Punk Family Values

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

Daddy's twisted little girl.

For his part, Henry Rosenthal was daddy's twisted little boy. He was raised in Cincinnati, the son of George Rosenthal, a photographer who made a comfortable middle-class living playing the stock market. George Rosenthal died of severe asthma and extreme allergies at age 44 when Henry was 12, but not before making a deep impression on his son about the art of subversive behavior. His father was an early pop art collector, filling the Rosenthal home "with incredible modern art where the paint was still wet." At age 7 Henry was giving museum tours through the family home — and beating experimental composer (and his father's poker buddy) John Cage at chess.

Carola grew up in Cloverdale, the daughter of a choir director mother. "We were the kind of family who would sit and play chamber music in the living room on Sunday afternoon with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins," she says. "My family's always been very classically WASPish. My dream was that I was adopted. The more I found out who I was, the less I fit in in Cloverdale."

Henry Rosenthal: passing on his musical talents to his son, George.
Gabriela Hasbun
Henry Rosenthal: passing on his musical talents to his son, George.
Clockwise from above: Henry drumming in Crime, an original S.F. punk band, in 1977; Crime in 1978 (Henry, far right); Vs. in 1979 (Carola, center).
Clockwise from above: Henry drumming in Crime, an original S.F. punk band, in 1977; Crime in 1978 (Henry, far right); Vs. in 1979 (Carola, center).

The couple met on the campus of New College, back when the alternative New Age school was still in a Sausalito warehouse. Ever the early adopter, Henry found the college through an ad in the back of Rolling Stone. He enrolled in 1973; Carola arrived a year later. They each earned a bachelor's in humanities, New College's sole degree at the time.

Henry spent the next ten years proposing to Carola. Each time she would accept and start compiling a list of what she calls "a few hundred close friends and family" for the wedding. And each time, they got distracted by "so many other interesting things we were busy doing," she says. They agreed to get married later, when they had more free time. Eventually the two eloped at City Hall in 1986.

The couple initially fell in love when they performed together in two plays and a medieval music group. Their union helped produce Other Music, an experimental music ensemble whose members made their own instruments based on a special tuning system, Just Intonation, that requires a 76-page primer to explain. Three-chord punk this ain't.

Not that they were punk-averse. Carola played sax in a fashion-conscious trio called Vs. in the late '70s. Henry became Hank Rank, the drummer for Crime, San Francisco's self-proclaimed "first and only rock 'n' roll band." Crime formed in 1976 and played loud, scuzzy rock, building the band's rep by dressing in cop uniforms, performing at San Quentin, and refusing to open for anyone but the Ramones (which they did) or the Sex Pistols (whom they famously turned down). The group also released the first U.S. punk single, "Hot Wire My Heart," which was later covered by New York art punks Sonic Youth.

In 1979, at the tail end of Henry's two and a half years in Crime, Henry and Carola went shopping for a house. Carola wasn't a white-picket-fence type. They looked at a number of places before stumbling upon a vacant warehouse across from the old Weinstein's department store. Carola thought it was perfect; Henry was skeptical. She won. "This building is really Carola's vision," he says. "When we looked at it, I didn't get it. I've been following Carola's mad vision all these years."

Henry and Carola spent the following years making the space their own. These days the Complex is downright homey. Lou Lou and George even have their own floor, with individual "houses": his is ocean liner moderne, while she has a miniature collapsed Palladian villa. A guest home for friends is Caribbean vernacular architecture flocked with Astroturf and fake flowers. "Spend five minutes at [the Complex] and you've met Carola," says New Conservatory Theatre Company director Stephanie Temple, a longtime friend. (Carola has costumed several plays for the company, as well as a dance performance at SFMOMA, for which she also composed the score.)

By the late '80s, the couple was talking about having kids. Henry jokes that they decided on babies because their first cat, Django, couldn't talk, and their parrots refused to (one of their current felines, Langford Po, allegedly says "hello" on command, though).

George S. Rosenthal was born in April 1989. The next generation of the Complex household had arrived. Lou Lou was born in November three years later.

From the house in the crack-addled alley where the Rosenthals raised their brood to the cultural attractions the children were exposed to, Lou Lou and George were treated as adults from the beginning.

"Right from the start we took them to concerts, films, museum shows, etc. that weren't intended for kids, but which I thought they would enjoy and be inspired by," Carola says. Before her little ones could pick up a book, she read them the subtitles of Wagner's Ring Cycle from a video from the library. "I thought it was too good for the kids to miss, so I wound up reading all the subtitles out loud to them for the whole 15-odd hours of it — spread over a few days."

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