Noe Valley Voice May 2009

Ad Man Pitches 'Only in San Francisco' Museum

By Corrie M. Anders

Bob Pritikin, a true bon vivant and ad man who made a fortune in the 1950s with his Rice-a-Roni jingle, has come up with another bright idea.

Pritikin wants to create a museum called Only in San Francisco, showcasing the fine art and Baghdad-by-the-Bay memorabilia he has amassed over four decades, with an estimated value of 30 million. The museum would be located not in Golden Gate Park or in the downtown arts district, but in Chenery House, the Hollywood-style mansion in which Pritikin has lived for the past 25 years.

However, to turn his house into a museum, the art collector will need a special permit from the Planning Department. And that may entail a little persuading at City Hall.

So, it could take some time before the paying public will get to view Pritikin's Benny Bufano sculptures, his prized J.M.W. Turner oil painting, or a 1781 document signed by John Hancock--not to mention a blue neon moose head and a mural of topless star Carol Doda riding a zebra.

To head off anticipated public worries that a museum on Chenery Street will cause traffic and noise problems, Pritikin in April began taking his Glen Park and Noe Valley neighbors, as well as local civic groups, on mini-tours of the residence.

Pritikin promised his guests that the Only in San Francisco Museum, should it win approval, would be a low-key affair. He would limit the docent-led tours to two hours and to a single group of 20 people a day, he said. The museum would be open six days a week, and the $49-per-person ticket price would include a light Mexican lunch. All cars would be parked on the Chenery House grounds, which currently has off-street space for 12 vehicles.

Right now the mansion at 47 Chenery Street, a half block from 30th Street, is nearly invisible to the public. It is landlocked between rows of single-family homes on Chenery and Dolores streets and flanked by Fairmount Elementary School to the south and On Lok's 30th Street Senior Center on the north.

"Between On Lok and the school, there's a thousand people a day here," said Pritikin, "So here I am in the middle, sandwiched between these activities, and I [only] want to add 20 people. It's an innocuous thing."

One of the reasons he wants to open the museum is because the mansion drains cash, he said. He could make good use of the funds the museum would bring in--about $300,000 a year if the tours were fully subscribed.

"I need the income to keep this place alive," he said. "This place costs a few hundred thousand a year just to keep the lawn mowed and the repairs and what have you. I don't have an outside income that's adequate to sustain this. I'm not trying to make any money on it. But I have a staff of people...that I have to pay."

Wooing the Neighbors

Pritikin also pitched his dream to 30 or so residents attending an April 23 meeting of Upper Noe Neighbors at the Upper Noe Recreation Center on Day Street. After showing a 10-minute video on the mansion, he was peppered with questions about whether the museum would attract tour buses "coming from downtown hotels," whether he had plans to expand, and whether publicity about his vast collection would attract criminals.

Pritikin assured the group that traffic limitations and expansion prohibitions would be written into the request for a conditional use permit he would seek later this year. And he said he wasn't worried about crime. "I've been there for 25 years, and we've never had any invasion," said Pritikin.

He promised to conduct bilingual tours and make the mansion available for charitable fundraising events--and most people in the audience appeared to embrace the museum concept.

Thirtieth Street resident Debra Singer said the museum would be a perfect venue for fundraisers that "could benefit the community" and give visitors an extraordinary look at San Francisco.

"When you're in that facility, it makes you feel like you're in a special place... San Francisco in the movies," Singer said. "It feels like it's right out of the thirties."

The project may also have the support of Supervisor Bevan Dufty. His legislative aide, Boe Hayward, said Dufty was "was intrigued by the possibility and wanted to hear from the neighborhood.

"I think there was a positive reception," Hayward said after the meeting. "It's a good start for Bob...a good start toward the possibility."

Ad Career Financed Collection

Pritikin started to collect art and San Francisco-themed mementos after achieving huge success as an advertising writer. In addition to the Rice-a-Roni jingle, his portfolio includes TV commercials for Marine World and Folger's Coffee. He also wrote Christ Was an Ad Man, a self-help guide for retailers and entrepreneurs.

He originally kept his art collection at the Mansion Hotel, his upscale bed-and-breakfast in Pacific Heights where he also performed as a magician. Pritikin shut down the hotel after a zoning clash with the city "caused me to throw in the towel," and in the early 1980s found a quiet parcel on the north slope of Glen Park where he built a home with five bedrooms and seven baths and a separate building with four apartments.

