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Miss Bonnie battles neighbor over Elvis mural on her bar DON'T BE CRUEL


Elvis is watching.

His blue eyes on the wall outside Miss Bonnie's Elvis Shrine bar follow you through the East Baltimore neighborhood. The 15-by-12-foot mural of Elvis Presley's face is yet another tribute to "The King" at this curious Fleet Street saloon.

But the mural has become part of an ongoing controversy between at least one neighbor of the bar and its owner, Lavonda Hunt, known to everyone as Miss Bonnie.

She may have to appear before the city's zoning board to try to persuade its members to let her keep the mural, which was painted by Raphael Pantalone, an art teacher at Canton Middle School.

And Miss Bonnie has put the bar up for sale. She says the bitter, four-year feud with her next-door neighbor -- and the resulting eight or 10 appearances before the liquor board -- have brought on a heart attack and three strokes.

"I like running this bar; it's my life," she says. "But I got to have peace of mind."

Miss Bonnie, 61, bought the bar at Fleet and South Port streets, a block below Patterson Park, 11 years ago and turned it into an Elvis shrine.

She filled it with Elvis photographs, plaques, mirrors, banners and sundry memorabilia. She stocked the jukebox with two columns of Elvis songs.

Her favorite songs are "Steamroller Baby," "The Wonder of You," "Are You Lonesome Tonight," and "My Way."

"I like Elvis; I always have," she says in understatement.

She likes Elvis more than her next-door neighbor, Florence Chenowith, 48, who alerted the zoning department to the mural shorted after it appeared.

The huge visage of Elvis was painted by Mr. Pantalone about a month ago as a gift to Miss Bonnie. No sooner had he finished than the city's zoning officials received an anonymous complaint.

Ms. Chenowith says she called, not to complain, but merely to ask the zoning department whether Miss Bonnie needed a permit for the mural.

"The damn thing ain't bothering me," she says. "I'm on the other side. But if I had to vote on it, I'd vote for it to come down. I think it's degrading to the neighborhood."

Other neighbors seem to like the mural. Joseph M. Kielian, who has lived all his 68 years in a house a half block away, says, "It's a beautiful thing."

Kenny White, a 34-year-old bartender who lives across Fleet Street from the bar, says the mural should stay.

Miss Bonnie is "a nice lady who never bothers anybody," he says.

Irene McMillion, 65, and Marie Schmitt, 71, who have lived on Fleet Street 30 and 42 years, respectively, say they like the mural, even though Elvis' eyes seem to follow you no matter where you go.

"Well, he's all right," Ms. Schmitt says of the painting, as if Elvis were alive. "He looks nice on that wall, don't he?"

A zoning inspector eyed the mural, decided it was in violation, and issued a notice to Miss Bonnie.

David Tanner, zoning administrator, says the mural violates the code governing signs in residential areas. Mainly, he says, it's too big.

Gilbert V. Rubin, executive director of the zoning board, says members would have to be presented with some overriding reason to grant special permission so the mural could be retained.

Miss Bonnie has begun her case, circulating a petition that reads: "We, the community surrounding 2422 Fleet Street, demand that the newly painted mural of 'Elvis,' on the side of Miss Bonnie's Bar, remain there. The mural beautifies our neighborhood and adds to our sense of community."

Mr. Pantalone, the artist, says he plans on going door-to-door seeking signatures to save the mural.

Miss Bonnie says she wants to keep it, even though she is trying to sell the bar.

"I think I should protect my rights," she says.

Miss Bonnie says she has been driven to sell the place by the complaints from her neighbor, Ms. Chenowith, who moved in five years ago to take care of her sick mother, the owner of the rowhouse next door.

Miss Bonnie's jukebox was so loud it kept her and her mother up at night, says Ms. Chenowith, who works for Superior Binding Inc. operating a machine that folds pages of books. Ms. Chenowith says she goes to bed early because she must be at work by 7 a.m.

She complained to Miss Bonnie, who refused to turn down the volume, she says. Then she complained to the liquor board.

More recently, she has complained to the board about the bar's front door.

Aaron Stansbury, executive secretary of the board, says Ms. Chenowith and a neighbor across the street, Debra Joyce, have called him or his chief inspector 40 times in the past two months complaining about Miss Bonnie's open front door.

The liquor board had ordered Miss Bonnie to keep the door shut except for an hour in the morning to air out the interior.

And it had ordered her not to play the jukebox or television louder than 47 decibels.

Ms. Chenowith says Miss Bonnie has kept the TV and music down. But she refuses to keep the front door closed, Ms. Chenowith says.

"I have a 12-year-old niece who stays with me on weekends," Ms. Chenowith says. "We can't even sit out on the front steps because of the language. We don't feel like listening" to the curse words, she says.

Ms. Chenowith, who remained in the property after her mother died, says she is not being unreasonable. "I'm just trying to live in my house," she says.

Mr. Stansbury of the liquor board won't say whether he believes Ms. Chenowith is overzealous. But, he says, he wrote a letter last week to Ms. Chenowith and Ms. Joyce telling them he will no longer accept complaints over the phone about Miss Bonnie's open door.

Their objections now must be in writing.

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