Bill Wolf






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            It was the following Spring that feminist (!) artist Judy Chicago opened her show “The Dinner Party” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art downtown in the Civil Center.  I didn’t pay much attention to it until one day Maria said Bill, you gotta see this show.

            Well, as everybody knows, Judy Chicago is this very serious feminist artist who has been working for a long time and has an international following.  She does a lot of vagina imagery, you know.  Now we were all liberal and all (!) and, of course, the vaginas didn’t bother us, or Maria, but it was the heavy-handedness of everything about Judy Chicago and her show and its ponderous seriousness that really drove Maria up the wall.

She started fuming, she told me, the minute she walked in.  It was so serious, and sactimonious, the exact opposite of Maria, of course.

            As I say, the piece was called “The Dinner Party” and it was basically a big, triangular (!) table with place settings for 39 famous women of history, with elaborate ceramic plates in the shape of vaginas, starting with Guaia and Sappho and such, throughout history, each plate becoming more elaborate and, well, vaginal, through Emily Dickenson’s big, pink-lace vagina (!) and Georgia O’Keefe’s blood-red, dripping, realistic, three-dimensional extravaganza.


            That’s when Maria came up with her big idea to spoof poor Judy.  She would christened herself Maria Manhattan and “invite” 39 Women of Dubious Distinction to “The Box Lunch.”  A square (of course) table would be set with frilly place-mats and artist-made tributes in pink cardboard pastry boxes would honor “some of the gals Judy didn’t invite!”  “Still hungry after The Dinner Party?” Maria would ask about a million times, “Come to The Box Lunch!”




            About that time, too, was when my old friend Keith St. Claire from the city’s Neighborhood Arts Program, where we had done “Aimee,” and “Rocket,” and just about everything else, happened to call me up and say Bill, I want you to come with me to look at something.  Well, I said OK, and we met in a big, old abandoned factory on Folsom Street in the South of Market area, long before it was gentrified and artists’-lofted-up, you know.  He said the city had recently come into possession of this old place and they were considering giving it to his arts program and Keith St. Claire said, did I think it was a good idea?

            Well, it was an enormous, old hanger-like building which had housed some sort of industrial operation, triple-high ceilings, two-story offices along one wall, big loading docks out back and giant roll-away doors at both ends.  And a disaster, of course, full of junk and trash and everything covered with years of abandonment and falling down.  I loved it, of course.

            And I thought at once of Maria’s idea.

            “I got just the show for you, Keith!” I said at once.

He smiled up at me.  “What is it?”

“Sit down,” I said.

And that’s how we got the city of San Francisco to open its big, beautiful South of Market Cultural Center with Maria Manhattan’s “The Box Lunch” as its first show!


            I looked up at the dusty, old monstrosity.  As the first event to use the space, I knew there would be a lot of cleaning up and shoveling out and painting over to make it look presentable, I tell you.


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Thus began a time of great activity for Triple-A, with lots of volunteer help, during the weeks and especially on weekends.  Everybody got into the act.

            Maria invited all her friends to think up "invited guests" and creat a box to honor them.  Raymond did one of the first, honoring Eva Peron, with a spectacular silver paper alter and real votive candles.  It was beautiful and got us all working real hard.  I did a Pat Nixon, a “Lassie” and a Christine Jorgenson (a blood-red box holding a scalpel, BELOW).  Others did Joan of Arc, Lucy Ricardo, Gipsy Rose Lee, Patty Hearst, Fanny Farmer, Esther Williams, the woman who invented “white-out” and the woman who won the Brooklyn Marathon by taking the subway.  That kind of thing.  Maria did Minnie Mouse.  Somebody did Lot’s Wife as the Leslie’s Salt Girl, with an umbrella of real salt.




            We were also able to put in gear our growing publicity machine.  We wanted to capitalize as heavily as possible on the current Judy Chicago interest, and she was to be at the Museum another four months.  Plans and designs for posters were drawn up and a big publicity campaign began.  We gave ourselves an arbitrary date about two months away.


            Jim Nettleton and Jeffery Genza charged in.  We snowed the press with photos and releases and funny stories.  Soon the papers were commenting on the great press campaign!


