As these words are being typed -- April 3, 1996 -- there's something unmistakable in the air. Weeks of articles, congratulations, tributes, reminiscences, and epithets have culminated in a date fast going down in the city's history. Faxes, phone calls, letters, and e-mails are circling over the office of legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen this morning, attempting to land before they run out of fuel. Today is the 80th birthday of Mr. San Francisco, hardest-working columnist in the galaxy, three-dot Winchell with a Krupa backbeat. By the time the man steps out of the Jaguar tonight and into his private party at the Palace of Legion of Honor, the reading public will have devoured more details about his life and history than perhaps we ever wanted or cared to know.
But whither the infrastructure, the invisible scaffolding that supports this towering monument of daily ham-on-wry? What about the little guys, the names that pop up regularly in the column, accompanied by a zesty jeu d'esprit? Not on the A-list tonight at the Palace is perhaps Caen's best-known contributor, Bruce Bellingham.
"It comes as a shock to me," cracks Bellingham, currently quarantined with the flu in his Marina apartment. "The joke writers would have to come in the back way with the caterers, I'm sure. We know our place."
For 15 years, Bellingham has submitted -- for free -- one-liners to Herb Caen, a tireless task that begins each day with a pile of newspapers and flickering CNN and ends with one crisp page of "jokes du jour," promptly faxed before 9 a.m.
"You want to avoid the deluge," he says. "If you can, you sort of get in under rush hour. He gets 200 faxes a day."
Since Bellingham is under the weather, this morning he sent in material about being ill, and included a birthday message: "Just caprice, nothing topical," he says.
A regular humor contributor to the Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, and local neighborhood papers, the 44-year-old Bellingham also sells jokes to Jay Leno, but admits it is the Caen material that brings him the most notoriety. All Caen appearances are the pride of Bellingham's mother, who tracks each item and carefully preserves it.
"There are hundreds," he admits. "There's three scrapbooks, I think, filled with stuff."
Bellingham first picked up Caen 25 years ago, upon moving here from New Jersey.
"My first thought was, 'Who are all these people?' And I wondered, 'How soon can I be one of them?' " He pauses. "I'm kidding ... I'm half kidding."
His first Caen item appeared while Bellingham worked as desk editor for KCBS radio. One day he thought, Why not? He typed up a few witticisms, mailed them off, and a tradition was born.
"It was during the Tammy Faye/Jim Bakker scandal, which was broken by a [North Carolina] newspaper called the Charlotte Observer. And I think the line I wrote was, 'Jim Bakker says, "Hush hush, sweet Charlotte Observer." ' He liked that."
It was a match like no other, as Bellingham soon became a recurring character in the Caen menagerie that grew to include Ed Moose, drag nun Sister Boom Boom, Willie Brown, and the mysterious Strange de Jim.
"One of the first items I got in the column was on the occasion of the 49ers going to the Super Bowl," recalls the joke-slinger. "I said I went into the Chestnut Street Grill, a crowded saloon in the Marina, and while everyone was held in rapture at the television sets hanging over the bar, I said to the bartender, 'Would you mind switching the channel? I don't want to miss Nova this afternoon.' I knew it was a good line because I could hear it stolen, one by one, down the bar. Herb loved that. In fact, for several years in a row I would write variations, and he'd print it anyway. Just because he quote, loves saloon humor, unquote."
And unlike the perverse relationship explored in the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success -- wherein a sniveling press agent named Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) willingly humiliates himself to supply items for the powerfully evil New York columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) -- the Bellingham-Caen dance is much more friendly, even paternal.
"He might make fun of me a little bit in the paper -- 'Bellingham's a nut, he sends me five items a day' -- but his version of 'nut' is a bit of an anachronistic definition. In his generation, I think 'nut' was a nice term, and I think the translation might be 'character.' Our generation, a nut is someone like Lee Harvey Oswald."
For many years the two never met, communicating solely through the mail, with Bellingham sending off material and receiving occasional responses, until one day he bumped into Caen's assistant, Carole Vernier, at Original Joe's. The voice was matched with the face, and Bellingham eventually met the man himself. They now occasionally get together for lunch.
"He's formidable," says Bellingham. "He's imposing in his own way. I always feel bad after we have lunch. I felt like sort of, a sputtering fool, you know, because he's very glib. One pun after another."
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