles's pièce de résistance (her Sunflowers, if you will). "Would you like the recipe?" they'd ask, apparently without irony.
"Bubbles the Artist is a fabulous untapped talent," auctioneer Willis told me. "Her medium is paint," she said, "and she's very proud of her canvas board.
"The significant thing about Bubbles," Willis emphasized, "is that she does unlimited numbers of limited editions. So if you want a painting that's already sold, just fill out this I Want a Copy form." Bubbles the Artist's idea of a yard sale, apparently, is paintings by the yard. Around one o'clock, Willis announced into her microphone, "Bubbles is priced to move!" and started the bidding at $40 for Frank's Chest Hair Glowed in the Light of the Disco Ball, the first live auction of the day. "The paintings are not my style at all," Karen Black said to me, screwing up that face of hers. But as the sun beat down and the afternoon wore on, competition became heated and bids skyrocketed to $200. "It's like eBay in Allee's backyard," said the amused Star columnist Janet Charlton. Actresses Lily Tomlin and Mink Stole came close to blows over Aunt Peggy Sick in Bed with the Cats. Stole wanted it because she had cats at home and often stayed in bed with them. And, of course, who was more deserving of Eeeek! -- the portrait of a nude woman wrapped in a mink stole and being startled by a mouse -- than Mink Stole? But Tomlin was adamant about having them both for herself. "Well, if people are buying paintings that relate to themselves," she sniffed, "I should get The Beauty Jungle." At 6 p.m. sharp, the bidding closed. Tomlin sat in a lawn chair with a clipboard on her lap, miserably checking off the paintings she'd lost. "Oh, there were so many good ones," she whimpered. "Mink begged me not to outbid her for Aunt Peggy. I've asked for a copy of it. And that damn Gail Zappa begged me not to outbid her on Someone Get a Chair for Grandma." Bubbles never did show up. Maybe she was dead. If so, Tomlin's suffering had been a smart investment.
Stephen Saban, a contributing editor at Detour magazine, likes others to do his bidding.
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