Today is President’s Day. When I was a boy in Pennsylvania, we celebrated Lincoln’s Birthday on February 12 and Washington’s birthday on February 22. Somewhere along the line we lost the distinction. We moved away from the hard date for Washington after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act. For me, President’s Day means that plum and cherry trees should be blooming. This winter, they started early and are going strong. I think of Housman’s “loveliest of trees the cherry now, is hung with bloom along the bough.”
For the President’s Day notional field trip, I take you to the San Francisco TenderNob apartment of Allen Sawyer. He collects. Like crazy. A dash of background first:
His grandmother Irma Foveaux was a 1912 graduate of Cal. Here she poses with other class officers at the Greek Theater. She is seated in the center.
Sawyer grew up in Moraga. He dropped out of San Francisco State University’s Drama Department in the late 1970s to work as the manager of the Castro Theatre, a 1920s movie palace that had recently begun programming classic Hollywood movies. He was a big fan.
Today, to pay the rent he handles the box office for Beach Blanket Babylon. To satisfy his artistic soul, he produces plays and cabaret performances. He often worked with John F. Karr directing solo and ensemble shows for many of San Francisco’s drag performers. For a more complete description of Sawyer’s work, read this brilliant piece by Jim Van Buskirk. It all adds up to: Allen Sawyer is a witty, clever, funny, creative genius.
Who also collects. As a boy, he collected Matchbox toy antique cars and vintage lead soldiers.
As an adult, he has put together disparate collections, housed in the apartment where he has lived for 36 years.
There are themed rooms in the apartment. The entryway is Disney. Dig the Chinese restaurant light fixture! That is a GREAT centerpiece for a quirky room, no?
J. M. Barrie described Tinker Bell as a fairy who mended pots and kettles, an actual tinker of the fairy folk. Her speech, which can be understood only by those familiar with the language of the fairies, consists of the sounds of a tinkling bell. Barrie explains the extremes in her personality by the fact that a fairy’s size prevents her from holding more than one feeling at a time, so when she is angry she has no counterbalancing compassion. At the end of the novel, when Peter flies back to find an older Wendy, it is mentioned that Tinker Bell died in the year after Wendy and her brothers left Neverland, and Peter no longer remembers her. Do you believe in fairies? If you believe clap your hands. Don’t let Tinker die.
Oldest daughter Julia was four when the Disney “Little Mermaid” was released. We went to see it at the Oaks on Solano. It didn’t end well. Ursala the Sea Witch terrified her. “This movie isn’t for kids!” is exactly what she shouted. She felt betrayed. I am sorry Julia.
Ursala’s appearance is drawn from an octopus, although the number of tentacles was reduced from eight to six for financial reasons. Ursula’s appearance was also inspired by drag queen Divine.
Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil – If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will. Thank you Disney for this violent, careless, murderous, destructive, and downright evil psychopath – “Darling, I live for furs, I worship furs! After all, is there a woman in all this wretched world who doesn’t?”
Another Disney psychopath, Queen Grimhilde who sold her body and soul to the evil spirits of the Harz mountains in exchange for the power to work black magic. I hear her say “When she breaks the tender peel, to taste the apple in my hand, her breath will still, her blood congeal, then I’ll be fairest in the land!” and I am seven years old in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and I am scared shitless.
Oh Cyril Ritchard, Captain Hook on Broadway in 1954 and NBC in 1955. Just. Plain. Brilliant.
In Carlo Collodi’s original The Adventures of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket was an unnamed, minor character. Disney transformed him into a comical and wise companion who accompanies Pinocchio on his adventures, having been appointed by the Blue Fairy (known in the book as The Fairy with Turquoise Hair) to serve as Pinocchio’s official conscience.
What collection of Disney would not at least touch on the Disney princes?
Through a closet is the bathroom. Themes? (What tempo, Captain?) Plaster fish and mermen.
Much of the merman art is by Felix D’Eon, now living in Mexico City. He paints with a style that calls to mind a 1920’s children’s book, golden-era American comics, and Japanese Edo printmaking.
Now to the kitchen – my favorite of the dual themes. Paint-by-number swan paintings and male ballet dancers!
Here is the story on the paint-by-number swan paintings. Sawyer’s parents owned a classic oil painting of a swan. You can see it over Jim Van Buskirk’s shoulder in the far room. Sawyer loved the painting but knew that it would not be his until his parents died. In the interim, he settled on the paint-by-number swan paintings.
Paint-by-number kits were invented, developed and marketed in 1950 by Max S. Klein, an engineer, and Dan Robbins, a commercial artist. Who knew that there were so many swans? In 2008, a private collector in Massachusetts assembled over 6,000 paint by number works from eBay and other American collectors to create the online Paint By Number Museum, the world’s largest online archive of paint by number work
Then there is the Gay / Queer book collection. Sawyer has hundreds of books with “Gay” or “Queer” in the title, published between the turn of the 20th century and the 1940s, before gay meant gay or queer meant queer – no sexual connotation.
He produced a show with the books called “Queer Titles: Misjudging a Book by its Cover” at the San Francisco Public Library in the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center in 2006. He had friends write synopses of the books based on their titles, accepting the homosexual sense of the gay or queer in the title.
To obtain approval for the Queer Titles project, he cited the “Reversing Vandalism” show. In early 2001, San Francisco Public Library staff began finding vandalized books hidden throughout the Main Library. Ultimately over 600 torn and sliced books, on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender topics – or books simply with the word “Gay” in the title such as books about the Enola Gay – were deemed beyond repair and withdrawn from the Library’s collection. Rather than discard the damaged books, the Library distributed them to interested artists to repurpose the books as art. The artistic responses resulted in “Reversing Vandalism,” an exhibition of over 200 original works of art, displayed in the Main Library from January 31 through May 2, 2004. Proceeds from sales of the works of art were used to purchase new copies of the books that had been vandalized.
