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Night Crawler 

Dog Craze

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
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Dog Craze
In a rare convergence of nature and desire, the lingering November fog recedes long enough to make brunch near the zoo a seductive, rather than required, engagement; not that rain or fog could forestall today's dining party. One by one -- with hangovers, dietary restrictions, and shut-eye deprivation weighing heavily on our jowls -- we belly up to the Formica counter of the Carousel restaurant to request chili-cheese burgers and fries at 10:30 in the morning. The gastronomic action is a labor of love, and support, for the cheerful dachshund -- the last standing Doggie Diner dog head -- that has watched over this neighborhood with benevolent good humor for as long as most of us can remember.

Last month, the smiling hound, with its bow tie and chef's hat -- a 10-foot-high, 300-pound testament to an erstwhile 30-restaurant chain -- was denied landmark status by the Planning Commission, despite public outcry and more than 7,000 signatures; if an appeal to the Board of Supervisors fares as well, nothing prohibits the property owner from razing the diner and the dog head in favor of a parking lot for the Sloat Garden Center. So, in a display of solidarity, Sebastian Melmoth brought his three, privately kept Doggie Diner dog heads out to Sloat Boulevard on a flatbed truck for a little family reunion.

"The first thing I saw when I stepped off the Bart at 24th and Mission in 1976," says Melmoth, proudly ensconced in a brown-and-orange Doggie Diner uniform shirt, "was a Doggie Diner dog head. It was my first impression of the city. I was dumbstruck as to how something like this could exist, but I never thought I'd become a steward for its preservation."

Melmoth's Doggie Diner dog pack was the result of his avocation as a sign maker, and, he laughingly says, heavenly intervention. A fellow tradesman led him to the American Neon Sign Co., which then owned the Doggie Diner contract and several out-of-use heads. He purchased the first dog head for a song, and the second by canceling a debt; the third was a surprise birthday gift from his girlfriend, Vanessa K. Of course, buying them is one thing, owning them another.

"They're big," says Melmoth. "Transporting each dog head is a like a religious ordeal, like crawling through the desert without water. Everything that can go wrong will. I got a flat tire hauling them across the Bay Bridge once and was rescued by a guy who had seen it all."

Most of the year, the dog heads are kenneled up north, but they make frequent sojourns to the city, where they have become closely associated with creative endeavors such as the Art Car West Fest, the Cacophony Society, and the St. Stupid's Day Parade. (The "High Holy Trinity of Dogheads" and the "Dogminican Order" are officially sanctioned by the Bishop Joey and the First Church of the Last Laugh.) During the heads' trek, motorists honk and wave, children point and laugh, and tourists snap pictures. It is the nature of a giant, grinning dog head to cause joy, a welcome attribute in a decade whose principal currency is irony.

"Ad campaigns are very savvy today," says Warren Dotz, co-author of What a Character! 20th Century American Advertising Icons. "The Doggie Diner dog head is a very innocent, naive sort of icon, and it is specific to the Bay Area. Different cities have different icons -- Chicago has Superdawg and his wife -- but they all bring to mind a simpler time. Some people show visiting friends the Coit Tower, others bring them here to look at the dog head. ... It's like our Mona Lisa of icon characters."

Out on Sloat Boulevard, there is much horn-honking, hand-waving, and picture-taking -- spontaneous displays of joy, mingled with concerned expressions from folks who know the fate of the last standing dog.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," says Brad Kopp, adjusting his cape and reminiscing about childhood trips to Playland by the Sea, a nearby attraction that was home to a number of mechanical marvels before its lamentable closing. "Laughing Sal [a disturbing mechanical woman] used to scare the pants off of me, and I know that I am not alone in my terror, but passing the Doggie Diner head on the way home would soothe and comfort me. It made everything OK."

"Like any piece of artwork, the dog head elicits a response," says 58-year-old Sharman Lindell, who stopped by on her way home from grocery shopping. "And it's usually a nice one."

Of course, what is and what is not art has been argued for centuries, and a consensus is not to be reached between neighborhood resident, author, and pop-culture enthusiast Dominic Priore and landowner/Sloat Garden Center VP Ted Warshauer.

"I have the right to optimize the value of my property," says Warshauer.

"It's a vanishing art form," says Priore.

"Art?!" says Warshauer.

"You're standing in a crowd of artists [who see the dog head as art]," says Priore.

"I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder," says Warshauer.

Certainly, for thousands of art -- and ad-character -- collectors across the country, this is true.

"There is no intrinsic value in anything collectible, barring maybe gold and silver, except what it's worth to another collector," points out Jane Husain, schoolteacher and wife of 10 years to graphic artist and avid ad-character collector Masud Husain.

The Husain home, which doubles as Masud's very successful Studio West Design, opens onto a colorful wall display of ad-character paper masks -- fanciful table decorations from food chains like Sambo's and Pig & Whistle, and promotional handouts for Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds and the Amos 'n' Andy radio show. Along the walls, in glass cases and on shelves, is a small portion of the couple's vast ad-character collection.

"The rest are in three storage containers in the basement," says Jane, "along with the snow globe collection." (And the majority of the lawn ornament collection, and the Godzilla collection, and the vintage San Francisco souvenir buildings collection, and the antique aquarium mermaids collection, and the Dare Devil Marvel comics collection -- but that's another story.)

Still, a kaleidoscopic array of pieces is on display; they are as inexpensive as the cowboy menu-mask from Eaton's that Jane saved as a child, and as costly as the Mida Watch robot-clock that set Masud back $2,800. There is a GE Radio bandmaster designed by Maxfield Parrish and an early incarnation of Kermit created by Jim Henson for Wilkin's Coffee. There is a 3-foot RCA dog in lieu of a real one, and the Reddy Kilowatt man popularized in 1926; there are grinning characters for Florida citrus, Kitty Pan Litter, U.F.O. Japanese noodles, Dunkin' Donuts, Contact pain reliever, and Ritalin. There are ad characters from the '20s to the '70s, made of everything from real nuts and bolts to vinyl, styrofoam, and wood, with varying levels of craftsmanship and attention to detail. Like any fine, large collection, some pieces are interesting, clever, and pleasing to the eye, some are disturbing ("Happy Foot"), some are dismissible ("Burgie Bear"), and some are on loan, for public display (albeit at the San Francisco Airport).

"There is a sense of whimsy with the older ad characters, like the Doggie Diner dog head, that is very, very appealing," Masud says. "But there is also cultural relevance, and aesthetic relevance. I draw a lot of inspiration for my work from comic books, pop art, and popular culture. People can relate to these things. It strikes a chord with them, and with me."

As for the Doggie Diner dog head, Masud predicts it will be sold into a private collection.

"I wouldn't mind having it, but you need a lot of space to display something that size in a way that will promote intelligent discourse. Advertising can be completely overwhelming -- it's meant to be. How it's shown certainly affects how it's seen."

Andy Warhol put Campbell's soup cans in museums and Keith Haring turned his art into T-shirt marketing; as pressure increases it is as likely Warshauer will donate the dog head to a museum as sell it to a private collector. But given the choice between seeing a Haring on the underside of a bridge and a Haring behind glass ...

"I'd rather see the dog head restored," says Jane, "overlooking the zoo where it belongs."

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

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Silke Tudor

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