Pritikin, at 79 as glib as ever, is still selling. He claims not to know the size of his domain on Chenery, once the back yard of a turn-of-the-century laundry, where workers hung clothes outside to dry.

"Oh, I don't know," he said, "but I have reason to believe it's the largest private estate in the city of San Francisco."

Enough Eye Candy for Everyone

On a sunny day in mid-April, Pritikin took Vicki Rosen, president of Upper Noe Neighbors; group board members Marianne Hampton and Olga Milan-Howells: and a Voice reporter and photographer on a private tour to show them what the public could expect.

"There's a lot of eye candy here," said Pritikin.

And indeed there was. After unlocking two separate sets of gates, Pritikin led his guests to a huge Joseph Carmichael mural depicting some 60 famous and infamous San Franciscans, including columnist Herb Caen, former mayors Dianne Feinstein and Willie Brown, bare-chested Carol Doda, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, straddling the back of an elephant. The mural is also educational, said Pritikin, pointing out a fortune cookie, chop suey, slot machines, and an emblem of the United Nations as "some of the inventions and innovations that came out of San Francisco."

A pathway led through manicured, park-like grounds, sprinkled with a menagerie of 15 to 20 life-size bronze animals. The path is rigged so that lions roar and elephants trumpet as one passes by. The front lawn includes an assortment of sculptures, including a kinetic fire tree that once blazed at Burning Man and Barbara Willenborg's six-foot work of a golden Heart of San Francisco.

The mansion itself is a two-story architectural marvel--half Romanesque, half southern plantation. Over the years, Carol Channing, Mickey Rooney, Eddie Fisher, and Tammy Faye Messner have been among Pritikin's houseguests. The home also has been the venue for hundreds of weddings and an annual Labor Day party, where up to 1,000 politicians, socialites, and non-celebrities mingle jovially.

A Penthouse Swimming Pool

Inside, seemingly every square inch of wall and floor space is crammed with paintings, sculpture, period furniture, and one-of-a-kind San Francisco souvenirs.

A "magnificent" grand staircase, which Pritikin said he designed in half an hour, spirals up to a penthouse swimming pool that would be right at home at San Simeon castle. The focal point of the pool is a wall of arched stained-glass windows. Pritikin said he salvaged the 25-foot-tall panels from the Little Sisters of the Poor Church on Geary Street after it was deemed seismically unfit and demolished.

"I had the pool designed around the panels,'' Pritikin said about the loft, which has a retractable roof.

Placed around the house are red buttons that museum guests can press to hear audio narratives about important art works in the immediate vicinity. One audio describes a massive 18-by-12-foot oil painting that is a copy of Nightwatch, Rembrandt's 1652 masterpiece. The 1851 Johann Antonie Stroebel replica was commissioned to hang in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum while the original was being restored, and it was later displayed during World War II.

"That's when the Nazis were plundering the great art of Europe, and [the museum] put it up again as a decoy. I don't like to call it a copy because it has its own personal history," said Pritikin, who valued the painting in the millions of dollars.

Red-Button Revelations

Other red buttons describe a William Keith oil painting of cattle grazing, accompanied with a mooing cow, and Ancient City, Venice, reputed to be an 1810 canvass by J.M.W. Turner. Art historians are studying the painting, and the conclusion so far is that "it's a real Turner," said Pritikin, noting that a Turner painting sold at auction earlier this year for $13 million.

There's a Bufano wing with marble animal sculptures, a gallery of mayoral portraits by artist Jeremy Sutton, a $100,000 crystal chandelier above a dining room table, a 12-foot "saw tree" (Pritikin is an accomplished classical musician on the carpenter saw), and an alcove filled with framed George Washington and John Hancock documents.

Pritikin's collection also includes paraphernalia from his Squished Eyeball Theater, a painting of England's Prince Philip with small plants growing out of his right hand and a fly on his shoulder, a model of the Transamerica Pyramid made with hundreds of Old Glory condom boxes, and a quilt created from Barbie-doll shower caps.

The quilt is "really quite exquisite and took some lady her whole life to make," said Pritikin. "I was walking down the street and there was a garage sale and I bought it for $5."

Pritikin, who once offered the mansion to the city as a mayoral home, said he could quickly open the museum if he landed the necessary permits.

"There will be no negative impact on the neighborhood," Pritikin reiterated. "The only thing we provide is beauty."

"I think it's a great idea...a fascinating place," said Rosen. "Certainly there's nothing else like it."