The Passing of the Perfect Master: Norman Hobday Inventor of the Fern Bar

Norman Hobday invented the concept of the “fern bar” — transforming the dark  taverns and dives of our fore-drinkers into safe, well-lit meat markets for swinging singles seeking Mister and Mrs. Goodbar.

He passed away late in February.

Before Norman — or Henry Africa as he was once known — bars were windowless haunts with a neon martini glass, the kind of place women of good repute wouldn’t be caught dead in. By opening up the walls with plate glass, hanging Tiffany lamps, ferns, antique motorcycles, and oriental rugs, Norman transformed the art of getting drunk and getting lucky forever.  A picture of him hung next to his bar, him in a French Foreign legion hat, with the title “The Perfect Master.”

I’d never seen anything so weird before in my life.

I worked for his brother, Jack Slick, for one twisted year in San Francisco in the early 1980s. The Hobday brothers were from New York State — allegedly the sons of a pig farmer. Legend is hazy, but Norman apparently joined the merchant marine and found himself in San Francisco where he made the move into bartending and eventually bar owning. Jack followed, split off, and had his own place — The Balboa Cafe in the Marina on the corner of Greenwich and Fillmore. Norman’s palace, Henry Africa’s, had a couple homes before settling on Vallejo and Van Ness. The real action for the Hobday brothers went down at the intersection of Greenwich and Fillmore, where three bars faced off in the s0-called Love Triangle. There was the Balboa — an old institution with a celebrity chef —  Jeremiah Tower, owned by Slick in partnership with an East Bay developer named Doyle Moon and mid-70s disco legend/former bluesman Boz Skaggs and their accountant. The competition/feud between Norman and Jack was legendary, but probably concocted for the sake of their larger-than life, Harley-riding legends.

Norman opened up the Dartmouth Social Club diagonally across the street, capitalizing on the nascent Preppy Handbook craze and recruiting genuine Dartmouth graduates to man the bar in white button downs, aprons, and knit ties. The cultural collision of Ivy preppy boys and upstate New York pig farmers, combined with the pre-AIDs culture of swinging singledom, cocaine, and the entire Jerry-Brown-Have-A-Nice-Day gestalt of northern California made for a specific lunacy that in hindsight was like living and working inside of some Dr. Strange comic.

I went out to the west coast at the invitation of two Dartmouth friends and immediately got work as a doorman/bouncer, graduating to bartender within a few months. I camped on a couch in Mill Valley, commuted over the Golden Gate bridge on my Raleigh ten-speed, and migrated into the Haight to a basement apartment — living hand to mouth on the $100 in tips I pocketed every 2 am when the bar closed.

Jack was an education in himself — he dressed in black motorcycle leather like something out of Mad Max (on the side of the Great Humungous) and took great glee in late night paranoid tirades over dirty Hobart dishwashers and pilfering bartenders. He hired undercover “spotters” to come in and catch us in the act — but it seemed we never were really that guilty. The camaraderie forged between me and my fellow bartenders and waitresses was the best part of the whole weird experience. Some have remained friends to this day.

I got out of there within two years and returned east to get married and start a job as a reporter, and soon thereafter the AIDS epidemic struck, the party was over, and Norman shed the persona of Henry Africa, former member of the French Foreign Legion, and moved South of Market to Rickenbackers where he spent his final days amongst his antique motor cycles. Jack moved out of the city — apparently somewhere around Sacramento and the Balboa was sold to the Getty’s. Norman got into hot water for displaying the teeth of some long-dead Native American, but seemed to revel in the attention as always. Update: Thanks to Nancy in the comments for pointing out that Jack is managing Rickenbackers now.

I’d have to declare my time bartending in San Francisco as the high point of my education and early 20s — I definitely learned more behind the stick than I did in four years at New Haven.