‘Sounds like an angel’: Author, museum director Ellen Weis dies at 64

Photo of Ellen Weis
Steve Maruta/Courtesy
Author and San Francisco Museum of Modern Mythology co-founder Ellen Weis dies at 64.

Ellen Weis — author, Museum of Modern Mythology director and Berkeley publicist — died of brain cancer July 27 at age 64.

Weis, who authored “Berkeley: The Life and Spirit of a Remarkable Town” and managed a city public relations firm called WeisPR, also co-founded the San Francisco Museum of Modern Mythology.

Weis first moved to San Francisco from Iowa in 1982. She stayed with friends who collected advertisement memorabilia, including promotional displays, restaurant signs and other “commercial manifestations of ancient art types,” according to Gordon Whiting, Weis’ husband.

After collecting memorabilia from hundreds of characters, including The Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean and the Michelin Man, the friends formed the Museum of Modern Mythology — exploring how these postwar commercial characters represented art in a consumer society, Whiting added.

“Ellen was struck by the response,” Whiting said. “The characters were not just cute and clever, they were resonating on a deeper level.”

It was during this time that Weis found a classified ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, Whiting noted.

According to Whiting, Weis applied for a marketing job at Whiting’s software company to supplement her museum income and it was there that she met the man who would later become her husband.

“I was mesmerized by her voice,” Whiting said. “She sent this packet full of clippings, all the coverage she got for the museum. I saw all this crazy fascinating stuff about the museum, but I also saw pictures of her and I thought well, I’ve got to meet her. She sounds like an angel and she looks like one too.”

While Whiting did not end up hiring Weis, he instead chose to volunteer at the museum in order to get it “financially straightened out.” Whiting added that Weis kept the newspaper ad that brought them together in a heart inside of a frame.

The Museum of Modern Mythology, which was located at Third Street and Mission Street in San Francisco, was eventually condemned after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, according to Whiting.

Weis began looking for a permanent home for the collection and later came to an agreement with the Valley Relics Museum in Los Angeles County shortly before she passed.

After the museum closed, Weis spent five years on a lecture tour, speaking at museums, colleges and marketing agencies across the country, according to Whiting. During this time, Whiting said Weis developed confidence in her abilities to garner mainstream press for her clients, leading the couple to open WeisPR.

“If things needed to be publicized wider than Berkeley itself, you called Ellen Weis,” Whiting said. “She did a terrific job.”

North Atlantic Books, a nonprofit publisher, later commissioned Weis to write the text for a coffee table book, according to Whiting.

Weis also served as the advertising director for Bay Nature magazine, a nonprofit publication. Regina Ridley, executive director of Bay Nature Magazine, said Weis’ decade of advertising work made a “huge difference” for the magazine.

“We’re just a small part of the story,” Ridley said. “People saw Ellen as a consultant, a friend, someone they could brainstorm with about messaging in their advertising. She was a great colleague, fun to work with and good at what she did. It’s a real loss.”

Contact Anishi Patel at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @anishipatel.