            Then, too, was approaching the big gay parade in San Francisco and Maria said we should do a float and promote the Box Lunch.  We said Good thinking, Maria!  She had come up with an image of the Statue of Liberty (Manhattan) coming out of a pastry box for the poster.  We thought it was great for our float and, of course, Bermuda had already performed the Statue of Liberty in our Bicentennial Living Tableau at the Intersection Theater several years before, and since then has always thought of Miss Liberty as “her gal,” if you know what I mean.

            “Great, Bermuda, you can be the Statue of Liberty again!”  So we got a truck and made it into like a picnic table with an old-fashioned tablecloth and built a big, open, pink pastry box with Bermuda sticking out the top holding a BLT and the legend: “I Lift My Lunch Beside the Golden Door!”

            Everyone thought it was a hoot and we got a lot of good notice for the Box Lunch.


            The whole big, old building of the now-called South of Market Cultural Center sat on a lot tucked into a convergence of the elevated freeways zooming overhead.  Thousands of cars and trucks (tens of thousands?) passed by each day.  I had a great idea!

            I went to Keith St. Claire and told him I thought he needed a billboard up on his roof, to properly announce his many shows that would be coming up.  Well, of course, he smiled at me and agreed and so we got the city to buy the materials and hauled a bunch of wood up the side of the building and hammered the thing together and put up a big image of the Statue of Liberty coming out of Maria’s Box Lunch.  The billboard was up there for many years after, with images for lots of different shows.  I always felt good about it.



            Old theater people that we were, our promotional campaign was kicking into gear.  Maria did a great rendition of her image as it would look printed on the lid of a folded-out pink pastry box.  We had it silk-screened as our poster.  Press releases and glossy, black and white photos of Maria in a New York Yankees baseball cap looking weary and mimicking one of Judy’s recent poses, all went into slick-covered, pink press folders, with postcards of the Statue of Liberty on the front.

            Everything was fair game to Maria.  She did herself up in a long mink coat, ever-present Yankees cap, and spoofed the famous Blackgama ads under the words “What Becomes a Legend Most?”

            Then, too, Maria has always been a great interview.  She’ll keep a straight face pretty much all the way through some of the most outlandish cockamamie you’ve ever heard, I tell you.  With the press kits going out and the interview requests coming in and magazine coverage, they all wanted lots of images.  As the Boxes got finished, we would rush off black and white glossies of the latest “honored ladies” to the post and, well, the press ate it up.


            Back in the big warehouse, there was dust and junk everywhere, but the ceilings and roofs were magnificent, many-paned skylights, overhead tracks and cranes, very old and industrial looking.  There was one area near the back which was raised up and had a nice clean concrete floor.  We decided to use the back entrance to the place and build a big, square, open-top gallery space to display Maria’s Table.

We built ourselves a little office on the side, where we could hang out.  It was fun.  It would be the first of our many “private offices” which we would temporarily construct and which would become even more elaborate over the years.

At that time, we had a lot of flats, which we had built, well, mostly Kevin and Josh had built, for their company Ready Set; so it was a matter of bringing them in and painting them, we decided on a deep charcoal, a distinguished contrast with the bright pink displays in the center.  Around we hung some inexpensive clamp-on lights and gelled them with pretty colors.  Across the entrance, Maria hung cartoony, pink pastel laundry with mottos on the sheets like “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done” and such.

It was a beautiful space: dark, clean, elegant, and sort of surreal under the towering Victorian factory above.  It was time to bring in the art.




On the many small tables, which made up the More-Than-A-Table Table, Maria laid out a great collection of, I think her mom’s, 30's and 40's brightly printed tablecloths.  On these lay thirty-nine frilly, colored-paper, pastry-shop placemats.  Pretty little name-cards announced each honoree.

Slowly the Boxes were brought into their places.  They were varied and colorful and delightful, all humorous.  Under our colored lights, the glitter and sequins and metallic paper favored by our artists fairly exploded the eyes.

