You never stepped into Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room expecting to grab something and go. Something compelled you to sit and enjoy what was unfolding around you. This place would have never made it into the prototype book for the world's current trend in cafes. You weren't standing behind someone talking away on their phone, juggling their laptop and trying to order some double latte something. The owner David Nemoyten created a space that was reminiscent of his lifestyle. He is a true San Francisco artist, boasting a family lineage including artists, actors, singers, poets, and playwrights dating back to the mid-1800's.
Walking into Mad Magda's was like walking into the world of the Ringling Bros Circus - but the cast of characters were all your friends. Objets d'art and odd collectables were everywhere - including a gorgeous tarot card poster with the infamous Mad Magda's face staring down directly at you. It had those eyes that seemed to follow you around the room. I remember feeling as if I had experienced no decor quite like it.
I spent many afternoons in the garden - which was often used as my couturier Mr. David's office. At the time, my couturier lived in Hayes Valley, so consequently we spent a lot of time entrenched in the swirling atmosphere of Magda's. Together we would lament over a new gown design or sit and plot about an upcoming performance. Many artistic things were created in that space.
There was so much to enjoy at Magda's. The staff itself was so incredibly crush worthy that your heart alone brought you back in day after day just to gaze upon their uncanny beauty. Some of the staff I met at Magda's are still friends of mine today.
Since its closure - San Francisco has been besieged with coffee shops and trendy roasters - many designed in the most raw and basic of styles. All of them conforming to the sensibility of normal - whatever that is. There was nothing normal about Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room - and I feel as though I am an even more artistic person for having experienced it.
I recently had a chance to ask David Nemoyten how he felt about the growth and change that inevitably affected his lifestyle and business in Hayes Valley. His attitude about this sea change seems to be a bittersweet mixture of resignedness, reminiscence, and ultimately, optimism. I've come to realize that's how David is -- indefatigably progressive in his thinking and thus unflinchingly embracing of the inevitability of change.
My life in San Francisco seems pretty normal. I've surrounded myself with artists who are so fabulous. I'm still amazed that I can look back and see that my life is everything I was dreaming of as a little kid. I'm eternally grateful for places like Magda's, which provided a setting for those dreams to become reality. Though change happens in every city, places like Mad Magda's Russian Tea Room should always be around.
How long did you live in Hayes Valley?
27 years! I just moved away in May of this year.
What attracted you to open your business in Hayes Valley?
I lived in the neighborhood on the 300 block of Hayes. That block was somewhat established and with nicer restaurants and stores catering to the Opera and Symphony crowds. In 1990 a close friend of mine, Roman, decided to open a hair salon in the 500 block of Hayes. I assisted him and his partner in that endeavor.
Note: At this time I had been studying voice for several years under the tutelage of former Metropolitan Opera Star, Blanche Thebom. I had come to the conclusion that though I enjoyed performing and singing, I wasn't going to surrender my life to that endeavor. It only satisfied a portion of my desires. I had made a pact with myself that if I didn't pursue a career in performing, that I would open my own business.
The 500 block of Hayes at that time had a few interesting businesses and a lot of empty store fronts. The '89 earthquake played a key role in changing the neighborhood to what it is today. Because of that quake, the double decker freeway that cut through the middle of the 400 block of Hayes was deemed unsafe and was docketed to be torn down. The 500 block of Hayes had been considered the other side of the railroad tracks. It was somewhat dangerous too. Because of the types of businesses that were starting to move into the neighborhood, I knew that the freeway being torn down would set the stage for that area to become the new "it "spot. I also had found the perfect spot to open Magda's at 579 Hayes, one of the oldest buildings in the neighborhood built in the 1870's.
It's been said that Hayes Valley hasn't been the same since you opened Mad Magda`s Russian Tea Room. Tell us about your initial vision for Magda's.
Mad Magda's was a conglomeration of many influences in my life, namely my Russian Polish ancestry combined with my great attraction to eccentric San Francisco businesses that were one of a kind places you probably wouldn't see anywhere else. Places that defied category. In the early 90's the SF that I loved, the wacky eccentric, brashly individualistic SF was beginning to fade. I feel Magda's brought that spirit back into focus for a period of time. The interiors of Magda's were designed by my old friend Steven Hornbuckle and I would describe them as Grandma's house on acid! I had mystic readers 7 days a week. The cafe was written about in publications all over the world, from radical underground zines to well established magazines and tour books. This attracted a wide variety of people from many walks of life to this little cafe. A key part of my vision was to have a place that people with diverse backgrounds could come and interact and maybe leave learning a little more about themselves and open a door of acceptance for others...
