Remembering Ellen Havre Weis, Berkeley historian and pop culture museum founder

Ellen Havre Weis, 64, co-authored a book about the “life and spirit of Berkeley” and co-founded the Museum of Modern Mythology, which celebrated American advertising characters such as Mr. Clean, Frito Bandito and Jolly Green Giant.

Ellen Weis with her horse Yarrow in Iowa in 1979. Credit: The Ellen Weis Archive

The Jolly Green Giant and the Michelin Man lost a friend July 27 with the passing of 64-year-old Ellen Havre Weis, author, museum founder and longtime Berkeley and Oakland resident. She died of brain cancer at home in Altadena on July 27 after fighting the disease for several months.

Among her many contributions, Weis was the co-founder of the Museum of Modern Mythologywhich celebrated American advertising characters such as Mr. Clean, Frito Bandito and Jolly Green Giantpresented in a way to show their relation to mythic images and archetypes.

“Human beings need immortal characters to help interpret what’s happening to them,” Weis told the Los Angeles Times in a 1987 article about the museum. “Why is the Jolly Green Giant so popular? You can say it’s a very good marketing campaign, but what does that mean? I think subconsciously it refers back to the lore of the giant. All these characters refer to age-old archetypes in our hearts.”

The whimsical and widely acclaimed small museum was located in San Francisco from its founding in 1982 until it was displaced by the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989.

Weis also co-authored the Berkeley history book, Berkeley: The Life and Spirit of a Remarkable Town, published in 2004. For the past 10 years, she served as director of advertising for Bay Nature magazine.

In researching her book, a photo history of Berkeley, which she did with Kiran Singh for the publisher, Frog Books, Weis developed a love for the city’s quirky, yet influential, denizens.

She ran publicity campaigns for the Berkeley Downtown Association and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

“She had a deep love for Berkeley and Berkeley history,” said Gordon Whiting, her husband of 25 years, who added that she was crazy about only-in-Berkeley events like the 1996 avant garde music festival Sound Culture. “Her passion could be ignited on a subject that you might not guess she’d be interested in. She’d become lit up about something and often was. She had an unlimited capacity to find things to be excited about.”

Ellen Havre Weis worked the last 10 years of her life as director of advertising for Bay Nature magazine. Credit: Dave Strauss

With her shock of dark curls and trademark beaming grin, Weis could charm the life story out of almost anyone.

“She would prefer to know what your elementary school was, rather than tell you what she had for breakfast,” said Whiting.

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on May 14, 1957, Weis was raised in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, where she attended public schools. Her father was an engineer at RCA. Her mother was a community college librarian.

Enrolling at the University of Iowa in 1975 to study writing, she quickly fell in with a group of intellectuals known as the Actualists, led by poet Anselm Hollo and small press publisher Allan Kornblum. Mentored by writer Jayne Anne Phillips, she published her first short fiction in “North American Review.”

American Express gave the Museum of Modern Mythology $10,000 and had its “Centurian” character inducted into the museum. Credit: The Ellen Weis Archive

In 1982, Weis moved to San Francisco where she founded the Museum of Modern Mythology with Matthew Cohen and Jeff Errick. The museum featured a quirky collection of American advertising characters such as Mr. Clean, Poppin Fresh Pillsbury Dough Boy and Colonel Sanders, curated to highlight their archetypal traits.

The small museum quickly found wide acclaim, with feature stories in the Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, People and the New York Times. Prominent mythologist Joseph Campbell and film historian Leonard Maltin served on the board.

“These characters were the modern equivalent of mythological figures,” said Maltin, who featured the museum in an appearance on the television show Entertainment Tonight, where he was a regular movie critic. “While Mr. Peanut and Speedy Alka Seltzer were invented by somebody on Madison Avenue, they, like Frankenstein’s monster, had a life of their own.”

Weis believed these characters were deeply engrained in the American psyche, said Whiting.

“Ellen sensed there was more than nostalgia at work in people’s response to these images” he said. “They seemed familiar on a deep level, part of an ongoing story.”

After the museum lost its home in the 1989 earthquake, Weis spent five years lecturing about the mythology of advertising.

“Having Ellen come to talk about the Museum of Modern Mythology was one way of encouraging my business students to think about the roles that advertising plays in culture generally and to consider the idea that advertising has a longer life than the short-term goal of helping a product manager increase sales,” said Trudy Kehret-Ward, a longtime professor of marketing at the Haas School of Business.

Kehret-Ward said that while some critics might be offended at the idea of mythological figures being used for sales, “the goal of Ellen and the museum’s board was not to take a particular political viewpoint about the creation of advertising figures,” she said. “It was rather to make it possible for visitors to the museum to reconnect with the feelings of enjoyment these advertising characters created for them, and to spur reflection and discussion.”

Weis and her husband formed WeisPR in 1994 in Berkeley. The firm represented media and industrial arts innovators such as special effects pioneer Phil Tippett, sound designer-film director Jim LeBrecht, designer Fu-Tung Cheng and woodworking studio Berkeley Mills.

After the birth of her son, Benjamin Whiting in 2001, Weis was a beloved member of the parent community at Berkeley’s Model School Comprehensive preschool.

She continued her writing pursuits, joining the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, where she studied with James D. Houston and Al Young.

In recent years, she joined the team of the Berkeley-based Bay Nature magazine, led by Berkeley publishing legends Malcolm Margolin and David Loeb.

After collapsing in January in the kitchen of her home in Altadena, tests revealed the presence of the glioblastoma multiforme, a form of brain cancer. Despite aggressive treatment, her condition deteriorated. She died at home in Altadena in the arms of husband Gordon and son Benjamin. She is survived by them and by her mother, Aimee L. Weis, and sister, Margaret Chase, both of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and by her brother Fred Weis, of Arcata, California.

Yet some of Weis’ quirkiest contributions will live on – as her advertising mythology collection will soon be getting a new home. An agreement was reached in July to bring the Museum of Modern Mythology’s complete archive, some 3,000 objects and manuscripts, into the collection of the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, California, for continued study and display.

The original gallery of the Museum of Modern Mythology at 275 Capp St. in San Francisco. Credit: The Ellen Weis Archive