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Bringing history to life through art

For local illustrator Mickey Harmon and his literary collaborators, the history of Buffalo is not some yellowed old document sitting on a library shelf. It’s more like a Wikipedia entry: endlessly open to revision and interpretation.

Harmon and Scott Mancuso’s book “The Life and Times of Grovey Cleves,” released last year, twisted the basic facts of the former president’s life into a strange and sometimes dark narrative about his life, loves and deepest fears. And now, Harmon has teamed up with another writer, Margaret Finan, to reanimate the nearly forgotten life and legend of the Buffalo-born international stage star Peggy O’Neil.

Harmon and Finan’s new book, “A Pie-Eyed Night With Peggy O’Neil,” will be on view in exhibition form in (716), the phone booth-sized art gallery inside the Hydraulic Hearth restaurant (716 Swan St.). The book, which uses the facts and events of O’Neil’s life as rough guideposts for its own fanciful narrative, tells the story of a promising young performer who emerged from Buffalo’s rough-and-tumble Hydraulics neighborhood to become a globally recognized theatrical sensation. Her life inspired the classic Buffalo song “Peggy O’Neil,” a recording of which will play on the phone receiver when visitors pick it up.

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The location for the exhibition, formerly the Swan Lounge, is no accident. The project was commissioned by Larkinville Director of Fun Leslie Zemsky and specially tailored for the phone booth-based space that was her brainchild. The bar was a popular haunt in O’Neil’s day for residents of the working-class area. Though clientele is now decidedly more affluent – if similarly mustachioed – the exhibition is a conscious attempt to connect the bar’s modern incarnation with its rough-and-tumble history.

The exhibition opens with a celebratory brunch at 11 a.m. Saturday and runs through April 30. Call 248-2216 or visit hydraulichearth.com.

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