Maria and David had selected a mix of swinging New York and Manhattan-type oldies for the musical soundtrack which played throughout the showing.  The lights, the colors, the pinks, the humor, the music, the laundry and the ladies honored all were a bull’s-eye perfect hit on poor Judy Chicago’s magnificent show.


We opened to a rousing audience and lots of media attention.  It was our biggest show to date.


(NOTE:  Read lots more about “The Box Lunch” in our Theatrical TIME-LINE off the Main Menu.)


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            We ran the show for a week.  Hanging out in our little office with our many friends, being in the big space, hearing the music over and over and hearing the many people laughing and enjoying the show, it was a heady and exciting time for us.


Then, too, we were loving the space.  We wanted to stay longer.  We wanted to do more.  Our minds imagined new shows and bigger and that’s when I told Keith St. Claire, Keith, I’ve got just the show to follow this one!



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            Now, I have always been a collector of sorts, of, well, just about anything.  Years ago on Vicksburg Street, for example, I decided to save every front page of the San Francisco Chronicle for one year and then pin them up around the house on New Year’s for a big party.  It happened to be 1974, and chronicled the complete Watergate, the impeachment and the downfall of Richard Nixon.  Needless to say it was a spectacular year for newspaper headlines.  I kept them all.  Then too, posters, photos, magazines and commemorative issues of anything I could find.  Raquel Welch, Jane Fonda, gay pornography, space flight, Queen Elizabeth, Elizabeth Taylor, a letter from Pat Nixon, an actual hairclip of Ann Miller’s (BELOW), Dolly Parton, oil spills, monkeys, an Yves St. Laurent peasant dress, Bicentennial junk, and even a full, authentic section of Christo’s Running Fence.  Our costume collection was growing.  Props from all the movies we’d made, flats, lights, tools and paint, ... a decade of collecting.

“Bill,” my friends said, “exhibit your stuff!”



            That’s how we came up with a show called “Bill Wolf’s Salute to the 70's” and talked Keith into letting us keep the place and start right away preparing for our new, big, year-end show!





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            I started doing some drawings and floor plans of how we might like to make the exhibit.  We would need much more than just the big upper platform we used for Maria’s show and started cleaning the ramp to the lower area and as much of the place as possible, throwing the junk and dirt to the edges.




             We now had lots of flats, from the pornos, of course, and commercials and we were getting good at making curved and odd-shaped walls, so no configuration was too difficult.




            We built a long S-shaped entry hall, dark and painted black, where I would hang the big collection of full front pages of the newspapers.




            One room would be dedicated to “our Gay Heritage,” always a winner in San Francisco, and feature an open, abandoned closet!



Another room was dedicated to “Our Animal Friends,” and would feature a Y-shaped pier extending over an actual “oil spill,” and a dead duck (we got it from Chinatown the day before we opened).  I had done the sets for Brecht’s “Three Penny Opera” over at the Berkeley Rep, that fall, directed by my old friend from Seattle, Brian Thompson, and had set it in the garbage heaps of the wharfs of London, featuring the giant paper machier bones of a dead whale.  These we also sunk into the oil spill.



            We would create a replica of Nixon’s Oval Office, complete with a television playing his resignation speech, over and over.





            We built, as well, a careful replica of the thatch-roofed meeting hall of Jim Jones’ last church in New Guinea.  Josh Koral did a great reproduction of Jones' own personal chair and we placed overhead the placard, “Those Who Cannot Remember the Past Are Condemned to Repeat It.” 



            It was an impressive, beautiful, haunting and disturbing space.



            A round, red room recalled “Elvis’ Last Day” a small, spot-lit stage and an empty pair of “blue suede shoes.”

            At the far, high end of the space we hung a big three-dimensional word, CHRISTO, in front of a full, sixty-eight foot section of Christo’s Running Fence, dramatically lit, of course.





At the other end the word SPACE over a panorama of Mars, a full-scale replica of the Viking Lander, and a silly backdrop I had painted for the old Nickelettes’ show “It’s Vicious Out There.”






            Then, too, there was the billboard we had built for Maria’s show.

