Far-Out Photos: Peek Inside Ex-Adman Pritikin's Kitschy San Fran Mansion

Wacky Curios Mingle With Industry Memories, Current Criticism

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Among a quiet row of humble houses in San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood lies one of the largest estates in the city, accessible via a gated driveway. Large bronze animal statues, such as an elephant and a stag with massive antlers, dot the yard.

A 20-something man wearing a white jacket and hipsterish glasses greets you at the door of the mansion, known as Chenery House. The butler leads you inside, past a large mural depicting famous San Franciscans like Koko the gorilla and Nancy Pelosi.

You're now in one of the most eccentric homes in the city: It has its own "magic room," which features a fake electric chair that can be switched on to make the dummy seated on it writhe and moan. In another room, there's a gigantic replica of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" and a wax figure of a bartender poised to take your order. If so inclined, you can wade in a tiny swimming pool that shimmers under stained-glass windows. Minimalism is not the theme here; art and memorabilia (the kind you're not going to find at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) fill every nook and cranny. An example is a scarred globe with German place names that once belonged to Adolf Hitler; a plaque on its base wishes him eternal damnation.

You'd think the owner of such a kitschy house was a movie star or a reclusive writer. But it's the home of former San Francisco adman Bob Pritikin, who was creative director at agencies like Campbell Ewald and Dailey & Associates and a principal at two shops of his own in the 1960s and "70s. His portfolio includes campaigns for the likes of Chevrolet and Folgers coffee.

Now 84, Mr. Pritikin says he didn't reach his standard of living by crafting campaigns but by investing in real estate. "I made very little money in the advertising business. I could have made more had I known my value at the time," he says.

When he retired from the business, he opened an 18-room Victorian-style hotel in Pacific Heights (now closed), where he performed in nightly magic shows and played music on a saw. Hotel guests included Barbra Streisand, John F. Kennedy Jr. and Robin Williams.

Still, he's nostalgic for the old ad days. His home also has a room bedecked with enlargements of print campaigns he worked on, like one for the Sierra Club with the tagline "Don't muddy up the googol."

He's convinced that his ad inspired the tech giant's name, but says that Google representatives disagreed and declined to compensate him. ("Googol" means 10 to the 100th power, or the largest number that has a name.)

Though he exited adland more than three decades ago, Mr. Pritikin still has strong opinions about what makes a good ad, which he explains while leafing through a copy of the latest Time magazine and sipping vodka that he says will help his back. Zoltar, an animatronic fortune teller in a glass case -- like the one from the movie "Big" -- occasionally interjects until Mr. Pritikin asks the butler to turn it off.

He's assigned all the ads in the magazine a grade; almost all have received a D-minus or F. The only high grade is an A-minus awarded to Chivas Regal, which has presented a bottle of Scotch on a full page. But he reserves the most scorn for Flo, the spokeswoman in red lipstick and a white dress who appears in Progressive Insurance's TV ads.

"For some reason the advertisers are terrified of showing their product. So they show little kiddies and they show animation and they show all this horseshit," he said, noting that the same rules apply "whether it's digital or smigital."

"Why don't they just show their product? And explain why it's a good product. It's not very complicated."

Though a retired adman and hotelier, Mr. Pritikin is still at work promoting a novel he wrote 35 years ago, which a small publisher in Berkeley, Calif., picked up last year. (He also rents his home -- anointed the Pritikin Museum -- out for weddings; one Yelp reviewer called it "a mix of "Alice in Wonderland,' "A Clockwork Orange,' and "Boogie Nights.'"

The theme of his book, "Highway House," is strange eating habits, and it begins with an aging diva eating roast locust in Morocco. For all of his colorful stories and artwork, this story is one that's rooted in fantasy. No adventurous eater himself, Mr. Pritikin said he's a "semi-vegetarian" who couldn't eat a rare steak even when he was a creative director and ad-agency president and had regular lunches at the now-shuttered World Trade Club on the Embarcadero.

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