"It looks like Vincent Price, and he just passed gas."
Editor’s note: Gov. John Kasich’s official portrait received warm reviews when it was was unveiled earlier this month. But not every painting of a prominent state official has received such kind notices, as Columbus Monthly contributor Lee Leonard discovered in 1980.
It was worthy of Saturday Night Live treatment. Dick Celeste, Ohio's young nobleman, gets himself enshrined in the Ohio Senate, but when they take the cover off the painting, nobody recognizes him.
Celeste, now director of the Peace Corps in Washington, chose Richard Treaster of Lakewood to paint his portrait to be hung with those of other former lieutenant governors who presided over the Senate. Celeste posed for the portrait and got glimpses of the work in progress but not the final product.
Treaster brought the finished art to the Statehouse about a week and a half before the unveiling to examine it in the chamber under actual lighting conditions. “That looks like hell!” yawped one of the kibitzing office workers. “Shhh!” she was admonished. “The artist’s right there.” But Treatser didn’t hear the remark, or at least pretended he didn’t.
Now, live from Columbus, it’s Thursday afternoon! Senate President Oliver Ocasek (who would be played by Dan Aykroyd), who has prepared a treatise on the history of the lieutenant governorship including a five-page list of every presiding officer of the Senate since 1803, gives a flowery introduction of Celeste. Looking on, beaming, are Celeste’s wife, Dagmar; his mother; his six children; and his brother and sister-in-law.
Celeste (Bill Murray) mounts the rostrum and tells the senators how proud he is to have presided over the Senate, where it is “part of our distinctive democratic heritage to gather and debate the issues of the day.”
While he is no longer a part of that debate, Celeste notes, “I will be here in spirit and my visage will be looking down at you.”
Anthony O. Calabrese (John Belushi), dean of the Senate Democrats from Cleveland, is chosen to take the brown paper wrapper from the painting. He mounts a ladder placed against the wall, waves to the assemblage and tears the paper away. There is polite applause, but most of the audience is craning, staring open-mouthed, trying to find the likeness of Celeste. Instead of a handsome, vibrant, smiling face, there is a three-quarter full figure of a man standing with arms the size of legs folded defiantly, across his chest, topped by shoulders of two different proportions and a small, misshapen head. The face would stop a battleship: bags under the eyes, the bulbous nose of TV actor Karl Malden and a scowling, pouting expression.
"It looks like Vincent Price, and he just passed gas," comments one lawmaker. “An 18th-century club pugilist," assesses another.
Gasps turn to quiet snickers. What does Celeste think of the painting? “I'm not qualified to judge something of which I'm the subject," he diplomatically replies. And Dagmar? "I think it captures his essence," she says.
Soon, the Celeste party leaves, and a good thing it is. By now, there are open guffaws. Debate drones on about an auto sales tax cut and a mini-appropriations bill. At one point the word "bogus" is mentioned and several senators point to the painting.
Senators advance to the front of the chamber, peer at the artwork and grin. “I wouldn't hire that guy to paint my house,” says Sen. Thomas E. Carney of Girard.
In a post-unveiling interview, Calabrese is asked: "What's the first thing that went through your mind when you tore the paper off?"
"Jesus Christ,” he replies. “Who da hell's dat?"
"That's gotta come down," says Sen. Stanley J. Aronoff of Cincinnati.
Word spreads to the House side, and representatives invade the chamber to view the painting. One asks if Gov. James A. Rhodes (who defeated Celeste in the 1978 gubernatorial race) commissioned it. Secretaries and aides make the pilgrimage; their reaction is the same. Rep. Robert Taft II of Cincinnati, a well-bred young man with a serious demeanor, squints at the portrait, moves closer and looks again. Then he bursts out laughing.
Sideliners in the Senate chamber gather in small knots. Everyone is talking about the same thing. They are all smiling, and every little while, they will sneak a glance at the wall.
One lobbyist well acquainted with Celeste but ignorant of the ceremonies and accompanying hubbub is escorted into the chamber and asked to identify a new painting on the wall. He looks around the room for a while, finally finds the new painting and says, "Who's that?"
Friends of Celeste confide afterwards that both he and Dagmar had "mixed feelings" about the work; that Treaster had tried for an impressionistic rendering showing the many sides and moods of Dick Celeste but "just missed the mark a little."
Keith H. Brooks, the Senate clerk who had to shell out $2,686.24 of the state's money for the portrait, including the gilded wood frame, says it will remain on the wall. "We're not going to commission another one," he says.
This story originally appeared in the November 1980 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.