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Local Legend of the Week: Burning Man Founder & Host to The SF Cacophony Society, P Segal

Updated: Jun 12, 2023 10:28
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We here at like to show love to the people who make cities like San Francisco and New York special. That’s why we’ve begun doing a new series called Local Legend of the Week. This is our chance to hip you to some of the strange, brilliant, and unique folks who populate these towns and give them the character that people from around the world have come to love.


The first Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert was conceived and planned in P Segal’s living room at 1907 Golden Gate Ave, by a group of misfits, artists, and free spirits known as the San Francisco Cacophony Society. To this group of ‘merry pranksters’, the first Burning Man in the desert was just another elaborate excursion outside the city.  In the Society you were encouraged to be inventive, to create, organize and pull off adventures with your friends. Whether that event consisted of leading people through the Oakland sewer system in Tuxedos and galoshes, or painting the interior of one of the concrete bunkers near Fort Funston all in white, and having a ‘White Christmas’ party while serving white food and dressing head to toe in white outfits.  These ‘burners’, before Burning Man existed, were constantly looking for interesting experiences, escaping the mainstream and creating their own forms of entertainment. The spirit of the time was one of creativity and radical self-expression, and the cradle for these ideas was in the home of this week’s Local Legend, our own Miss P Segal.

In the 1970’s and 80’s Miss P was living in North Beach and soaking in a rich café lifestyle. On the terrace of Savoy Tivoli there used to be a cross section of interesting people: maverick quantum physicists, poets, radical political leftists, neo-cons, and members of the SF Suicide Club.  The beat poets were still around, the Italian community dominated the waterfront, and a blossoming punk scene was growing at Mabuhay Gardens.  P Segal was hanging out in the literary scene with the likes of Jack Micheline and Gregory Corso, giving Bob Kaufman beer money, and rubbing elbows with people like Alan Ginsberg. Housing was cheap, cost of living low, and people had the free time to be creative.

P carried this San Franciscan Bohemian style to the 3 story Edwardian town house at 1907 Golden Gate Ave, where she played host to Cacophony society’s plots and parties. This is where they built the foundation of a festival that grew from being just a group of friends on Baker Beach in 1986, to 89 people in the desert in 1990 (they counted exactly 89 people to make sure no one got left behind), to now nearly 70,000 people this August 2014.  Miss P was Burning Man’s first Hostess.  She created the Burning Man Café, which was the inspiration for what is now the center camp concept. In 1994 she was actually fined by the Nevada Board of health for allowing her baristas to work naked! Back in San Francisco she was running her own restaurant, Caffe Proust, a haven for foodies and creative types. Now Miss P is an author and therapist, and champion to a cause that promises to protect and cradle the creative pursuits of San Francisco’s artists. Because, as she says, “being in the presence of creative energy is vital to the mental health of a city“.

 The San Francisco Art House Project seeks to give artists and proven creatives a way to stay in San Francisco and keep our city interesting, diverse, and beautiful.  ‘Art houses’ will be like tech incubators, only instead of pumping out software, we would be creating art publications, paintings, galleries, and new music.  The designs and layouts of these Art Houses are being drawn up as we speak.  If you’re interested in learning, contributing, or donating to this project check them out here.

P Segal:

Year arrived in San Francisco: I was born here
Favorite place to work in San Francisco: Worked as a private detective for a year
Favorite place to live In San Francisco: North Beach in the early 1980’s
Best Politician In San Francisco History: Matt Gonzalez
Favorite Book: In Search of Lost Time and of course Tales of San Francisco Cacophony Society
Favorite eats: Caffé Proust
Favorite bar: The bar at the Exploratorium After Dark
Favorite Band: Pine Box Boys
Favorite drink: Campari and orange juice
Favorite Museum: I love them all but going to the Legion of Honor on Sunday afternoons when the Organ is playing is superb.
Favorite event in SF? Earthquake Day. On the 18th of April at 5:13am people meet at the Lotta’s Fountain down town and are served bloody maries out of an antique fire truck. All the earthquake’s survivors would tell their stories about the quake. And eventually everyone ends up at the top of Dolores Park to give speeches and take turns spraying the fire hydrant there gold.
How has the city changed? When I was a child there were no skyscrapers, the city was beautiful and cheap, and was probably the most European of cities in the US.

How has Burning Man changed? In the 90’s it was about invention, it was an experiment, everything that emerged was from a process of development.  Now the festival is more a process of maintenance, many more people come to see the spectacle that others created, as opposed to creating the spectacles themselves.

Any advice to new burners:  Remember radical self reliance, these large camps that come with personal chefs, rows of showers and RVs that are like small hotels.  That’s not a radical new experience, that’s not taking yourself out of your comfort zone.  That’s relying on the same comforts you had at home.  You should experience washing dishes in a dust storm, you should learn how to evaporate grey water, you should be directly involved in leaving no trace.

Still a fan of Burning Man? Oh yes of course, BM is still one of the most fantastic festivals we have.  I love anything that puts art on a pedestal.  I may just be going again this year.” first BM

Miss P Segal at the first BM festival in the Nevada Desert, 1990

first theme camp

The first Burning Man ‘theme camp’ was a faux indegenous culture lead by Kevin Evans and Sebastian Hyde, they devised a spoken language, and made clay money to barter

cs sewer walk

Cacophony Society tours the sewers in formal wear


The Cacophony Society is the reason you see Salmon swimming upstream at Bay to Breakers

proust wake

Every year Miss P bakes a cake in the likeness of Marcel Proust and has a wake for him in an art coffin

proust funeral

Sometimes a live volunteer takes the place of Mr. Proust


Interested in the SF Cacophony Society?  This book will enlighten you


Photo credits: the black and white one of P Segal desert cafe is by Barbara Traub.

The one of the live Proust in the coffin was (I think) taken by Peter Field.

The one of the Proust cake was taken by Tom Hilton.

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

I'm the managing editor and co-owner of this little expiriment. I enjoy covering Bay Area News as well as writing about Arts, Culture & Nightlife.

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