You really supported artists when you opened the cafe - what inspired you to hire such an eclectic staff?
I have always been attracted to artistic and interesting individuals. My father was an arts administrator and my mother was a wonderful actress. My grandfather was a muralist and there were singers, poets, and playwrights in my family going back to the mid 1800's. You could say it's in my blood!
Many of my staff over the years were artists, writers, and musicians. I also had a large clientele of the same. Many artists would start a tab at the cafe, which is how I started collecting art. I call it my Borscht collection! Some of the past
Magda's staff were artist Scooter LaForge, film director Charles Herman Wurmfeld, performance artist Jer Ber Jones, London stylist Christian Landon etc..
Tell us about the mix of denizens that frequented Magda's.
There was quite a colorful mix of people that came in quite frequently. The readers were also quite an interesting lot as well. They ranged from an East Bay socialite to an amazing 75-year-old blind artist who read with a Braille deck to Tiny June, a 4'8", 80-year-old Scottish lady who read playing cards and tea leaves and many more..
Regulars included artist Timothy Cummings (my roommate for 20 years), photographers Danny Nicoletta & Kent Taylor, drag superstar Glamamore, chanteuse Veronica Klaus, singer songwriter Bambi Lake, Warhol star Ivy Nicholson, writer Geraldine Barr, as well as occasional appearances by Justin Bond, Michael Stipe, Bonnie Raitt, Elliot Gould, Quentin Crisp, SF drag performers Juanita More, Heklina, Peaches Christ, Anaconda, Sister Roma, Putanesca (Photographer/ Stylist Jose Guzman Colon), Gina La Divina and tons more...
A few notable regulars included Roberta, the eccentric old lady that lived in the nursing home across the street who would come in with 20 necklaces on wearing Tweety Bird Slippers carrying a large fish purse. We adopted her though and much to the chagrin of my staff, I let her wash dishes on occasion so she could earn a few dollars (they usually had to re-do them). One time some SF well-to-do ladies of leisure happened into the cafe and obliviously bumped into Roberta. Roberta shouted several expletives at them and they came to me to complain. I told them that the place was called Mad Magda's, what did they expect?
There was also Bridget Brat, "Gods Girlfriend," who was 7 ft tall in heels and weighed 130 if that, with her mane of bleached blonde hair who was a heavy metal artist and was renowned for blowing the speakers out in almost every nightclub in town. She often created a stir.
One of my ex-Tarot readers was asked by a newer friend of mine what was Magda's like. She put it aptly: When you walked in the door you felt that anything was possible! It was indefinably magical at its best and also mighty real at the same time.
As with most growing neighborhoods in San Francisco, change happens. Did you see this change coming while Magda's was still open?
The short answer is, yes. I saw that many of the other stores opening in the neighborhood were small independent clothing and furniture design boutiques.
I was hoping the neighborhood would keep some of the great eclectic mix of businesses it had when I moved in. There were stores left over from the old Hayes Valley such as Mr. Sharps Junk Store, Powell's Fried Chicken, where Emmett Powell would broadcast his weekly gospel radio show, and Victorian Interiors, who were my neighbors which was a one stop shop to restore your Victorian to its original 1890's splendour!
Once the Dot Com Boom hit in the late 90's, the writing was on the wall. San Francisco was being invaded by young people who were flooding here in droves and getting paid outrageous salaries. Many of them had no knowledge of this city or its history. They had no connection to the wacky eccentric town of my youth. This period saw many of my neighbors and friends get pushed out of SF. It really started changing the demographics of the city. This is one of the reasons I decided to sell in '99. More recently in the past year, SF has seen a phenomenon which I call the Dot Com Boom on Steroids! Myself and many others have been financially forced out of town. Now, I don't want to say that all is bad in this new SF and the new Hayes Valley. I love a lot of things going on down there, including the Hayes Green where the neighborhood gathers, and I really like the wonderful container pop up stores. I think these are so ingenious. I am always impressed with innovation. It will be fascinating to see how things evolve in the next few years...