MANSFIELD -- There are many reasons to love Leaning Tower of Pizza, the hip pizza joint on Lexington Avenue -- famous for its delicious pies and subs.
One of them is the suitably-trippy wall mural, full of invention and (faded) color, that runs the entire outside length of the building by the Grover Street side-entrance.
In the bottom right-hand corner of the mural, right above the door, is a small signature: “Gobi ‘95.” But who is Gobi?
Gobi is the pseudonym of Tim Sauder, a graphic designer from Lucas, and with Leaning Tower’s 60th Birthday Bash just around the corner it seemed like a good time to track him down and find out how it all came about.
Meeting up on a sunny morning outside Leaning Tower, Tim and I had a good chance to look over his work. After more than 20 years of getting battered by the elements, it’s stood up pretty well, although the actual “leaning tower of pizza” that reaches up in the top-right corner is tricky to make out at this point.
The mural fits in well with the Leaning Tower vibe and I asked Tim if the carry-out had always had a slightly rebellious, counter-culture aesthetic.
“Well, yeah,” said Tim, “I think so. I think it’s always been that way. When I came here as a teenager there would be rock ‘n’ roll playing, cool posters with semi-naked women and all the psychedelia.
“I have a cousin about 20 years older than me,” Tim continued, “and he remembers the very early days, when pizza was still a new thing in Mansfield. Back then the young kids liked it more than the older folks. Funny to think of now, when it’s hard to imagine life without pizza.
“I first came here when I was at school in Lucas,” Tim explained. “I worked on the school newspaper and Joe Hess (Leaning Tower’s original owner) would actually come out to the school to put ads in our paper. Funny, off-the- wall stuff. Joe was a very interesting guy.”
After graduating high school, Tim went to art school in San Antonio, Texas. By the early '90s he was working with Greg Gemzer at the D&S advertising agency in Mansfield, and it was this connection that would lead to the commissioning of the mural.
“Greg got the chance to buy Leaning Tower and he took it,” explained Tim. “It was a complete change of direction for him. But what an opportunity, to own Leaning Tower after Joe!”
It’s like getting the keys to the chocolate factory from Willy Wonka, I suggested.
“Right!” laughed Tim, “who gets the Golden Ticket?
“So then in 1995, Greg approached me about doing a mural. I was mainly doing commercial work at the time and this - it was an artist’s dream, you know. The gig of a lifetime. I mean the place was iconic.
“And Greg gave me a free hand, he said you can do whatever you like,” Tim told me. “I knew I wanted lots of visual jokes. I wanted to live up to the whole Leaning Tower aura.”
This is a big piece of work, and I asked Tim where he put it all together.
“There was an old hardware store in Lucas that was vacant,” he explained. “I rented it and used it as a workroom. I was working on 4’ x 8’ sheets of MDO Board. Everything was painted in the workroom. It’s oil paint which is why I think it’s lasted as well as it has.”
I hadn’t announced our visit to Leaning Tower but by now we were getting friendly waves from the pizza cooks, and before long managers Kathy Chinni and Sean Kitzler came out to say hello. I’m glad they did, as they had never met the man who painted their mural and it was great to make the connection.
Greg Gemzer, like Joe Hess, is sadly no longer with us but his wife Maryjane Gemzer keeps the traditions of Leaning Tower alive. Kathy and Sean (both long-term employees of many years standing) love the family atmosphere that Maryjane maintains, explaining that children from both the Hess and Gemzer familes have worked here over the years.
“Joe still came here after he sold it, and his kids worked here,” Kathy told me. “The family feel always carried on. Joe would say why don’t you take these old posters off the wall? But the customers don’t want things to change.”
“Right,” agreed Sean. “They really want things to stay as they are. I mean even when we were without the pinball machine for a while … people weren’t happy about that.”
I noticed another oddity outside, a sign from the London and North Eastern Railway screwed to the wall threatening a fine of forty shillings for some ancient railway misdemeanor.
“Joe picked up a lot of stuff,” Sean told me. “He traveled to Europe a lot. England, and Ireland especially.”
Leaning Tower’s 60th anniversary Celebration will take place on Saturday August 19th starting at 5:30 p.m. and a great line-up of bands has been booked to play in the parking lot.
Rumor has it there’ll be some free beer flowing, but who knows how long that will last (hint: probably not very long.)
“The last band of the night to play will be the Deathrays,” Kathy told me,” and they’ll be finishing up with a psychedelic light show.”
Before we parted, I asked Tim how it felt to be a part of one of Mansfield’s most famous landmarks.
“You know,” said Tim, “here’s the great thing. When I meet people and they hear I’m an artist, they say ‘have ya done anything I might have seen?’ And I get to reply, ‘well … have you ever been past the Leaning Tower of Pizza?’”