IN MEMORY OF ENRICO
Last night I shared a beer with a man who lives in North Beach and we discovered that we had more than a lot to talk about. He was a bit older, a lawyer, and had lived in the city for quite some time. I was drinking a beer inspired by the comedian Lenny Bruce, and this guy, Bobby, told me a story about how Bruce, tripped up on smack or something, threw himself out the window of a two-story hotel off Columbus Ave because he saw his friend walking down the street. When his friend, horrified, asked him what on Earth he was doing, Bruce replied, "I really needed to talk to you, and this seemed like a good short cut."
But then, speaking about North Beach and SF history, Bobby broke the news to me: Enrico Banducci, the "King of North Beach" had passed away the day before at age 85.
Enrico was a San Francisco icon. And for the West Coast bohemian/beatnik scene, a legend. I had the honor and privilege of working as a bartender at his 50-something year-old restaurant, Enrico's, when I first moved to San Francisco a year ago. I met him briefly and only once, while he was being filmed for a documentary. While we didn't exactly engage in conversation, my impression of him was that he was one of the those people, not unlike the Dalai Lama, that exuded vivacity, teamed with innocence and joy. He had a smile a mile long, and was wearing that silly little black beret that he is known for. I loved him immediately.
But Banducci wasn't, as I initially assumed, simply known for his restaurant that once served as a major social scene for San Francisco glitterati and eccentrics alike--he established the hungry i. The hungry i was a nightclub that, under Enrico's conception and direction, launched the careers of the stage-frightened young comedian Woody Allen and a feisty 19 year-old named Barbara Streisand.
Visting North Beach now, it's nearly impossible to imagine the glory that it once was. Today it is reduced to a red light district of flashy strip joints and street walkers, with Little Italy tourists pouring in to experience fading remnants of a the beats and of west coast jazz clubs. While Enrico Banducci will never revisit his restaurant, or Tosca, or City Lights again, one can only hope that his legacy will not be forgotten.
Here are some touching comments from the San Francisco Chronicle's article about him:
--In 1966 I was very young sailor new to the city. Looking for something to entertain myself I bought a ticket to see Woody Allen perform at the Hungary i. Couldn't ask for a better introduction to San Francisco. Thanks Enrico.
--I was so lucky to know him - the sparkle in his eyes never faded - he was always charming and kind and funny - I will miss him forever
--Damn, another one gone. All the Chartreuse that I drank at Enrico's would float a washing machine. Anybody remember the time Bob Dylan got kicked out of Tosca? I was the one that pushed him out the door with my foot for the bartender. Enrico's was a singular moment at the end of the heyday of our empire. No one under 50 will ever nor can they ever know of what the old city was made.
Masha Gessen is the author of *The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia*, which will be published in October. In the July issue of Har...
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