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Robin Williams becomes icing on family vacation cake

Head of dinosaur appears to break through roof of Conservatory of Flowers. Photo: Woody Weingarten

And the winner is — drumroll, please — Robin Williams.

Three generations of my family agreed his improv at 142 Throckmorton in Mill Valley became the apex of a recent fun-crammed Bay Area vacation.

The icing on our cake, you might say.

Williams headlined a bill that included funnyman Mort Sahl, who at 85 walks haltingly but retains a keen mind.

I’d planned for us to catch a weekly Mark Pitta & Friends comedy gig so was surprised to find us watching 90 minutes of improvisation as beneficiaries of a scheduling switch.

Set List, with its catchphrase “stand-up without a net,” was being filmed for United Kingdom telecasting.

Each comedian (including Pitta) was captivating, but Williams, undoubtedly his generation’s primo comic genius, exceeded everyone’s highest expectations.

His steel-trap mind was fully transparent.

He instantly absorbed the never-before-seen phrases that flashed on a screen behind him and wove them into a web of delight.

Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire, then.

Robin Williams as Robin Williams, now.

Yes, much of his humor, and that of the other verbal clowns, wasn’t for little kids — especially an uproarious rendition of a talking vagina.

But my 15-year-old grandson, Zach, roared.

So did my other grandson, who’s 24; my son, 46; and my wife, who’s been on the planet only two years less than my 74 years.

She, in fact, labeled the show “quintessential improv. Sahl was as sharp as a tack and Williams as sharp as two tacks.”

I shared all their euphoria.

I’d been in the theater many times, mostly to hear readings of plays by Writers with Attitude.

But the remodeled nonprofit theater, which dates back to 1915 when it showed Charlie Chaplin flicks for a few pennies, is also the site of concerts and jam sessions that include the likes of Joan Baez and Woody Allen (individually, not as a duet).

It’s worth supporting.

While planning the vacation for “the boys” from the East Coast, I couldn’t help but think I had 7,150,739 places to choose from — one each Bay Area resident might recommend.

At least that’s what it felt like when I invited suggestions from friends and colleagues.

The ideas poured in.

One of the best notions was the San Francisco Movie Tour, a three-hour bus ride featuring 70 clips from 60 films shot in the city, way beyond the anticipated “Bullit” and “Vertigo.”

If “Mrs. Doubtfire” star Robin Williams turned into the vacation cake’s frosting, this journey represented sparkling candles.

Wylie Herman, an actor well versed in cinematic lore, guided us. Humor and Hollywood back-lot scraps copiously trickled off his tongue.

When discussing the filming of the Mike Myers’ comedy, “So I Married an Axe Murderer,” for instance, he cited a Tinsel Town truism feared by actors and adored by Realtors: “The camera adds 10 pounds and five bedrooms.”

Zach called it “the best tour I’ve ever seen of San Francisco.”

And his father, my son Mark, gave it “two thumbs up — for a good balance between the films, the facts and the city sights.”

Academy of Science worker feeds ostrich chicks. Photo: Woody Weingarten.

Another of the family favorites was a visit to the California Academy of Sciences, which is featuring a new exhibit and planetarium show, “Earthquake.”

A couple of dubious moments resurfaced for my wife and me since we’d been downtown when the Loma Prieta tremor hit in 1989. Though I was decidedly nervous about being in the “shake house” when it started rattling, I survived the faux temblor — and my trepidation — as I had the real one.

“The boys” appreciated it more.

They also liked the permanent displays — the waddling penguins, the spiral Rainforests of the World and the always-exhilarating underwater creatures of the Steinhart Aquarium.

But all of us expressly reveled in the ostrich chicks, then 16 days old.

Noted Drew, my older grandson, “I liked the babies the best of anything. It’s amazing how they’ve learned to walk so quickly.”

Alcatraz, of course, is on or near the top of almost everyone’s list of tourist musts. It was no exception for us.

A walking tour of the site last used as a prison in 1963 was jammed with facts, facts and more facts, none more significant for me than solar panels having been installed in June to generate 80 percent of the power need.

Mark grinned broadly at being “locked” behind bars in a cell, a piece of the colorful audio tour created by Chris Hardman and his Antenna Theatre.

“It was interesting seeing things from a prisoner’s point of view,” he said, flaunting his mastery of

Zach Weingarten is imprisoned — momentarily — in Alcatraz cell. Photo: Woody Weingarten


My wife Nancy agreed, adding that she was staggered to find “prisoners had been segregated. I’d never thought about that before.”

Hardman had also drummed up The Magic Bus, a 2-hour multimedia “time machine” tour of San Francisco that stresses the Summer of Love and the city’s Haight-Ashbury heyday — an era that, as the narration says, was “full of optimism, full of life.”

Music from the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” decade blasted through the bus as retractable screens depicted scene after scene of local happenings, interviews about acid trips and psychedelics, and a historical context.

They transformed each of us into a Dr. Feelgood.

We also got off on wearing 3-D glasses that made the bus wallpaper and souvenir booklet photos jump out.

But I wept again when the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King flashed before my eyes and brain.

Nancy and I, who’d consciously experienced the ‘60s, liked the bubble-discharging ride better than my kin, one of whom had been a toddler and two who hadn’t even been conceived.

Our pleasure was even enhanced by bumper-sticker wisdom offered by the hippie-clad tour guide: “Life is to be lived, not just tolerated.”

Living it to the fullest, for us, meant additional stops at Pier 39, where we all marveled in the Mirror Maze (one of seemingly endless tourist attractions and views, restaurants and shopping opportunities there), and the Conservatory of Flowers, where we saw “Plantosaurus Rex,” an exhibit of “living fossils” (prehistoric plants), along with models of dinosaurs (with one ostensibly sticking its head through the roof).

When all was said and done, though, the biggest vacation takeaway for me was the discovery that “the boys” walked too fast for Nancy and me to keep pace.

I guess it’s appropriate that the Summer Olympics are in full swing: We definitely need to pass the foot-race torch.

Tourist info is available for 142 Throckmorton at (415) 383-9600, www.142throckmortontheatre.org; San Francisco Movie Tour, (800) 979-3370, (415) 624-4949, www.sanfranciscomovietours.com; Academy of Sciences, (415) 379-8000, www.info@calacademy.org; Alcatraz, (415) 981-7625, info@alcatrazcruises.com; Magic Bus, (415) 855-969-6244, info@MagicBusSF.com; Pier 39, (415) 705-5500, www.pier39.com; Conservatory of Flowers, (415) 831-2090, www.conservatoryofflowers.org