State senator embroiled in legal fight over ‘buxom barmaid’ of the ’50s

By: - April 14, 2022 2:46 pm

A dispute involving the estate of a celebrated Des Moines bartender known for her ability to serve beer from her chest is headed for federal court amid new allegations over threats of violence against a state senator. (Iowa Capital Dispatch photo illustration based on Polk County District Court exhibits)

Litigation involving a long-dead Des Moines bartender known for her ability to serve beer from her bosom has landed in federal court amid new allegations of violent threats against a state senator.

Two years ago, the estate of Ruthie Bisignano sued Des Moines’ Exile Brewing Co. for the alleged unpermitted use of her persona to advertise the establishment’s Ruthie beer and related products.

The lawsuit, filed by Ruthie Bisignano’s nephew and administrator of her estate, Fred Huntsman of Seattle, seeks compensation and an order requiring Exile to obtain written permission from the family before using Ruthie’s name or image in future business endeavors.

From 1950 to 1971, Ruthie Bisignano owned and operated a Des Moines bar called Ruthie’s Lounge, where signs advised patrons to “ask for the well-balanced beer.” At the time, Ruthie had drawn state and national attention for her ability to fill two glasses of beer balanced on her breasts and then serve them to patrons without using her hands.

“Ruthie’s serving skill attracted significant numbers of patrons who sometimes traveled across the country for the opportunity to see her in person,” the lawsuit alleges. “For example, Cecil B. DeMille, the most commercially successful producer-director in Hollywood history, came to see her twice … Ruthie was also famous for being charged and acquitted of indecency — as a result of performing her serving trick — multiple times in 1953. Another aspect to her famous persona was her reputation as a sassy, tough, quick witted, independent and confident business operator, bartender and woman.”

Court records indicate Ruthie Bisignano died in 1993. In 2012, Exile opened its brewery and brewpub restaurant in Des Moines and featured as its flagship beer a brew called “Ruthie,” adorned with labels that featured an artist’s rendition of Ruthie Bisignano’s beer-balancing skills.

According to the lawsuit, Ruthie has since become Exile’s best-selling beer and it comprises more than half of the company’s annual beer production. With more than 7,000 barrels sold each year. the lawsuit claims, Ruthie is the best-selling Iowa-made beer in the state, and it was named the official craft beer of the 2019 Iowa State Fair.

Senator: ‘I didn’t deserve to be violently threatened’

As originally filed in state court, the lawsuit sought damages for misappropriation of Ruthie Bisignano’s name and likeness; misappropriation of trade values; consumer fraud; deceptive marketing; and right of publicity.

Recently, the case was amended to include a claim of federal deceptive marketing and false designation of origin, which led to the case being transferred to U.S. District Court.

Shortly before the case was transferred, the estate filed a motion asking that Exile’s co-founder, Bob Tursi, be prohibited from threatening or intimidating witnesses, attending depositions, or communicating with state Sen. Tony Bisignano, a Des Moines Democrat, or any of the estate’s other potential witnesses.

Exile’s lawyers objected, saying the estate was essentially seeking a “restraining order or permanent injunction preventing any Exile representative from participating in their own defense.”

Exile claimed in court records that after discovering the state senator was an heir to the estate and stood to benefit from the litigation, Tursi tried to contact him. According to a sworn affidavit from Tursi, he was concerned because of the senator’s “outward claims to represent small businesses” and he wanted “to gain an understanding of why he and his family would sue Exile, claiming to be owed millions of dollars,” and why they would “kick us while we’re down due to COVID-19.”

Tursi said he called Tony Bisignano at the Iowa Senate and left a message but didn’t hear back from him.

According to court documents, Tursi saw the senator in May or June of last year in the parking lot of Park Avenue Dry Cleaners on Des Moines’ south side.

In the senator’s version of what transpired, Tursi parked his truck alongside Tony Bisignano’s car and, with his arms extended out the window, yelled, “I ought to get out and beat your f–––ing ass,” and then screamed, “You are getting nothing,” which the senator said he understood to be a reference to the lawsuit and its claim of damages.

In a March 18 deposition, Tony Bisignano recalled that during the incident, “I told Bob Tursi I had nothing to do with (the lawsuit) as he proceeded to call me a f–––ing liar and (said) that I’m behind it all. And that’s when I said, ‘You’re stupid,’ because he proceeded to keep yelling, and I called him stupid again … I didn’t deserve to be violently threatened in a parking lot by Bob Tursi. I still consider his brothers my friends, if he has not poisoned them.”

Senator: ‘Unusual’ to see an alcoholic’s likeness on a beer can

In his deposition, Tony Bisignano testified that Tursi also contacted a fellow senator, Brad Zaun, a Republican from Urbandale, who then tried to encourage him to resolve the litigation. “He’s moved it up to the Iowa Senate,” Bisignano testified about Tursi. “It was a senator that he talked to, who came and tried to talk me into pulling back and resolving this. I find that very inappropriate.”

In response to the estate’s motion for a protective order concerning Tursi, attorneys for Exile recently told the court, “There is no evidence that a bribe was offered to Tony or any other person, and the parking lot incident was far from a ‘threat’ intended to influence Tony’s testimony or to prevent him from testifying … At the most basic level, Bob wanted to know why his state representative, Sen. Tony Bisignano, and his family, filed suit against his small business.”

The judge in the case had not ruled on the motion for a protective order before the case was transferred to federal court.

The transcript of Tony Bisignano’s March 18 deposition indicates those proceedings were contentious at times, with Bisignano telling an attorney for Exile he wasn’t going “to play this game” and didn’t “expect to be reprimanded” for his answers. At one point, he briefly refused to answer a question, stating, “I don’t have to do anything.”

“Well, we can go get a court order if you’d like,” Exile’s attorney responded.

Bisignano replied: “I can do it — prison if you’d like, but nobody’s going to force me to do or say anything I don’t want to.”

During the deposition, Tony Bisignano reflected on the fact that Ruthie, his aunt, was, in his words, a “severe alcoholic” who claimed to have been married 16 times and whose life was marred by tragedy.

“If she was able to manage her own money, she would have been rich because she was the person who had the talent,” he testified. “To me, you know, anybody who doesn’t admit her life is a tragedy are not reading her real story. It’s a little unusual to see someone who suffered such a tragic end of their life because of alcohol to be on a beer can … She died poor, she died sick, and she died an alcoholic. That’s a tragedy.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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