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.

 

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

19 thoughts on “The Passing of the Perfect Master: Norman Hobday Inventor of the Fern Bar”

  1. Well done, ol’ boy. Maybe you can riff a little more some time on the whole Haight scene which certainly added days of hyperweirdness to the nighttime weirdness of our jobs.

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  2. Great post David. The passing of Hobday and Owsley Stanley really put a nail in the coffin of pre-Silicon Valley San Francisco.

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  3. I didn’t know Norman personally but saw him often in various places in the city back when he owned Henry Africa’s. One story that made the rounds was a group of young Marines at a table in Henry Africa’s was getting unruly and Norman walked up to the table and politely asked them to quiet down. He got backtalk instead. He took one step back and opened his coat to reveal a .45 in his belt. The table got quiet in a hurry.

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  4. I worked around the corner from Rickenbackers for 5 years, used to hang out there, but I never knew the history – both Churbuck and Norman.

    I used to see him all the time at Rickenbackers. Sad that a classic piece of SF has gone..

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  5. Nice write up, thanks for that. You’d be surprised to see Jack now, he’s sober and mild. Also he’s back in the City, co-running Eddie Rick’s with a couple of Norman’s manger/waitresses (a legacy to them all, I believe). And just to set the record straight, Boz was never a partner at “the Bal”–the third partner was Jack Lapidus (their ex-accountant). He was at the memorial service as well. But that’s another story.

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  6. I worked for stormin Norman back in the mid 70s tending bar for the summer
    at the Van Ness Henry Africas. It was bartending boot camp for me. The man
    taught me the more refined nuances of tending bar taking me from a Chico State
    college town bartender to seeing the savy business science of his realized vision.
    in a city rife with dingy hole in the wall dives Norman and his brother set the
    standard for the bar as a refreshing watering hole. It was a haven for the
    preppy and yuppy crowd who were held in disdain by the cynical elitist of that
    generation, Most who worked or drank there saw it as something more than a theme
    bar. It was at the very least a classy city ornament that should be remembered as
    as city fixture in the better remembered decade of the the city’s 1970s
    For a city that revers its eccentric personalities past and present, Norman belongs
    right up there with Emporer Norton….If there is happy hour in the here after Norman
    will be there with his dice cup

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  7. What memories! I worked as a waitress for both Norman and Jack in the early 80’s–first at Henry’s for Norman then later for Jack at the Balboa. If you survived Henry’s for more than a few months you could work pretty much anywhere in the City, it was the best reference in town! Many of the Henry Africa’s bartenders were from Dartmouth long before Norman opened the Dartmouth Social Club in the Marina. The first question Norman asked me when I applied for the job at Henry Africa’s (late afternoon on a Friday I think over drinks that he made me buy for both of us!) was where did I go to school (a UC school was ok although he made it clear an East Coast school would have been preferable) but after 2 rounds he hired me on the spot to work that night –what an introduction and with 2 gin and tonics under my belt! The thing about Norman was that he had a great business model–all drinks were free poured using premium spirits from the well, and top quality fresh ingredients in everything. The ordering process was amazing and nothing was written down, everything was in cash with no tabs run — as a waitress you paid for the drinks out of your own cash float and made sure you had the right change to collect the money from the customer and give change–if you made a mistake you wore it, not Norman! The bartenders were diligent in making sure it was all correct and they also put on a bit of show behind the bar–Norman had staff who could actually think and converse–hunky ex rugby players as bartenders in conservative button down shirts, and waitresses in conservative preppy clothes, the bar was brightly lit, with the Tiffany lamps and Harleys in the window as well as the huge Henry Africa story in stained glass. Norman even had a model train running around the ceiling area, and on occasion had a pianist play up in a loft area. He was a real character old Norman, but for awhile had an amazing place. The Balboa was a different scene altogether–not quite as insane but again, a great business. Boz Skaggs did come around a lot and again, conservative dress (this time waitresses in Laura Ashley dresses!) seemed to work for the clientele. Thanks for a time to remember –met and worked with a lot of great people like Harry Denton during those years, will always remember them and for that, thanks to both Norman and Jack!

