The Man Who Came to Dinner

Harry Denton

So I was on my way to Harry Denton's house, and who should I see parked in the window of Uncle Vito's Pizzeria at Bush and Powell but the famous San Francisco Brown Twins, Marian and Vivian, who've been eluding my reverse-invitation advances since the day I first put dinner-grubbing finger to key.

Suddenly there they were, just sitting there, delicately scarfing down two halves of an extra-large Supreme. I was already late for Harry, but -- oh, what the hell .... "Pardon me, ladies, my name is Barry Levine and I write a column blah blah blah blah."

Half an hour later I was running up the block to Harry's with the twins' homemade business card in my hand.

Harry Denton. The Brown Twins. Really, it was all I could do not to check my reflection in the windows I passed to see if Herb Caen's ghost wasn't there trotting alongside me.

I found Harry standing outside his building trying to reach me on a cordless phone. "Sorry I'm late. And the Brown Twins send their best."

"Oh, they're great. We went to London together," he said. "On Richard Branson. That was my best media trip ever. It was a five-day drunk. Sixty people. Twenty celebrities. Everyone up in first class, loaded. Except the Twins, of course."

How does one describe Harry Denton's apartment? Well by describing it, I guess. It's your basic large one-bedroom Edwardian off Union Square, filled with incredible mahogany furniture, ornate antiques, huge palm trees, and tons of lit candles at every turn.

"This is the dining room," Harry said indicating a space dominated by a sumptuous canopy bed. "So I obviously think the bedroom is the most important place in the house." And, by sleeping in his dining room, Harry has been able to convert the bedroom into an enormous walk-in closet. The room is lined with custom-made cabinets and drawers designed to organize his 13 tuxedos, 89 suits, 110 pairs of shoes, and endless racks of ties. In turn, in what would have been the closet Harry has set up a single bed and dresser, making it a mini-guest room. "So this is for when my nephews visit," he laughed.

Actually, Harry Denton doesn't really laugh. He roars. He's a robust man with a childlike face, big round spectacles, and a constant smirk. And his squeaky, scratchy,

jubilant voice, I imagine, instantly becomes endearing to anyone who meets him.

As he dashed around snuffing out candles, I perused the wallful of simply framed photos of Harry and friends. Harry and Hillary. Harry and Joan Collins. "This one's my favorite," he said, pointing to a picture of him and Gorbachev. He continued extinguishing the sea of candles. I spied one more notable photo.

"John-John," I said.

"Oh, yeah. That killed me," said Harry, walking back to look at the picture. "I was at a wedding with him. He was something else. Always a gentleman. He came by my bar about 10 months before. I mean, real regular, real nice. Remembered names and all that stuff."

I peeked out the window at his sweeping view of downtown. Smack in the center of the vista was a multicolored neon sign: Harry Denton's Starlight Room.

"I walk to work. I hate cars," said Harry as we hoofed it back up Bush Street.

"Just to warn you," I offered, "the Twins are sitting right in this window."

"Oh, I see them all the time. Hello. Hello," he yelled, knocking and waving as the Twins, decked out in ever-matching lime outfits and hats, returned equally enthusiastic greetings rendered comically silent by Vito's giant window.

"They're green!" Harry bellowed as we marched away.

Ducking into a side entrance by Harry's office, we hit the elevator button labeled "Starlight" and zoomed straight up to the 21st floor. The doors opened and we stepped out into a wall of floating balloons; Harry had donated the space to the Stop AIDS Project for the evening, and the club was packed as Jaime Gomez of Nash Bridges MC'd the fourth annual San Francisco HIV Prevention Awards. Harry pushed his way to the bar to get me a Ketel One martini. "They don't need me up here for a while," he said. "Let's go check out the Suite."

Down one floor on the elevator Harry unlocked the door to the Sir Frances Drake's brand-new Harry Denton Suite. The room is painted deep red and all the furnishings and ferns were picked out by Harry himself. The view is spectacular. Five hundred bucks a night.

We sat in the living room area. As fate would have it, the following night Harry's other restaurant, on Steuart, was closing after 10 years. "I'm not here to bullshit anything," said Harry. "It was emotional this week. It hit me a little more than I thought. But I know I'm going to have another nightclub. Maybe sooner than I think."

Harry's reign as San Francisco's "Mr. Entertainment" started with a 15-year run as a local waiter. "Smartest move I ever made," remembered Harry. "I got fired from the Dartmouth Social Club for dropping my draws on a Sunday night." That led him to a job at the then-famous Washington Square Bar and Grill. "It was a very smart move for me. I was on TV. I was written up the first day. And you know, Herb Caen was in there all the time.

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