Noe Valley Voice February 2000

Gone But Not Forgotten: Gary Schnell

By Susan Peterson

A personage of distinction from Noe Valley's colorful past has left us... a funny man, a good and loyal friend.

Gary Schnell was one of a talented cast of characters who worked at the Acme Cafe on 24th Street in the 1970s. The Acme, located where Casa Mexicana is now, was a popular hangout for artists and performers.

If you were there, recall a slender, mustachioed guy in his late 20s with an oversized canine puppet on his arm. The puppet was "Milton," an alter-ego who dared to say all the unthinkable things that Gary couldn't.

Without totally alienating us, "Milton" managed to get us to laugh at ourselves -- our oh-so-hip and serious young selves. Although Gary made no attempt to mask the source of Milton's voice by stilling his own lips, our disbelief was suspended. The dog became an absolutely plausible entity who made amusing visits to the Acme. Milton was no different from any other character on 24th Street.

One of our mutual friends remembers Gary running the espresso machine at the Acme's back bar, dispensing coffee and encouragement on bad days (or what passed for bad days back then). I remember his being the cafe's dishwasher at the very, very beginning. Twenty years later, Gary loved to tell people about how he went from dishwasher to manager in less than a year. Then he'd ask, "Where else could that have happened but San Francisco?"

It was a time of rapid lifestyle changes, when matters of expediency mixed with pieces of good luck. Many of us came to San Francisco -- and to Noe Valley -- from other places. And we came with "flowers in our hair."

The '70s were also a heyday for street artists and craftspeople, and Gary was one of them. He often performed downtown and at the Cannery at Fishermen's Wharf. Gary's stage was a mockup of a TV set dubbed "Bio-vision," and he did a talk show called "Dog Day Afternoon." Milton played a wisecracking emcee who engaged the passing man, woman, or child on the street. Encouraging people to laugh at themselves remained at the heart of Gary's performing career.

In the late '70s, many spiritual movements, teachers, and seekers swirled around us. Gary began to practice Buddhism with the Soka Gokkai International Movement (SGI). This faith arose from the philosophy and practice of the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist Nichiren Daishonin, who called for the invocation of nam-myoho-renge-kyo.

Through his practice, Gary made a commitment to peace and happiness -- his own and that of others. He also expressed a sincere desire to be "one with the rhythm and the Mystic Law of the universe." Gary's own essence, a personality that was a mixture of down-to-earth seriousness and antic playfulness, persuaded many of us that there must be something real to this particular Buddhist practice. So we became believers as well.

In the 1980s, Gary began to perform on the road, sometimes opening for other performers, mostly working state and county fairs around the western United States. For two decades, he lived as a carnival worker for much of the year. He hauled along a beautifully painted and curtained platform -- his "Golden Gate Comedy Stage" -- and he performed a comedy-magic act called "Guido's School of Magic." He went to places great (Los Angeles) and small (Cottonwood, Ariz.)...and yes, he made a living doing what he loved.

Then he suddenly took ill. On Nov. 18, 1999, Gary Schnell died of Legionnaires' disease in a hospital in Riverside, Calif., the town where he had been performing. He was 50 years old.

A memorial service was held on Dec. 12 at the SGI Cultural Center in San Francisco. It was a unique and wondrous celebration, which brought together all of the people Gary had touched during his life -- family members, lifelong friends, folks from the fairs (each sporting a Groucho mustache/nose/ glasses in Gary's honor), Buddhist friends and associates, and a group from the old Acme. We cried and laughed as we shared our stories. We expressed our disbelief and deep sadness for this loss in our lives. Milton was there.

Through the decades, Gary had tenaciously held onto those who meant something to him. One friend said that Gary was the person who taught us all about friendship and loyalty and commitment. We were a generation coming of age in the '70s, hitting life without a script, but naively confident in the powers of creative freedom and good intentions.

It was a time when we were not yet conscious of (nor could we have imagined) a virulent bacteria that at the turn of the millennium might not be spent; a disease that carries a name that, as a child, I associated with "adventure."

Gary Schnell, we are grateful beyond words to have had you in our lives. You will be missed always.

Susan Peterson, whom you may recall as Susie Kaplan, lives in Prescott, Ariz.