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  8. Was poking around the net and saw this about my old stomping grounds from 1975 to 1980, between laying out on the Marina Green during the day and hitting the Balboa in the evening and buying and selling classic cars that kept me afloat, sold a car for Bozz and for Craig Fruin, Bozz’s tour manager, there was nothing like being a single straight guy in SFO,,,I had a lot of dates, so to speak. Boy there were some fantastic ladies living in SFO at that time seemed like everyone was from New York I felt like the only native.
    Got to know Norman a bit from knowing Jack, really enjoyed the Lionel trains and Winchesters and the Tiffanys and Harleys what an eclectic fellow.
    One day Doyle and Jack and I and another fellow who I can not remember flew to San Diego to bring Doyle’s 35 foot sport fishing boat back to SFO.
    What a trip, every day we got started late so it was always dark when we radared into the various ports. First Catalina, where we sampled deep fried abalone on the boats kerosene stove, what a mess in the rolling ocean. Then through the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara loosing the steering on the fly bridge in a following sea, if you have ever been on a boat in a following sea you start loosing your lunch, Jack was standing next to me with a bottle of Cutty Sark in one hand and a package of peanut butter cookies in the other, not a great combination but Jack never got sick. Got the steering fixed, started out about 2pm to Morrow Bay arriving 2am, got bad fuel the next morning heading to Montery, 25 foot seas and bad fuel about 4 miles off shore at 10PM first lost one engine then lost the other engine, waves breaking over the fly bridge, had to Mayday emergency, Doyle got down in the engine bay cleaned the diesel water filters and we were getting about 800RPM out of one engine, enough to keep us from broaching. Before Doyle got the motors running a huge freighter came steaming up behind us, they heard our Mayday and were coming to the rescue, what it seemed only Doyle knew, the seaman that he was, that if you Mayday and a freighter stops for you, you have to pay their down time which would have been thousands of dollars. Any way we called off the freighter and were making very slow headway in the 25 foot seas and a coast guard boat not much bigger then our boat from Monterey came out and towed us into Monterey Bay. Then the tow line got tangled in the prop, so we dropped anchor and fell asleep till about 6am when I was determined to get off this thing. Looking around for a sharp knife I was contemplating going over the side to cut the rope but then saw a couple divers and called them over and they cut the mess around the props we got the motor running went to the dock I called a cab for the airport and flew back to SFO. Doyle and Kathy came down the next weekend and had a great cruise back to SFO. What a memory but they were great guys I’m glad I knew them. Now married 32 years in Atlanta.
    Norman lived his life and enjoyed all of it.

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  9. I’m Norman’s sister, Joyce, and want you all to know Norman would have cherished your great comments; really enjoyed reading about your fun and work times with both my brothers. Will forward a copy to Jack.

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  10. I was visiting my daughter and her grand children in SF recently. At Daniel Webster’s Elementary School while picking up our kindergärtner I met The owner of the Comstock and asked him if he knew the legendary Hobday Brothers! Of course and he told me of Norm’s passing..We live in Paris now but the memories of Henry Africa’s are amazing. I had been in the Peace Corps in Thailand in the early 1970’s and realized it was not where I wanted to be. I was an East Coast Preppy Débutante but never felt right in Philadelphia and in those shoes. I had a Masters in Education but could find no jobs. Why not waitressing? I stopped by Henry’s and they did not need any help…just as I was out the door a really cute bartender pulled me back in …can you start tonight? Why not! What a crazy wonderful time…Norman was a ferocious non nonsense boss. ..with his one way window and intercom. He was a task master. I could hold a huge tray filled with cocktails and still make change and deliver the proper drinks to the customers and still make small talk. I received poems, joints and proposals for tips not to mention alot of money.. I once was fined $100 for leaving the window open..There were so many wonderful customers and characters..Herb Caen who always drank salty dogs and wasn’t much of a tipper. We had great Christmas Parties and I loved the people I worked with. When I got married Norman made me remove my wedding ring..bad for business. He and Jack with their dad used to take me to International House of Pancakes after my late shift. I lived in Sausalito and had no transportation but somehow the Bartenders always made sure I got home….It changed my life..we even bought the old stand up urinal from Jack after he bought the Balboa. My condolences to Norman’s family and hugs to Jack!