            In my usual obtuse style, I decided a full-face portrait of Pat Nixon would by just the thing to advertise our show, no words, just Pat’s smiling face.  Remember this is eight years AFTER he resigned.

            Well, we got a lot of publicity from that and several photos in the papers, one of which I sent to Pat Nixon (!) and received back a kind thank-you note written in her own hand with her own pen on “Casa Pacifica” stationary.  I framed it and displayed it next to the television showing her husband’s resignation speech over and over, as part of the show!




            A canopied refreshment stand sold soft drinks and souvenirs as around the space on small pedestals.  Over head a hang-glider was suspended from the ceiling and nearby a nearly unfathomable display case of “American Bicentennial” knick-knacks.

            Karolyn Kiisel and Sharon Rosenburg (BELOW) went to work on ten mannequins displaying “Fashions of the Decade,” including the Yves St. Laurent peasant dress, a Iranian woman in burkha, a sado-masochists leather outfit, and the famous see-through jeans.




            Behind a simple white curtain, we built the offices of the exhibition, now with couches and lamps (from the pornos, of course) and my big, portable plywood work table.  It was a great hang-out room and often filled with friends and hangers-on.




            We got a good amount of publicity and opened the day after Christmas and ran for a week, through January first.  A lot of people came but nothing like for the Box Luch and it was cold and long hours.





            At one point my parents even showed up!  Well, they had called first to say they were coming, I guess I had told them about it and all.  They walked through the whole thing and made a few little comments.  They took only a peek into the Our Gay Heritage room, of course.  Entering into the Jim Jones room, my mother gasped and said, “Oh, how terrible! ...Awful, awful.”

            And of course, everyone was very solicitous and amiable with them, and at the souvenir stand they bought a bunch of Bill Wolf stickers and buttons and stuff.  We joked that they had tripled our total sales in just five minutes!

            At one point I started to show them into our little office of the exhibition, thinking they’d like to see a bit back-stage, you know.  I held back the simple white curtain over the opening and my mother started to enter but looked in on the always-messy big table where Freaky Ralph and a few other long-hairs were suddenly looking up guiltily from what looked like rolling a joint, and the dim light over the big sofa from the pornos where were seated some more low-life types and turned right around and said, “Oh, no.”

            So they didn’t go in the office.

            Afterward, they insisted in taking Russell and me, and Karolyn and a few others out for “a bite!”  We met at the old German restaurant on Geary and had a nice meal, I guess.  At one point, my mother accepted a taste of the Dr. Brown’s soda that Russell was drinking and commented that she was sure it had an alcoholic content, and was he trying to get her drunk?

            Poor Russell assured her that he would never try such a thing but that he was quite certain that she had higher alcoholic content in her own kitchen.

            “I do NOT!” she replied.

            “Well, do have vanilla extract in your kitchen?”

            It was a short conversation which my mother clearly won by insisting that HER vanilla extract had NO alcoholic content.

            Then, too, during the meal, my mother made a big deal over Karolyn, who was sitting beside me, and constantly laughing and smiling up at me and my mother was like trying to “set me up” with Karolyn (!).  As we’re going out the door, mother says, she’s so sweet, isn’t she?

            “Yes, she sure is, Mother,” I answered.

            My mother looked in to my eyes and implored, “Oh, if only... oh, but...”

            I think she looked at Russell.


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            Ron Blanchett and Bill Bathherst were (still!) doing a lot of video, those days, and came around the Salute to the 70's early on and wanted to tape some of it, the preparations and back-stage type stuff.  Now Ron and Bill have always taped our stuff but never with much great insight, if you what I mean.  But we all said sure!  Come on in anytime!

            Well, they got just miles and miles of tape on it, lots of dogs wandering around and useless “real-time” waiting around for something to happen and doing nothing.  Later, however, Ron and I would edit a great little 30-minute documentary which we still have and enjoy occasionally.  Maria’s been making some copies and passing them around.





            So, we ran Bill Wolf’s "Salute to the 70's" through the first of the year as we had planned and had a great time.  We closed down the big, cold, old factory and just about filled the poor little AAA Studios to the rafters with all the neat new junk we had accumulated from the show.




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