Charlie Hall drinks and dabbles

The Arts
By PHILIP EIL  |  April 3, 2013

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COMEDIAN "You don't look like Cranstonites — your hair isn't big enough," says Hall. [Photo by Natalja Kent]

The Industrial Trust Building in Providence looks like a hairspray can with a condom on top. This is what Charlie Hall — Rhode Island's unofficial comedian laureate — is telling a room full of boisterous guests at Chester's Restaurant in Harmony, Rhode Island.

Each person is seated in front of an easel, a white canvas, a set of paintbrushes, a water cup for rinsing, and a paper-plate palette with multi-colored dabs of acrylic paint. Hall is standing at the front of the room, wearing a Flintstones-print smock and painting the city skyline on a canvas of his own. Providence is the Big City if you're from Woonsocket, he says: "It's like going to New York or Paris."

Local shtick is a cornerstone of "Drink and Dabble," the learn-to-paint-while-you-imbibe event Hall has produced up to three nights per week around the state since October. "You don't look like Cranstonites — your hair isn't big enough," he tells a group of women sitting at a table in the back of the room. "Where are you guys from? . . . Smithfield! So this is a big night out for you!" he says to another table a few minutes later.

While he jokes, Hall — a RISD grad — takes the audience on a step-by-step guide to painting other skyline standouts: the former Hospital Trust Tower and the Textron building. At previous events he's taught his charges how to paint WaterFire, The Towers in Narragansett, and their own pet lizards and chickens.

"Dabble" started at a critical time for Hall, he says. Attendance was down for his sketch-comedy send-up of local politicians, the "Ocean State Follies," as it neared its twentieth year. And his Massachusetts spinoff, "Mass Hysteria," was attracting even smaller crowds. Hall was beginning to wonder how he was going to meet his mortgage payments.

Then one night, he woke up on his couch around two in the morning and saw participants on a dating reality TV show attending something called a "Paint and Sip" event. "I said, 'I could steal that idea,'" he says. In the following weeks, he bought smocks, canvases, and other supplies for a group of 40 students and started calling restaurants. The Florentine Grille in North Providence took a chance, and the man who once opened for Jerry Seinfeld and Rosie O'Donnell had begun a new chapter in his career. "That's my day now," he says. "Getting up, planning how much paint I'm going to buy, what colors to buy, what painting I'm going to do."

Here at Chester's, Hall is roaming the room to instruct, encourage, and lightly insult his guests. "OK, your trees got a little bit out of hand," he tells one woman. Midway through the lesson, a member of the wait staff appears with a tray of pinkish, sloshing shot glasses — "Dabble Devils" — and Hall pauses for a trivia contest. "What is a primary color?" he asks. "How long did it take for Leonardo da Vinci to paint the Mona Lisa's lips?" A shot goes to the first person to answer correctly. (There is no single winner when Hall asks, "Many feminists thought Georgia O'Keeffe's giant flower paintings were actually veiled representations of what?" and the room erupts with "Vagina!")

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