Breakwind by the Sea Condominium.
Anyone of a Certain Age will almost certainly share the author’s quiet pleasure in knowing that Alice M. (Pelkey) Brock, the Alice of Alice’s Restaurant, wound up practicing her delightful art right here in Provincetown. She moved to Cape Cod in 1979 and declared three decades later that she was grateful for every “beautiful day in paradise,” in an interview with Jane Roy Brown for The Boston Globe. “Thank God for the National Seashore,” she said. “There’s still the beautiful light, and there are still a few crackpots left. I never want to go anywhere. People say, ‘Don’t you want to go away in the winter?’ The only place I would want to go would be a place like this, and I’m here now.”
In fact, she had been here before. Though Brock is closely associated in the popular mind with Stockbridge, her Provincetown bona fides are exceptional. Her parents were Mary Dubro Pelkey (±1909-2010) and Joseph F. Pelkey (1911-2010), who met here. As Brock herself notes, she was conceived here. And even though she was born in Brooklyn, her arrival was announced in the pages of The Advocate. Pelkey, a professional silkscreener and alumnus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, had made a name for himself locally working with Peter Hunt, managing the Christmas Tree Shop at 443-445 Commercial Street. Pelkey also ran the Art Mart on a wharf near the center of town, 251-253 Commercial, known variously as Jot Small’s, Heinrich Pfeiffer’s or Charley Cook’s. And he was an Advocate contributor. The Pelkey family — father, mother, two girls and one dog — spent summers in Provincetown, living in a big room behind the Christmas Tree Shop. There is a charming picture of Alice and her sister, Zina, seated outside Hunt’s Peasant Village complex at 432 Commercial Street. Harry Kemp dedicated a poem to Pelkey in 1944; one of his better ones, in fact. “Last Word,” it is titled.
Brock’s name entered the national lexicon in 1967 with the release of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” “Alice’s Restaurant is not the name of the restaurant, that’s just the name of the song,” Guthrie said at the beginning of an 18-minute talking blues ballad about his arrest for illegally dumping debris from Ray and Alice Brock’s home after discovering that the Stockbridge town dump was closed on Thanksgiving. The jauntily meandering song is, by and by, a lampoon of the police and the Selective Service System and the stupidity of officialdom in general; popular enough in its time that it inspired a movie, Alice’s Restaurant (1969), in which Pat Quinn played Alice. The song is still broadcast on radio stations around the country as a Thanksgiving Day anthem.
Brock got out of the restaurant business long ago. With Davis E. Gates, she purchased 69 Commercial Street in 1983 from Francis P. and Elizabeth A. Kelley. The house was constructed around 1860 and was the property of William A. Couilliard at the turn of the 20th century, when it was denominated 52 Commercial Street. Adeline and Emil Souda acquired it from Couilliard in 1942. Adolphe Robicheau, who acquired it from Marie Souda in 1962, undertook some astonishing changes, many of which Brock inherited.
Robicheau, a ballet dancer and instructor from Nova Scotia, operated 69 Commercial as a boarding house. He also transformed it into a dramatic expression of Catholic piety, drawing on his talents as a set painter for the Boston Ballet. He built a private chapel on the third floor that was consecrated by the bishop of Fall River, Brock said. He installed a pipe organ, an altar, stations of the cross, a baptismal font, a prie-dieu, and icons. A lot of them. “The whole house was filled with icons,” Brock recalled, “including martyrs with their eyes gouged out.” She removed almost everything but a stained-glass window, pictured in the thumbnail photo.
Brock divided the property into condominium interests in 2007. Let’s pause for a moment to appreciate that even the name of the condo is witty: Breakwind by the Sea. She sold the bottom part of the house to Richard Allan O’Reagan, one of the Rs in “R & R Place,” as the sign said over the side entrance to his unit. The other R was Richard Allen Hanson II, whom O’Reagan married in 2011.
In 2008, there was ample evidence of the occupancy both of Alice Brock and Adolphe Robicheau (the stained-glass window was behind the Gothic-style grillwork). By 2016, all the quirky characteristics had been expunged. Photos by David W. Dunlap.
Upstairs was the Alice Brock Studio, where Brock sold her artwork. She is the author or illustrator — or both — of Mooses Come Walking, written with Guthrie (Chronicle Books, 2004), How to Massage Your Cat (Chronicle Books, 2003), My Life as a Restaurant (Overlook, 1976), and Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook (Random House, 1969). “I have never formally studied art or taken lessons, but all my life I have made things, drawn pictures and illustrated stories,” she said on her website.
Being an artist isn’t a career choice, it’s a compulsion. For me, the act of creating is vital — and it gives me great pleasure. Until recently, I rarely showed my work in public. I am a serial painter. One is never enough. There are so many possibilities. I want to explore them all. I enjoy repeating images in various configurations. The dynamics of relationships intrigues me. In my mind, objects have personalities, shapes can convey emotions, and every carrot has a story.
In a body of work that is delightfully shaped by whimsy and irreverence, Brock’s beach stones stand out. Subtly. They are painted as tiny cats — curled up or stretched out — eyes staring out. “I began drawing on beach stones many years ago,” she said.
Right away I knew I was going to put some of them back on the beach. I imagined somebody walking along the seashore just daydreaming and looking at stones. And there’s a stone looking back! That vision really tickled me, and it still does. When I moved to Provincetown, I was in heaven. So many stones — and so much time. Pretty soon I was putting my stones all over the place. I put them on the shelves in the A&P and in sugar bowls. I leave them along the bike trails, drop them into coat pockets, and put them on fence posts.
Found by serendipity (when not purchased), the stones have wound up being placed in or carried to the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, the Louvre and the Hermitage; the top of Denali and the bottom of the Grand Canyon; and beaches in New Zealand and Venezuela. One was tossed over the Great Wall of China. I like the idea that Alice Brock found her way back home to Provincetown after many years of journeying and now dispatches little bits of Provincetown — and herself — on journeys of their own.
She sold her unit in 2013 to O’Reagan and Hanson, who have since ironed out the considerable kinks in the facade that had been left by the home’s earlier occupants.
¶ Last updated on 5 July 2018.
Lorraine Schulze wrote on 4 February 2014: What a joy. I knew Joe and Mary and I know Alice and Zena and Joe’s widow, Pam. I live in Lenox but go to the Cape for Thanksgiving and have gone to see Alice most times. My association with this family spans decades. I could go on and on, but just allow me say thank you for this fulsome piece. Many thanks for all the memories this brought back to me.
Stephanie Holt wrote on 4 February 2014: I feel like I just had a visit with my Aunt Alice and my family history. Thank you.
John Phillips wrote on 15 February 2014: I stayed in the downstairs apartment at 69 Commercial Street for many summers. My partner and I always looked forward to our stay with Alice. Although I don’t get to Ptown very often now, I always manage to visit with Alice whenever I am in town. I have fond memories of Alice and miss our yearly visits. It was interesting to read the history of 69 Commercial Street. I learned many interesting facts about the house. Now, as I travel around the world, I always try to remember Alice with a little note or a post card. She is a one and only! I wish her my very best.
Regina Thibideau wrote on 21 May 2015: Adolphe was my Dad’s first cousin and they grew up together in Meteghan. Francis Kelley was his nephew and was son of his sister Mae. I visited the chapel when I was a teenager. Nice to read what has happened to it all.
For further reading online
Alice Brock website.