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Punk Family Values 

Meet the Rosenthals: two generations of art stars in one six-story warehouse.

Wednesday, May 7 2008
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Carola Anderson carries a pitcher of limeade through her sprawling SOMA home affectionately known as the Complex, the ice cubes bouncing among sprigs of mint. A black beret is cocked atop her crimson bob. She sets the pitcher next to a plate of hummus for her teenage children, George and Lou Lou, and their friends.

It's a family moment that might warm Pat Robertson's cockles — mom bringing the kids fresh-squeezed refreshments. Except this is not exactly the home of the Cleavers: It's more like the Osbournes, minus the pooping bulldog. To wit: Carola is the business-savvy matriarch managing the household. Her rock 'n' roll offspring practice with their band, Lou Lou & the Guitarfish, on a stage built into the bottom floor of their home. Fuchsia-haired Lou Lou is semifamous: she has been fictionalized by San Francisco author Daniel Handler, who based his Lemony Snicket character Madame Lulu on her, calling the real 16-year-old "slightly mysterious and a terrific dresser." George, 19, is the producing geek who records his friends' bands and scores their film soundtracks. And the family patriarch, Henry S. Rosenthal, is an underground icon in the film and music industries.

But those aren't the only indicators that this is no ordinary household.

Click here for behind-the-scenes footage from Punk Family Values.

"I had an exciting day," Carola announces to the Guitarfish. "I almost fell down the elevator shaft!"

While the Osbournes have their posh Beverly Hills mansion, the Rosenthals dwell in a very San Francisco live-work warehouse that has taken Carola 30 years to convert. The once-grungy building still has a leaky roof, but it now looks like a fantastical art museum, with pop art prints nestled into one corner, Henry's collection of 36 two-headed taxidermy calves in another, while the bottom floor is filled floor to ceiling with pennants for North American people, events, and destinations (no sports teams, thanks).

The building also has a rickety freight elevator, which was on the fritz again this particular morning. Fortunately, Carola double-checked the creaky lift before she stepped, avoiding a tumble that would've taken her down six stories from kitchen cockatiel cage to basement.

That elevator has carried a revolving cast of characters through the Complex since before George and Lou Lou were in diapers. An infamous raw-meat scene from the cult classic Mod Fuck Explosion was filmed on the ground floor while Henry was producing the film. Henry and Carola's close friends, shock punk misfits the Mentors, once played on the Complex stage. New bands like the hotly tipped Raconteurs have dropped by after playing shows in the city. Lou Lou's last two birthday parties included performances by local garage acts such as the Rock 'n' Roll Adventure Kids and Knights of the New Crusade. The latter band includes Michael Lucas, who has been a tenant at the Complex since the early days. He now runs a small publishing company and record label from the second floor.

Snacking on one of Carola's olive puff pastries, Lou Lou measures the Complex foot traffic another way: "We used to have band dinners, but my mom got busy," she says. "And we never know who is staying for dinner anymore."

On Wednesdays, Carola is off the limeade duty. She's upstairs in her design studio, working on costumes for the New Conservatory Theater Center's production of The Odyssey. Henry's old-time jug band, Hiroshi Hasegawa's Poontang Wranglers, drinks Anchor Steam in the Complex rec room. The loose social club plays classic rural American music and party anthems by Michigan metalhead Andrew W.K., using instruments like a washtub bass.

After practice, Henry suggests banjo player Marie Dallenport should be strapped into "the vest." It's for "airway clearance." Last year he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease producing dangerous amounts of lung-clogging mucus. The disease is usually detected in early childhood, but somehow Henry's condition went undiagnosed for most of his life. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a carrier's median lifespan is 37; Henry is 53. In other words, he recently found out he was supposed to be dead already. Somehow, he doesn't take that fact too seriously.

He straps Dallenport into the vest. The inflated device vibrates violently, rattling her giggles.

"Tell your joke again," Henry prompts.

Dallenport stutters through. "Whhhhhy dooooesn't Hitleeeer driiiink tequiiiiila?"

Pauuuuuse.

"Becauuuuse it maaaaakes him meeeeeean!"

Henry Rosenthal is a lot of things in this city. He's Hank Rank in San Francisco's original punk band, Crime. He's a film producer, sacrificing his good credit standing for arthouse movies. He's a wry comic with a penchant for gallows humor. But of all the things Henry leaves to San Francisco, his family is his proudest accomplishment.

Of course you only have to peek behind the camcorders at any school play to know what a proud parent looks like. But Henry and Carola are a rare breed. They display so many of mainstream America's family values — Saturday nights on the town together, family trades passed from one generation to the next, children who aren't into getting loaded and won't end up in rehab. But they infuse those ideas with something we've lost — an old-fashioned appreciation for making your life a living work of art by always living creatively.

It's show-and-tell day in Lou Lou's media studies class at San Francisco's School of the Arts, a public arts magnet school in Laguna Honda. In a program that values "creative and independent thinking," you couldn't ask for a cooler guest speaker than her dad. Henry has produced more than 16 independent films, ranging in subject matter from gay outlaws (The Living End) to mentally ill musician Daniel Johnston (The Devil and Daniel Johnston).

Henry drops by his daughter's classroom a couple times a year to show cinematic oddities. His last batch included a selection of movies by Huck Botko, a mockumentarian who leads viewers to believe he's playing pranks on his family. And not just any pranks: He cooks roadkill pie for his mom and bakes saliva from a homeless man into a pastry for his brother. "The final one was called Boston Cream Pie, and you can only imagine what that one was going to be about," media teacher Scott Eberhardt says. "We didn't get that far." He cut the presentation short. A stalwart Henry supporter, though, he is sure to add, "It ended up leading into a really good class discussion about spoof films." Luckily for the young minds Eberhardt molds, today's selections don't involve bum loogies.

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz

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