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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jan 13 1999
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Going Native
Over the phone John Wickett asks me to pull into the driveway behind his mobile home in Lower Pacific Heights. The striped Fleetwood is impossible to miss even nestled, as it is, off the street beneath the shadow of a large apartment building. It is a hypertrophy of migratory convenience -- a palatial estate on wheels being outfitted with a techie's dream camera system using high-powered lenses that once monitored the grounds in front of the Federal Building.

"It'll be set up for teleconferencing," says Wickett. "The cameras will be computer-controlled, picking up details at a good distance with very little light, and sending images back and forth."

The NSA-style security camera lenses were bought outright by Wickett, as was the lovely little house peeking over the roof of the Fleetwood, and the old French laundry two blocks away, where Wickett's most alluring passions are displayed: tens of thousands of collectibles from the near and far reaches of the globe that comprise the San Francisco Museum of Exotica.

"I'm not open to the public," says Wickett with a gentleman's flourish. "These are just my props."

Wickett's "props" include a tribal throne from New Guinea, a bishop's mantle woven with solid gold thread, an antique marionette of Joan of Arc, opium pipes for every disposition, an elaborate bird cage built to resemble an Austrian prison, Indonesian phalluses, Philippine bridles, and ceremonial knives used for the dismemberment of the Tibetan dead before their meat is offered to the vultures. The place measures over 6,000 square feet -- featuring lofts, closets, alcoves, odd passageways, and hidden platforms -- and every centimeter is festooned with resplendent colors and extravagant ornamentation. The effect is dizzying, and if hash smoke were still flowing from the hookahs, your best bet would be to completely succumb, give up your day, drop to your knees on the thick layers of Persian carpet, and methodically work your way up from the floorboards -- examining the tiny portraits created in Chinese silk, the minuscule grasshopper band that plays instruments under glass, the Tantric figurines stolen long ago from Nepalese temples, the African instruments made of human skulls and snakeskin, the robes of an Indian child prince, and then moving up to a ceiling covered in animal skins (a hippopotamus, a full-grown giraffe, a Tibetan snow leopard) mingled with hand-woven tapestries and kaleidoscopic patterns of colored light sprayed from intricately carved Iranian lanterns. Over the blanketed windows you would notice an enormous Alaskan moose head smoking a joint. Several large clowns from Playland at the Beach grin from atop the carriage house; they are flanked by two Indian tigers that once stood at the City of Paris (now Neiman-Marcus). A figure in Chinese robes who once held court in the Lost Wax Museum (now McDonald's) looks on with a sage eye, and the last Empress of China judges everything through beeswax eyes.

"I'm interested in anything and everything that is interesting," says Wickett, an elegant snow-haired 82-year-old wearing a Turkish shirt and slim-fitting slacks, who runs nimbly through his museum turning on lamps made of camel bladders and shifting Arabic gaming tables inlaid with ivory, mother-of-pearl, and onyx.

"This is just stuff, hardly worth writing about. This giant silver teapot was given to me while I was staying with the Shah of Iran. Just stuff," says Wickett casually. "This is a whale rib pulled out of the Santa Cruz Mountains, which haven't been under water for over 14 million years, I'm told."

Like his "stuff," Wickett's past is "just the past." Born to an affluent New York insurance family, Wickett grew up in Atherton at Mille Fleure -- John Sutro's former estate -- with a four-story elevator, three guest houses, and tennis courts. He wore a tie every day; walls of ties stand here, testament to his sartorial past. He married a lovely girl and ran no less than 14 businesses, becoming one of the largest landowners in San Mateo; he was president of the Redwood City Rotary Club and the State Board of Realtors, and a founder of the United Way for the Bay Area; he served on the cotillion committee for a decade, during which he made sure the nerves of all underage debs were assuaged with a quick double-gin martini before their grand entrances (a secret well guarded until now).

Then, in his mid-40s, John Wickett got divorced, sold his businesses, and went native.

"I had grown up so conservative, so Victorian," says Wickett. "I just wised up one day, caught on that there was another side to life, something more interesting."

At one point Wickett lived in Melvin Belli's old home on Twin Peaks, and in a synagogue nestled between Fillmore West and Jim Jones' church. He became a silent partner in Jim Gabbert's Channel 20. Ten years ago he began filling the French laundry on Sutter with objects from distant shores and more distant eras. Each object came with a story -- like the ritual Philippine phallus used by grandmothers to aid virgins on their wedding nights, or the shaman mask made of the four elements of life (blood, sweat, semen, and shit), or Laughing Sal, the Playland matron who springs to cackling-and-grinning life at the flick of a switch. Wickett treats all of his possessions like living history. The chairs are for sitting and the costumes for wearing, when the occasion is suitable.

"I like to have events here if the people are interesting," says Wickett. It's not surprising that the interesting people don't always leave. Presently Wickett has a helpful couple living at his house, a woman silently tucked away in his museum loft space, a gentleman convalescing in his carriage house, and someone's cat winding its way along a windowsill lined with antique glassware.

"No one pays rent, or gas bills, or phone bills," says Wickett, "as long as they're interesting."

It's even less surprising that during Wickett's fetes an interesting treasure or two disappears -- as with a giraffe hoof he notices has been recently cut from the skin hanging from his ceiling -- but Wickett just chuckles.

"People come in and ask about the three most valuable small objects I own. It's OK, things get 'souvenired.' I have four auctions and four trips to the Orient planned this year."

Surprising that he would bother searching for the exotic. After living in the San Francisco Museum of Exotica, the real thing might almost disappoint.

Send comments, quips, and tips to crawler@sfweekly.com.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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