In memory of Ellen Havre Weis, founder of the Museum of Modern Mythology

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 on July 27 with the passing of Ellen Havre Weis, 64, author, museum founder and longtime resident of Berkeley and Oakland. She died of brain cancer at her home in Altadena on July 27 after battling the disease for several months.

Among her many contributions, Weis was co-founder of the Museum of Modern Mythology, who celebrated American publicity figures such as Mr. Clean, Frito Bandito and Jolly Green Giant, presented in such a way as to show their relationship to mythical images and archetypes.

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

The whimsical and widely acclaimed little museum was located in San Francisco from its founding in 1982 until it was moved by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Weis is also a co-author of the Berkeley History Book, Berkeley: the life and spirit of a remarkable city, published in 2004. For the past 10 years, she has been Advertising Director for Bay Nature magazine.

While researching her book, A Photographic History of Berkeley, which she produced with Kiran Singh for publisher Frog Books, Weis developed a love for the city’s quirky but influential residents.

She led advertising campaigns for the Berkeley Downtown Association and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

“She had a deep love for Berkeley and the history of Berkeley,” said Gordon Whiting, her husband of 25 years, who added that she was crazy about events unique to Berkeley like the avant-garde music festival. Sound Culture from 1996. “His passion could be ignited on a subject that might not interest him. She was enlightening about something and often was. She had an unlimited ability to find things that turned her on.

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

With his shock of dark curls and his trademark beaming smile, Weis could charm almost anyone’s life story.

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

Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on May 14, 1957, Weis grew up in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, where she attended public schools. His 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 bonded with a group of intellectuals known as Actualists, led by poet Anselm Hollo and small newspaper editor Allan. Kornblum. Mentored by writer Jayne Anne Phillips, she published her first short fiction film in “North American Review”.

American Express donated $ 10,000 to the Museum of Modern Mythology and had its “centurian” character inducted into the museum. Credit: The Ellen Weis Archives

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

The small museum quickly gained wide acclaim, with reports 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 of directors.

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

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

“Ellen felt there was more than nostalgia at work in people’s reaction 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 on the mythology of advertising.

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

Kehret-Ward said that while some critics might be offended by the idea of ​​mythological figures being used for sales, “the goal of Ellen and the museum’s board of trustees was not to adopt a point particular political point of view on the creation of advertising characters, ”she said. “It was more about allowing museum visitors to reconnect with the sensations of pleasure that these advertising figures created for them, and to encourage reflection and discussion.

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

After the birth of his son, Benjamin Whiting in 2001, Weis was a beloved member of the Berkeley Model School Comprehensive Preschool parenting community.

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

In recent years, she has joined the team at Berkeley-based Bay Nature magazine, run 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 glioblastoma multiforme, a form of brain cancer. Despite aggressive treatment, his condition deteriorated. She died at her home in Altadena in the arms of her husband Gordon and son Benjamin. She is survived by her mother, Aimee L. Weis, and sister, Margaret Chase, both of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and brother Fred Weis, of Arcata, California.

Still, some of Weis’ more unusual contributions will survive – as his collection of advertising mythology will soon have a new home. An agreement was reached in July to bring the complete archives of the Museum of Modern Mythology, some 3,000 objects and manuscripts, into the collection of the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, Calif., For continued study and display.

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

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