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  11. David, you must have been one of the bartenders the summer I worked at the Balboa, 1981, for the rich details you report here are part of my own memories. I was a terrible cocktail waitress, but if it had not been for that job, I would not have been able to finish law school. Years later, I spotted Jack on Market, and went over and thanked him for giving me that job, and not sending me packing when I did stupid things like mistake club soda for tonic. There were some super nice people working at the Balboa. Still grateful for the experience. Thank you for the story.

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  12. A lot of good people worked there. There was a very kind man behind the bar who left to study composition at the Berklee College of Music– I think his name was David; the waitress who trained me was an educator for the deaf; Bobby, who was part of the Harley riding thing; Ernie or Eddy, who wanted to learn bar-tending. I was a pretty un-memorable broke law student, only notable for my complete ignorance of alcoholic beverages and my aversion to being called “sweetheart.”Like I said, a terrible cocktail waitress. Thank you again for the excellent memory piece.

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  13. I was poking around online to see if/when Norman had passed. I’ve known Norman since I was a kid (I was born in ’67). He and my mom, Jane, dated for a while. My family used to joke that the last place you ever wanted to be when The Big One hit was Henry Africa’s with the Tiffany lamps, the train sets, mounted animal heads, and motorcycles hanging from the ceiling and walls. I remember Paul the piano player (he would always play Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head for me) and I remember Harry sneaking my sister and me sodas. I also remember that even though Norman wasn’t too big on kids, both my sister and I were allowed to enter the bar by ourselves as a “safe place” in the event we ever felt threatened. Norman was definately one of a kind. If there is a heaven, I hope he and my mom are sharing a drink. Maybe she’s not talking to him because he ticked her off again!

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  14. I worked there when you did, and Boz was a part-owner (or claimed to be) for a short stint. I remember this because at one point he was there one Saturday morning, and in the well area for the waitresses. I asked him to move, because he didn’t “belong there”. We had a quick exchange. He said “do you know who I am” and I replied “yeah, played at my high school sock hop, have you gotten any better”. He told me he was my boss, and I laughed.
    Later someone took me aside and said, “he has some ownership here, don’t be such a b**ch”. So, it was something that seemed to be a thing..I don’t know if he bought in for a while, to help balance the books or what, but I heard, as well that he was a “part owner”.
    I was, also, a TERRIBLE waitress. But quit after the episode of the soaking wet carpet weekend (back in the dining area) for two morning brunch shifts …shoes ruined, and my feet were waterlogged, and so sore. Slick was totally “whatever” and said “it’s just water”.
    This was a week or two after Mr. Tower slammed the door shut when I was in the walk-in getting celery for the bloody marys (an errand for the bartender). The latch didn’t work on the inside (I found out). When I pounded on the door to be let out, he opened it and stormed at me “why are you in here?” Yeah, right. I live here.
    I remember the place they hailed from a place called “Pumkin Bend”. I thought THAT was hilarious.

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    1. Mimi, we were indeed there at the same time. I recall the wet floor! And Mr. Tower. I actually had no idea of his stature in the restaurant business, and was a little confused about all the groupies he had. And, I also had a negative interaction with Boz Scaggs, which does not bear going into. Suffice it to say, celebrity status means nothing to me, only a person’s actions matter. As bad a waitress as I was, that job kept me afloat, and I learned a lot. Interesting times.

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  15. I knew Norman Hobday long before he called himself Henry Africa when he lived in a rented house up on Clipper Street in San Francisco just two blocks uphill from where friends and I lived in the Diamond Heights area of the City. Back then, Norman was hustling furniture out of his garage and saving up to buy what he said would be the “perfect place for people to hang out at night” because he said he never went to the same bar twice as he didn’t like the way any of them looked. I heard he had been going out to sea working on ships with my friends but never asked him about that.

    For those who remember the trains running around overhead in his bars — one day back in the late 1960’s he came downhill to the house where I was living temporarily with Mickey Ballard and Charlie Johnson, both merchant seamen also and Norman’s friends. Norman borrowed $2,000 from each of them and managed to borrow Charlie’s prized train set kept neatly in boxes in the basement, trains which Norman never returned to him. I told Charlie at the time he would probably never see his trains again but he trusted Norman. But, Charlie did see them again — a couple of times running around overhead at Henry Africa’s on Van Ness Ave. & Vallejo St. while listening to a singing waiter. Charlie died in the mid 1980’s and Mickey many years later, neither of them able to budge Norman on the return of Charlie’s trains.

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