Heart of the City Archives

Call Jonathan Winters crazy and you might find he'll agree with you.

City of characters navigates through the war years
by Hank Donat

As I heard the voice of KTVU's Leslie Griffith in a teaser ad saying, "We showed you their tearful reunions this afternoon, tonight find out what these troops did on their first night home," I couldn't help thinking, "Leslie, everyone knows what they did on their first night home."

Returning soldiers are a part of the landscape now. While World War II has been romanticized by popular culture over the decades into something between Hogan's Heroes and Saving Private Ryan, the realities of war in 2004 are as grim as the latter without any of the mirth of the former.

Caution: turn ahead.

At a luncheon in honor of the late legendary columnist Herb Caen at Moose's last Friday, news circulated of the death by heart attack just a few days earlier of one of Caen's top ten contributors, Bob Lacey of Half Moon Bay. Memories of Lacey added an extra dose of sentimentality to an already sentimental afternoon.

In the final months of Caen's life, the three-dot master had curtailed his column, daily for almost 60 years, to three days a week. Lacey faxed Caen to ask, "Are you still having your morning Shredded Wheat? I've noticed that your column has been slightly irregular since you turned 80."

"True," Caen responded in print, "But I hope to become daily, weakly, very soon." Caen died on February 1, 1997. Lacey eulogized his friend most eloquently, "Dots all, folks..." Cheers to two great characters.

My date for the Caen luncheon was hat lady Ruth Dewson, the mayor of Fillmore Street who made a big splash in the political pool last month when she decided not to jump into the race for District 5 Supervisor.

From a milliner to a millionaire: I found a couple of characters lunching with Lee Houskeeper at John's Grill. Dennis Sanfilippo of Calaveras County won $30 million in the California Lottery in 1992. Sanfilippo looks like central casting as the roofer/biker who hit the jackpot. He still does roofing occasionally, wears t-shirts and jeans, but his jewelry is much bigger these days.

Sanfilippo is working on a book, "I'm Not Complaining: The Life of a SuperLotto Winner." In it he explains how he kept from losing his head - and his cash - by sticking with the friends he had while he was struggling to make ends meet.

Sanfilippo is understandably big on numerology, especially the numbers 7 and 11. "Take the convenience stores," he says, "Do you think they would have been so successful if they were called 6-Twelve? Sure, they would have been open two more hours every day, but do you think they would have been as big as they became?"

"But, Dennis," says his pal, Richard Segovia. "I think they're open 24 hours."

"Be that as it may!" says Sanfilippo.

Sanfilippo produces music by Gregg Allman, Eddie Money, Deacon Jones, and members of Santana. His online outlet is big7productions.com.

On Russian Hill, Dr. Twist is quite literally a character. Ron "Born on the Fourth of July" Kovic used the rock world personality as a character in his novel "Around the World in 8 Days."

Dr. Twist once described the breadth of his girlfriend's navigating skills this way, "She has three directions: Turn-right-I-think. Follow that guy. And a panic motion, like she just saw Godzilla a mile up the road."

It seemed fitting to take in an advance screening of the original 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla with Dr. Twist, who is also something of a restored classic. Godzilla plays at the Castro Theatre May 7-20.

Larry-Bob Roberts reports from NYC, where rock world figures and comedians performed in a "Wed-Rock" benefit for gay marriage rights at the Crobar on W. 28th Street. John Cameron "Hedwig" Mitchell appeared along with Moby, Sandra Bernhard, Alan Cumming, Lou Reed, Bob Mould, and Sleater-Kinney. Lady Bunny was the emcee.

The City's own Margaret Cho and Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom were event faves says Larry-Bob. Cho has created a web site dedicated to gay marriage. Visit loveisloveislove.com.

Comedy icon Jonathan Winters is one of the great characters to come out of San Francisco. When I saw Winters recently he was making an appearance at City Hall to promote California Raisins.

Winters is 78 and has a mind like a pinball machine. His curious soliloquies don't always make sense at first blush, but Winters' genius rings like a bell.

"Agree with the enemy," Winters told me out of the blue. Immediately he adds, "A woman told me I was crazy once. She said, 'I know you; you're crazy.' I said, 'Oh, yes, I am crazy.'"

(Winters had a famous melt down aboard the Balcutha in 1959 and was one of the first major celebrities to talk openly about mental illness and recovery.)

He continued for several minutes, re-enacting how he told the unnamed woman that life can be difficult when you're crazy, when people treat you differently or you don't know where you are, and so on - and on. At times he lost me, which I gathered was part of the point.

Finally, Winters tells me, "So she says, 'Well, I've heard a lot about you.'" He pauses for the first time then speaks again very slowly, "And I said, 'That's funny, because I've heard nothing about you.' So you see, Hank, agree with the enemy. It's not a sign of weakness. As soon as they put down their sword - kill 'em."

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