|Death: ||Oct. 9, 2007|
(10-09) 18:45 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- Enrico Banducci, the impresario who was the heart and soul of San Francisco's North Beach entertainment scene during its golden years, died in his sleep Tuesday morning.
Banducci suffered from a variety of ailments, including heart failure, kidney problems and old age. "He just shut down," said his niece, Chi Chi Banducci. He was 85.
He was a night club and restaurant owner and a man with an incredible eye for talent. He was the owner of the famous hungry i, a night club with a three-sided stage in a brick-walled cellar at 599 Jackson Street. It was a classic club of the 1950s and early '60s: The space was full of smoke, and the tiny stage was full of talent.
Woody Allen got his start here; so did Barbra Streisand and Mort Sahl. Banducci booked Dick Gregory, Lenny Bruce, the Kingston Trio, the Limeliters, Bob Newhart, Ronnie Schell, (who billed himself as the world's slowest rising comedian), Bill Cosby, Jonathan Winters and dozens of others.
Later Banducci opened Enrico's on Broadway, the city's first sidewalk cafe. The patrons included crooks and cops, celebrities and nobodies. Frank Sinatra and his rat pack pals went there, and so did movie stars and shady ladies.
Every mayor of San Francisco, every politico, every visiting fireman went to Enrico's in its heyday.
"I've never seen a place like it before or since. It was astounding," said Ward Dunham, a long-time bartender and bouncer who was one of the characters in Banducci's San Francisco pageant.
"Honest to God, it was a place for millionaires and bums," Dunham said.
Opening night at Enrico's featured Julie Wilson, who sang a couple of songs; Shelley Berman, who did a couple of comedy routines; and Cary Grant, who merely smiled.
"This place is going to be THE hangout for Caffeine Society," Herb Caen wrote in his Chronicle column. That was in October 1958.
That was so long ago that when Banducci bought the building at Broadway and Kearny Street for $175,000, it made headlines in the Sunday paper.
Banducci presided over the scene in North Beach like a sultan in a black beret. "San Francisco was his city," said Chi Chi Banducci.
Banducci loved the good life, loved women- he had five wives- had at least one yacht, made millions of dollars and spent it all.
"Some people are not born to be in business," said John Konstin, who owns John's Grill, where Banducci would go for dinner when he was tired of the food at his own place.
When he died, Banducci was living at the home of his niece in South San Francisco. He had made the full circle from being the king of North Beach to becoming a landmark, like Coit Tower.
He was interviewed as recently as last month for a program on his life, and an exhibit called "Enrico Banducci's hungry i: San Francisco's legendary night club" ran this spring and summer at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library & Museum.
"Enrico really created two revolutions in entertainment: in satirical, political comedy and in folk music," said curator Brad Rosenstein. The opening of the exhibit was like a reunion of Banducci's greatest hits. Sahl, Berman, Schell, Glen Yarborough and others spoke of Banducci's ability to spot talent and his respect for performers.
"I must have played for a thousand club and restaurant owners," said piano player Don Asher. "He was the only owner who put performers and musicians ahead of the cash register."
He was born Harry Banducci, the son of a farming family in Bakersfield.
"He was always on stage, even as a kid," said Chi Chi, who remembers the family stories about her famous uncle. Bakersfield was too small a place for young Harry, who changed his name to Enrico (after the great Caruso) because he thought it sounded better.
He was a child prodigy of sorts, and came to San Francisco at age 13 to study with the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony.
After various jobs, he married Raimonde Verney, the daughter of a symphony violinist, and was running a place called Enrico's Fine Foods. A city health inspector told him he couldn't cook without a hair covering. He put on the beret that became his trademark.
By 1948, he'd purchased the hungry i (the "i" stood for "id") from Eric "Big Daddy" Nord.
Banducci bought it for $800 - money he borrowed.
Examiner columnist Bob Patterson, then writing under the name Freddy Francisco, called the nightclub "a basement Disneyland, peopled by beatniks, left-over bohemians, on the nod junkies, and other waifs and strays from reality."
It was a success, and Banducci moved the joint to 599 Jackson, installed a stage, put candles on the tables and hired Alvah Bessie, the blacklisted screenwriter, as the light and sound man and announcer.
Asher, the piano player, remembers the defining moment at the beginning of great careers. Banducci had booked Allen to open the show. The featured star was Streisand, a 19-year-old singer from New York City.
"Enrico had never heard her sing before, but he was in her agent's office, and she burst in. She had so much moxie, she was so lively, that he booked her.
"The story goes he offered $175 a week. He said, 'If she sings, too, make it $200.'
"Well, I was playing piano," Asher said. "Woody was nervous as hell, and the hecklers got on him. He turned his back on the audience, and the room was in chaos. Just chaos.
"Enrico stepped up, 'Ladies and gentlemen,' he said, 'Now let's please greet Miss Barbra Streisand.'"
The rest, of course, is history.
Banducci would have made a fortune from his club had he not spent all the money in an easy come, easy go manner. The hungry i went bankrupt at least once.
He was an easygoing guy but wasn't reluctant to mix it up on occasion in an old-fashioned fistfight.
Once he appeared in court without a coat and tie, made some smart remarks to Judge Joseph Karesh and got 24 hours in jail for contempt of court.
He got two minutes off for good behavior and said he had a good time. "This place is all right," he said of the county jail. "I slept very well, I got to see television for the first time in a year, and the stew they serve is delicious."
Eventually, the hungry i closed, and in 1988 even Enrico's folded. "By the end of 1988, that part of Broadway looked like a slum," said Dunham, the bartender. "There had been nine killings in a year." So the place closed.
Banducci went east, sold hot dogs on the streets of Richmond, Va., for a while, then came back to San Francisco.
Enrico's reopened, closed again in 2006, and opened once more.
In the meantime, good living and the years had taken their toll on him. "He ate food with all those rich sauces they used to serve at Ernies and the Blue Fox," Dunham said. "Nobody eats like that any more.
"He'd take his pals out for a night on the town, reach in the cash register and take out a bunch of twenties. He'd say, 'It's my money, I can do what I want with it.'
"Most guys who lived like that never made it to 60, much less 85. He lived the life he wanted to live."
He is survived by his daughter, Allegra Banducci, who lives in Italy, and a son, Gregory Banducci of Richmond, Va.
-- To sign a guest book
Banducci, go to sfgate.com.
E-mail Carl Nolte at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Created by: Geraldine "Gerry" Hume...
Record added: Oct 18, 2007
Find A Grave Memorial# 22294936