Heart of the City Archives

Sirena Irwin as Endora and Eric Weiss as Darrin #1 in "Bewitched: the Play," 1994.


Bewitched, bewildered in the city by the bay
by Hank Donat

I've been reading the summer movie previews with great anticipation. I'm looking forward to the opening day picnic at the new Lucas Digital Arts Center, but it's not the latest Star Wars epic that's captured my curiosity. It's the Bewitched movie with Nicole Kidman, set for release June 24. It brings back memories of some great San Francisco actors and artists.

Yogi Berra so famously said of nostalgia, "it isn't what it used to be." In 1993, when the retro genre was as popular as ever, San Francisco's New Conservatory Theatre gave us "Bewitched: the Play." A stage version of the Brady Bunch was a big hit a year earlier at the Alcazar on Geary Street and at theatres in other cities. Prentiss Smithson, an eccentric director and Egyptologist wanted to see Bewitched onstage in San Francisco.

Smithson cast a bunch of young actors and comedians in the roles and staged a high concept Bewitched. In it, a uniformed technician performed the witches' tricks with props on fishing lines while the actors hammed it up as fabulous recreations of the characters made famous in the TV sitcom.

At the New Conservatory, Paula Hubman was Samantha, the role Kidman is playing now. Sirena Irwin played the Agnes Moorehead role, Endora. I, a young comedian then, played Uncle Arthur. Irwin was hilarious, as was PA Cooley, who continues as a stage favorite in San Francisco today. Cooley stole the show as Dr. Bombay. Irwin recently performed voices in the SpongeBob movie.

Though his real vision was to direct a stage version of Barbarella, Smithson gave Bewitched the full treatment, all camp and affection. For the cast of 14, including real-life San Francisco mortician Jack Jensen as droll neighbor Abner Kravitz, the experience that was part Bewitched, part "Waiting for Guffman."

The witches popped in and out by coming onstage via a series of slides perched above the stage. After weeks of rehearsal, the slides were finally built around the actors on the evening before the show opened. Samantha burned her wig on opening night, leaving the actress who played the back of Samantha's head in the twin sequences with nothing but a dust mop for the second act.

Ultimately, we had fun making they play and it showed. The reviews were mixed, but everyone considered it successful. Translation, the house made money. Smithson later brought a second, even more experimental version back to the New Conservatory. That version got a thumbs up from Bewitched creator Sol Saks, who attended a special performance in his honor.

Here's a superficial connection: Shirley McLaine plays a witch named Iris Smythson, aka Endora in the Kidman film.

If the 1970s cop show Streets of San Francisco is ever remade we must lobby to have it spared from being dragged through the wringer of post modern interpretation. Noone wants to see an SNL comedian making fun of Karl Malden with a prosthetic cauliflower glued to his nose. Besides, the City was the real star there. It outshone even the dashing Michael Douglas.

But today is also the era of so-called reality TV, where nothing is as it seems. At the outset of the summer tourist season, the streets of San Francisco are a mess. Mission Street looks like something from the Flinstones for the entire length of downtown.

Thank goodness Supervisor Aaron Peskin has opened hearings on street cutting. Anyone who cuts the street, for utilities and other services, ought to put it back the way they found it.

Also on the streets last weekend, an unattended suitcase in front of the Palomar Hotel stopped traffic at Fourth and Market for over an hour while the SFPD investigated. While it turned out there was no foul play, I was surprised to see so little notice of the incident in our media, considering the recent Washington DC evacuation.

These are the real questions that linger throughout all our backstage farce over airline security, border patrol, and wars of choice. What is the real threat and whom can we believe?

Craig Newmark, the San Francisco internet entrepreneur who created Craigslist, wants to do citizen journalism on his popular web site. There's an idea whose time has come. Robert Altman, the Rolling Stone photographer who created a prototype for photo bloggers back in 1994, tells me he was appalled when he saw network anchors quoting blogs on the air, directly from the Internet, without any off air fact checking.

This week's retraction by Newsweek over a story that caused riots and murders in the Middle East helps us wonder if we are being whipped in the wind, bewildered and bewitched in an era of illusion.

Welcome to MisterSF.com. Please visit the site often to keep in touch with San Francisco, for your own amusement, and to use the Local Joints section as a portal for independent businesses. Keep your money in the neighborhoods... Watch this space for observations, interviews and more from around town. All other sections of MisterSF.com are also updated continually, so come back and watch us grow!

Contact MisterSF.com

Copyright 2005 Hank Donat
mistersf.com home