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The City That Was: Proust Wakes at The John Wickett Museum of Exotica

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In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.

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The John Wickett Museum of Exotica

A few months ago, I wrote about Playland, the amusement park where my childhood friends and I risked our futures on some wild rides. I ended that tale with the promise to write about one of the owners of Playland, John Wickett, and what he did after the park closed down.

John Wickett was the black sheep son of a very wealthy family, and by the time he turned 80, he had a finely honed taste for the exotic.  A collector of things weird and often politically incorrect, John decided to create his own private museum.  He found an old commercial laundry building in the area northwest of Geary and Masonic, a neighborhood so neglected that it has no realtor’s jazzy name or dopey acronym.

He filled the old laundry with his collections, including some of the most famous bits of Playland, like Laughing Sal.  He also had a medieval chastity belt, a drum made of human skulls, hundreds of hand-painted neckties, an opium den, taxidermy, weird art, dusty Victoriana, pelts of endangered species, ecclesiastic garments, terrifying masks, bizarre paintings, foot binding tools, odd sculptures, antique Chinese furniture, a dead crocodile chomping on a crystal ball—thousands of things like that. It was an absolutely out-of-control Victorian Cabinet of Curiosities that covered every square inch of the building’s walls and ceilings, and a whole lot of the floor.

It had a mezzanine of smaller spaces filled with mattresses and pillows covered in satins and velvets, perfect settings for arty porn. A group of young people slept in those spaces in exchange for helping John with the private parties held there. Several of the parties they cleaned up were mine.

When I first met John Wickett, I went with my friend Nancy Dinney-Phelphs to wish him a happy birthday, and I made a cake. His family declined to celebrate the occasion, as usual, since they thought he was totally bonkers. He was so delighted by a stranger baking him a cake that he told me I could throw a party there any time I liked.

It was at exactly this time of year when I threw my first event at the Wickett Museum, in one of the early years of my Proust obsession. When I learned that Proust died on my birthday, I decided to have Proust Wakes, which I’d always thrown at 1907. But this place was perfect, just creepy enough for a death-themed event and so entertaining.

Because most of the museum’s floor was occupied with exotica, I was told I could have absolutely no more than 80 people in it at once. Unlike parties at 1907, where the Burning Man notion of radical inclusion was tested regularly, I warned people that this one was invitation only.

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That first year, as it says on the invitation, my friend Stuart Mangrum and I devised a séance. He dressed and made himself up as Proust post mortem. He spent all of the early part of the evening up in one of the porn aeries with a thick cardboard tube. I tried to collect participants for the séance and the crowd’s attention—difficult, considering where we were.

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Only some of the people who joined hands around the table knew what was going to happen. I entreated Proust to speak with us, and after many requests, the sonorous and deathly voice of Proust boomed down from heaven, or from the grave, through the cardboard tube: “Oui, madame, je suis ici.” Lots of people gasped and a few of the ones around the table jumped visibly. I asked him questions about death, and Stuart read the quotes from Proust’s work that answered each question. But by now people were used to Proust’s ghost being around. When the séance ended, Proust came bursting down a flimsy stairway into the cheering crowd.

News of this already oddball event in a spectacularly weird place spread like wildfire. By the next wake, there were more than twice as many guests as I was allowed. The third year, when hundred showed up, John Wickett got furious. But by the fourth year, I had Caffè Proust  Now there is neither the restaurant nor the museum. But put this on your calendars: the next Proust Wake will be held November 18, 2022, location TBA.

The photo at the top, of my friend Nelson Johnson with Laughing (Laffing) Sal, and the one of the absinthe service at one of the wakes were both taken by me.

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P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal - Bohemian Archivist

P Segal is a San Francisco native, writer, therapist, and life coach. Literary agents have called her a clever niche writer, but none of them can figure out what the hell her niche is.