The Emperor Norton Rooms of 1961
A Hotel Bar on Geary Street and a Lunch Spot on Maiden Lane
On 25 March 1961, an item in the San Francisco Examiner reported that
THE CHAMP ROOM at Hotel Stewart closed on a somber note last Sunday — black hearse in front, black crepe on door and a black-clad fighter in front. Mgr. Norman Wulf will rebuild it, open around May 1 as the “Emperor Norton Room.”
The Stewart — at 351 Geary Street, a half-block west of Union Square — had been built in 1907; and, by the time Harry Handlery bought the hotel in 1948, it was established as a fairly swank destination.
Adjacent to the Hotel Stewart, Handlery built the Handlery Motor Inn in 1964. In the late 1980s, the two hotels were combined into the new Handlery Union Square Hotel, which continues today.
One can guess, from the March 1961 “obit” for the Champ Room, that the place had succumbed to a fire.
Two days later, also in the Examiner, the following ad appeared:
The In Between had just opened up as a new cocktail lounge and lunch spot at 51 Maiden Lane — a block-and-a-half east of Union Square. Whether the In Between was a single-room establishment or this Emperor Norton Room was a front, back or anteroom within a larger space is unclear.
But, a couple of months later, on 20 May 1961, the Examiner noted that the Emperor Norton Room at the Hotel Stewart, on Geary Street, now was “set for an early-June opener.”
Two days later, on 22 May 1961, the San Francisco Chronicle ran this photograph.
According to the caption:
A new portrait of the renowned Emperor Norton was painted recently by the artist William H. Weber for The Chronicle. It will be hung in the “Emperor Norton Room” in the In Between restaurant on Maiden Lane.
That construction “for The Chronicle” begs the question: Who was William H. Weber?
It seems that Weber was active in San Francisco as a working artist during the period when he painted the portrait of the Emperor. The Chronicle ran listings for several shows and exhibits of Weber's work at various local galleries during the early 1960s.
In Fall 1963, Weber was a judge for juried exhibition at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University. A notice for the exhibition identified Weber as “director of special art projects” for the Chronicle.
When I asked veteran Chronicle columnist Carl Nolte about all this, he suggested that Weber’s portrait of the Emp may have been commissioned by Chronicle editor Scott Newhall as part of Newhall’s broader Norton-based marketing promotion of the time — epitomized by the Emperor Norton Treasure Hunt, which had its ninth running in 1961.
Special projects, huh? Well, that was one of Scott Newhall’s deals. He was the mad genius who saved the Chronicle with stunts and tricks from a life of dull but honest newspapering. The Emperor Norton Treasure Hunt was one of his promotions. He dazzled the public with amazing stories, over the top headlines and a sense of fun. The paper had a lot of talent in those days, and it won the region’s last great newspaper circulation war. I am the last person left at the paper from that era, but I was only a spear carrier in Newhall’s great newspaper opera. All this has been forgotten by the present regime. As I recall, Milt Monroe was the art director, and Weber, who must have been a contract worker, did material on the side.
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ON SUNDAY 11 June 1961 — three weeks after William Weber finished his portrait for the Emperor Norton Room on Maiden Lane — the Examiner reported that the Emperor Norton Room at the Stewart Hotel, on Geary, was “due to open Tuesday.”
As you might guess, with two spaces opening with the same name at the same time, a legal shoe would drop.
The relevant item appeared in the Examiner on 19 June 1961:
THE HANDLERY HOTEL CHAIN settled a little lawsuit in order to open its Emperor Norton saloon in the Stewart. Maiden Lane’s In Between, which has an Emperor Norton Room, hired Lawyer Bob Tarbox to stir a little trouble, and he did, if only four figures’ worth.
Two months later, on 12 August 1961, the Chronicle headlined that “The Norton Room Is Booming.” The paper was referring to the one on Geary Street.
The Norton Room Is Booming
Seeking something different in the way of a bar, Paul R. Handlery, vice president and general manager of the Handlery Hotels, California’s largest hotel chain, turned to a young designer, Val Arnold.
Arnold and his associates delved into early San Francisco lore, and came up with the idea of designing, building, decorating, and refurbishing a spot with some new character in it.
What could be better than San Francisco’s “first character,” Emperor Norton?
The Emperor Norton room, indeed, has served to stir up action on Geary street, where it gives the Stewart Hotel a “street entrance” bar on the famed old thoroughfare. The Stewart, incidentally, still keeps its tasteful Highland Room going night and day as well.
Ray Green, strolling guitar player, and a bevy of Emperor Norton Bar-Belles do their bit to amuse and entertain and provide for the delights of the E.N. customers.
A large display ad that appeared in the Chronicle a month earlier (right) — together with an uptick of mentions in entertainment gossip columns — left no doubt that, starting in summer1961, the Emperor Norton Room at the Hotel Stewart was a place to be in San Francisco.
The Chronicle noted on 8 July 1961 that “the ‘new’ Emperor Norton doorman at the Hotel Stewart is a drama student, Wayne Wengirt, who loves portraying the legendary San Francisco character who 100 years ago declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”
On 9 October 1961, an Examiner listing for the Geary Street room described it as “[a] colorful smart lounge dedicated to the memory of Emperor Norton and full of antiques and relics of his reign as well as a 200-year-old music machine made in Amsterdam, 12 feet long and 8 feet high full of sound and fury.” (An earlier Examiner item, from 29 July 1961, noted that the “musical machine…cost a chunk.”)
And, check out the drink prices proclaimed in the ad: 6 Bits. That’s 75 cents!
A later version of the ad promised “just 50 cents for girls on Emperor Norton’s List.”
On 11 August 1961, Herb Caen reported having seen — or heard about — “[t]wo ex-champs gobbling peanuts, drinking drinks and trading lies in the Stewart’s Emperor Norton bar: Jack Dempsey and Lefty O’Doul.
Presumably, the champs paid pull fare.
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SO, WHAT ABOUT the other Emperor Norton Room — the one at the In Between, on Maiden Lane?
On 2 September 1961, the Chronicle reported on a fire that had “swept through” the tavern, causing $30,000-worth of damage.
The Chronicle ran a couple of items in 1962 that referenced the In Between.
But, there’s no ad for an Emperor Norton Room there after May 1961 — which suggests that William Weber’s portrait of the Emp may have been damaged or lost in the fire, with the “Emperor Norton Room” concept dropped after that.
On 4 April 1965, the Chronicle carried an ad for a public auction of the bar and restaurant equipment for the In Between.
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AS TO the Emperor Norton Room at the Hotel Stewart, on Geary…
Ads and mentions of this institution dry up after the end of 1962.
Perhaps the writing was on the wall: 1962 turned out to be the tenth and last running of the San Francisco Chronicle’s legendary Emperor Norton Treasure Hunt, which had launched in 1953.
It would be another 20 years before San Francisco would see its next “Emperor Norton Room” — a buffet lunch, bar and event venue that opened in spring 1983 at the New Montgomery and Jessie Street corner of the Palace Hotel building: the space currently occupied by Flatiron Wines and Spirits. This Emperor Norton Room appears to have had a run of about five-and-a-half years, up until the Palace closed in January 1989 for a major two-year renovation.
The moment of the two Emperor Norton Rooms of 1961 — shining as it was — was all too brief.
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