Monday, December 4, 2006
They buried the pope of punk over the weekend.
Many of the neighbors who rose to eulogize Dirk Dirksen, the 69-year-old former operator of the Mabuhay Gardens, the historic San Francisco punk rock club, knew him only as the crinkly eyed character who gave cooking lessons to the kids on the block at the rec center across the street from where he lived and who died in his sleep two weeks ago.
"He had a way of touching so many different people in so many different walks of life," said retired Fire Department Capt. Bob Manning, who worked with Dirksen as a community organizer in the Mission District and knew nothing of his past life as the snarling, sarcastic ringmaster of a circus of the damned that ran seven nights a week, 52 weeks a year for 10 years.
A decidedly ruly mob overflowed an antiseptic funeral chapel in the Outer Mission on Saturday morning. They filled the pews, lined the walls and stood out in the lobby, craning necks over shoulders, saying goodbye to the somewhat strange but rather wonderful man who always urged them to live their lives "onward and upward."
"He was a man in a penis nose telling us it was better to throw popcorn than beer bottles," said his friend Ron Jones. "Dirk knew everybody had a place on the stage of life -- as long as you went on and off on time. You had to remember there were other acts waiting, even if they suck."
Filmmaker Bruce Connor read some of Dirksen's trademark stage announcements: "Tonight's band may not be the best, but you are one of our lesser audiences ... Is that the best you can do to get attention? ... Quiet, animals."
Dirksen was one of the people who really made San Francisco San Francisco. He presided over the Fab Mab, as it was known to one and all, with the bemused tolerance of a cranky uncle who had seen it all and was surprised by nothing.
He saw his little corner of Broadway as a reincarnation of a Berlin cabaret or Montmartre theater. He wasn't just selling over-priced drinks to the unwashed masses; he was making theater and everybody was in the cast.
"He loved you for who you were and who you wanted to be," Jones said.
Night after night, four bands trooped across the tiny stage in the seedy former Philippine supper club. As many as 10,000 bands may have played the Mabuhay.
It was where Neil Young jammed with Devo and Robin Williams opened for the Ramones. It was the high point of their career to thousands more, who never went any further up the ranks than the stage at the Mabuhay.
From the very beginning, when he started presenting late-night performances by the female comedy theatrical troupes, Les Nickelettes in 1974, Dirksen envisioned his enterprise as a television show waiting to be broadcast.
He videotaped every performance, long before videotape was routinely available. But he started in show business as the producer of a famous early live television experiment in Los Angeles, "Rocket To Stardom" -- a 12-hour live remote broadcast from a car dealership featuring amateur and semi-professional talent -- and he never really stopped thinking of himself as a television producer.
He and his lifelong partner, Damon Molloy, have operated a video service, Dirksen-Molloy Productions, ever since he left the nightclub business, that has produced storytelling videos on everything from a third-grade girls' basketball team to poetry readings by handicapped adults to senior swimmers' water ballet. Dirksen thought everybody should star in their own movie. He wanted to be the producer.
He was recalled as the man who taught the Latino neighborhood kids cooking in weekly classes at the Recreational Center for the Handicapped.
His older sister remembered him as a young boy in war-torn Germany, playing in his neighborhood after air raids left the street destroyed, making castles out of craters with his imagination.
Another friend recalled Dirksen encouraging him to finish his book by phoning him every morning. "I'm going to work this morning -- what are you doing?" he would say.
It wasn't a crowd full of big time music scenesters and there wasn't a lot of musical star power at the memorial, unless you count an impromptu reunion of the all-female punk rockers, the Contractions, guitarist Mary Kelley seated on a chair, drummer Debbie Hopkins playing softly on a modified kit and vocalist Kathy Peck sobbing her way through the sing-along folk song, "Down In the Valley."
Peck previously recalled Dirksen coming over every day, after her pet Chihuahua was diagnosed with diabetes, to give the pooch its shot because Peck couldn't quite handle it herself.
He was a surly curmudgeon all right, until he got around animals or small children.
In the end, he couldn't even afford to pay for his own funeral. Benefits are in the process of being organized to help pay his debts. But Dirksen was an honest man and they rarely do well in the music business. But, of course, his video and life partner Molloy made sure it was all caught on tape.
"No one is ever going to do anything like that for you ever again," Molloy told them.
E-mail Joel Selvin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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