Heart of the City Archives

San Francisco Daze: North Beach's Ray Marrone and Bollywood film star Riya Sen relax between takes on a "Queer Eye" send-up.
City in royal flush of colorful characters
by Hank Donat

The latest project from North Beach figure Edwin Heaven, the adman and entrepreneur, is a royal affair. Heaven's ad for a local bottled drink is a parody of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" featuring a cameo by India's newest superstar - who happens to be a princess.

When I visited the set of the commercial at 151 Alice B. Toklas Street, where Keanu Reeves made Sweet November, I found an only-in-San-Francisco cast of low-budget guerilla creatives in a setting with many layers of mirth and absurdity through which to comb.

In the spoof, the Fab 5 are portrayed by Tiatro ZinZanni performer Joe Orrach, real-life Castro District hairdresser Daniele Ordonez, indy filmmaker Allen White, actor Saber Altwal, and Ray Marrone, co-owner of the hip North Beach lounge Fuse.

Each impersonator bears a suitable likeness to their Bravo network counterpart. White is a ringer for food and wine connoisseur Ted Allen.

The casting of 22 year-old Riya Sen as "Straight Guy" Gabriele Originario's dream-girl-come-to-life is a coup for Heaven. Born in Calcutta of royal extraction, Sen is also a third-generation Bollywood star with five hugely successful films to her credit.

Her latest Hindi film is titled "Tum Ho Na," which Sen says loosely translates to "The Other." In it Sen plays a drug addict in love with an older man.

It would be the height - or is it the depth? - of understatement to say that Sen is beautiful. She is one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen. There is no question that western audiences will go mad for her, as they have in India, if Sen decides to make a film in the United States.

Sen's appearance in the TV spot is something of a favor to family friend Giovanni, the undisputed San Francisco Margarita King whose award-winning concoction is the subject of Heaven's 30-second masterpiece.

This is where Madison Avenue meets Van Ness Avenue, where one real princess joins forces with five imitation queens to promote a cocktail king.

On the set, a sun drenched loft apartment, all the trappings of on-the-fly filmmaking are present. At any given time someone is missing an eyelash, late for another rehearsal or dinner shift across town, not happy with their make-up, and standing in the light. A production assistant is on the hunt for everything from wigs to calzones.

Why does it always seem that the crew people are the most patient and unassuming in theatrical settings? Cameraman Daniel Robin is unflappable. His website, neighborhoodfilms.com, features a number of wonderful short takes on North Beach including Robin's "Valet Chronicles."

During a shot with Sen, Originario, and models Jen Quist and Miriam Herbie, Heaven reminds everyone that FCC regulations prohibit anyone from actually drinking the margarita in the commercial. The admonition is also an effective way of preventing the Vitameatavegamin phenomenon during frequent takes.

Toasts are saved until the end of the day, along with high-fives and exhales. Giovanni plans to air the spot during an upcoming episode of "Queer Eye," the hit show about gay guys making over the lives and apartments of straight guys.

At a separate happening, this one on the bay, Dr. Eugene Schoenfeld, aka Dr. Hip, rolled out the red carpet once again for his Blue Angels party aboard his yacht Higher Hopes.

Lee Houskeeper is correct when he calls a boat "a big hole in the water where all your money goes," but for Dr. Hip it's a priceless tradition dating back to the less sea worthy High Hopes and a few previous models of Blue Angles as well.

Schoenfeld's great-uncle was Arnold Rothstein, the "Mr. Big" who fixed the 1919 World Series. During Prohibition, Rothstein worked with Lucky Luciano and Legs Diamond. He also mentored Meyer Lansky.

Schoenfeld gained prominence in the late 1960s when he wrote "Hip Pocrates," a syndicated newspaper column in which he answered questions about sexuality and psychoactive drugs. The author of four health books is also a frequent expert witness regarding the treatment of problems related to drug abuse and addiction.

Yacht parties are never without the wonderful sense of impending adventure that comes when everybody boards, invariably just moments before setting sail. It worked for years on television on The Love Boat. Of course it's most exciting when someone nearly misses the boat but does not, as was the case when Higher Hopes pulled out of the slip for the second time that afternoon in Sausalito.

That we had returned to port for "Bohemia" author Herb Gold and an elegant companion in a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses added a sense of Agatha Christie to the entire affair that lasted even while the Blue Angels were roaring high - but not high enough for my liking - above the choppy San Francisco Bay.

Among the friends of Dr. Hip aboard Higher Hopes were Robert Altman, Trish Kettering, Dr. Twist, Eric Christensen and his family, Dr. Hip's father Ben Schoenfeld, and Faustin Bray.

Bray is a striking figure, perched panther-like in the yacht's flydeck in order to catch the most incredible photographs of the bay and precision aircraft.

Seeing the city from the bay is always a meditative experience, even if it's only on a ferry commute. It's a chance to look at your own hometown, glittering from Telegraph Hill to the Presidio, bridge to bridge, so you can rub your eyes in disbelief before you remember just how sweet life can really be.

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Copyright 2003 Hank Donat
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