Sawyer has several of the books from the collection in the apartment. The large part of the collection is in two storage units in the basement.
In the Poodle family, older sisters Annabelle and Charlotte always made their parents very proud. Then there was Gilbert. When his sisters washed dishes, Gilbert went swimming. When his sisters stayed neat and clean, Gilbert worked on his car in the garage. Then Gilbert heard of a contest that just might get him everything he wanted, so he bought a few more auto parts, installed them on his jalopy, and set off for the big city.
Clever clever clever! Yiddish highlights the need for cleverness, without which survival is not possible in a hostile world. So too with the gay culture. So clever!
There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of other pieces in Sawyer’s collection. A few more:
Tippi Hedren made her screen debut in The Birds. Hitchcock became her drama coach, and gave her an education in film-making by letting her attend production meetings such as script, music or photography conferences
These figures are either official Tom of Finland merchandise or they evoke in the strongest possible terms the work of Tom of Finland.
In late 1956, Physique Pictorial (a 1940s all-nude, all-male magazine produced by Bob Mizer) published a painting by Touko Laaksonen, an artist from Finland who adopted the name Tom of Finland and who quickly became an iconic interpreter of the homoerotic gay ideal.
A drawing of bare-chested, muscle-bound young lumberjacks by Tom was featured on a Physique Pictorial cover in the spring of 1957, and Tom was on his way. Censorship codes kept Tom from depicting overt homosexual acts in the 1950s, but as codes and mores loosened, his art became sexually explicit. In the 1950s, men had to settle for Tom’s idealized, mythologized supermen – square-jawed, butch lumberjacks, bikers, sailors, and soldiers.
This is a sweet little collection of Keith Haring work. His pop art and graffiti-like work grew out of the New York City street culture of the 1980s.
Sawyer has a superb collection of gay pulp paperbacks. The only better collection I have seen is at the Institute for the Advanced Study of Sexuality where I did research for slang projects. (I only read the articles).
Sawyer has directed plays based on the pulps.
Examples – Senator Swish and Lavender Locker Room put on by the Hot Pants Homo Players.
Sawyer holds a porcelain piece by Freeman Leidy, a California maker of figurines and giftware operating in Laguna Beach form 1944 until 1955. Here Sawyer is holding a piece in which his grandmother kept small soaps. He has built a collection around his grandmother’s piece.
I did not know that Joan Crawford was Chairman of the Board of Directors of Pepsi-Cla from 1959 until 1973.
I have shown you only a small fraction of a small fraction of all that is in Sawyer’s apartment. He’s been in the apartment for 36 years. Rent control! He doesn’t have a one-in-one-out rule. Instead he has two storage units in the basement. We went down to see them. Even Jim had never seen them. Privileged!
Mostly they look like this:
I think of Storage Wars. As plain as these spaces seem, they would be best locker of the season BY FAR. A couple glimpses:
Scary bunny! VERY. The bunny was a department store display. Plugged in, he moves. Something went really wrong though.
More paint-by-numbers! Sawyer confesses – there is a large collection of Last Supper paint-by-numbers paintings in one of the units.
When John Storey and I left Sawyer’s, we had to decompress. It was a perfect San Francisco day, good breezes. perfect light, slightly cool, blue sky. We had parachuted into a lifetime of collecting by an extremely clever and bright man. It was hard to keep up. I left John and walked up Nob Hill. I was hoping for the magic that I felt when I first walked San Francisco in 1968 when I was 16, with my best friend Cres, and on my way to Delano for the first time. I got close to that magic.
There are two Berkeley connections here – grandmother Foveaux at the Greek Theatre 110 years ago and Marcia Donahue. No surprise here – Marcia is a hub from which many Quirky Berkeley spokes extend. She and Jim Van Buskirk are friends. He is Sawyer’s partner. Which is how I ended up looking at Sawyer’s collection.
Every day I see dots connecting, lines drawn, circles closing, other halves joining. Every day I feel joy when I am in the presence of those who make or collect or both. I am working hard on People’s Park now for a 2019 50th anniversary book. It was a gift to step away from that for a few hours of Sawyer and Van Buskirk and Sawyer’s things. I am fortunate and privileged and endowed with favor to be doing this now.
Sawyer discourages and inspires. Discourage: there is no way that I could even vaguely lamely approximate the effect of Sawyer’s collection. But inspire – a person can look at Sawyer’s world and have ideas and take ideas and make their own HPL or Pūjā table or gallery or Shangra-la-di-da.
It was a good President’s Day.
I showed the post to my friend. He went through it, stood up, and went to his quarters. He came back holding this:
He had been tooling around Marysville this weekend and found this at the Goodwill on Colusa. It is from 1971. He is not sure what he is going to do with it. What he liked best – the little man on the bottom left of the carton painting by numbers.
Okay, that’s fine. I asked him what he thought about my holiday notional quirky (order of adjectives – determiner, opinion, size, shape, condition, age, color, origin, material, purpose!) field trip to Sawyer’s.
I was told by a conservator not to hang framed paper in the bathroom. How does he get away with it?..
In case you want to follow the chain one step further:
Marcia Donahue met Jim Van Buskirk through me.
good job on Allen’s collection.
I met Allen through Tumblr, and he purchased some of my queer cartoons. What a charming and fascinating guy!