Ellen Weis, director of the Museum of Modern Mythology who saw the cultural value of TV commercials, dies at 64


When Ellen Weis arrived in San Francisco in 1982, she was living in a warehouse in the Mission District with Tony the Tiger, Charlie the Tuna, the Michelin Man, Captain Crunch, the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Clean, and Mr. Peanut.

The collection of TV advertising toys and figures was not her own, but she was the one who put them to the service of the Museum of Modern Mythology, which she co-founded and managed until the earthquake of Loma Prieta in 1989 stops him. She then opened WeisPR, a film public relations company in Berkeley.

But she never gave up on reopening the museum, a private gallery of familiar commercial figures, some life-size and standing, others the size of a cereal box and in display cases.

This summer, an agreement was made to place his own collection – 3,000 items ranging from 5-foot fiberglass statues to key chains – at the Valley Relics Museum in Van Nuys, Los Angeles County.

On July 27, ten days after signing the agreement, Weis died at her home in Altadena (Los Angeles County). She was diagnosed with glioblastoma six months ago, an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer, said her husband, Gordon Whiting. She was 64 years old.

“Ellen knew more than anyone about the myth’s carrying capacity,” Whiting said. “She could see how the characters who were supposed to sell grain could resonate on a deep level.”

The Museum of Modern Mythology began at 275 Capp Street, before moving to 973 Mission Street. Admission was $ 2 for those who found it on the ninth floor. Among those was Trudy Kehret-Ward, professor of marketing at UC Berkeley School of Business.

“Ellen appreciated that the role that these advertising figures played in the memory of Americans was similar to the role that mythological figures have played in cultures throughout history,” said Kehret-Ward, who was so taken by Weis and her enthusiasm that she asked him to come and give a talk to her marketing students.

“It was the genius of Ellen’s idea for the museum. She realized it wasn’t just nostalgia, ”Ward said.

It also included promotion. Weis drew national attention to his small museum and was featured in People magazine. Among his recruits to the museum’s advisory board were folklore and mythologist Joseph Campbell and film historian Leonard Maltin, who featured the museum and Weis in “Entertainment Tonight.”

“I remember being impressed with the wonderful collection that Ellen had amassed,” said Maltin, who often wore a Mr. Peanut pin on his lapel. “Ellen was a woman on a mission who cared deeply for these characters and I responded to that.”

Ellen Havre Weis was born on May 14, 1957 in the planned community of Levittown, Pennsylvania. When she was young, her family moved to Elkins Park, in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where her father, Henry Kraus Weis, was a product engineer and her mother, Aimee. LeVita Weis, was a university librarian.

Despite his calling later in life, Weis did not grow up in front of a television. Her family didn’t even have a color scheme. She was bookish and had aspirations to become a novelist.

After a rebellious streak, her parents enrolled her in a Quaker boarding school called Scattergood Friends School in Cedar County, Iowa. It opened her eyes to the University of Iowa, known for its writing program, where she enrolled in 1975.

While majoring in English and studying creative writing, she got a job as a typographer at a publishing house in Iowa City. She became so engrossed in her craft pursuit that she dropped out of college a year before graduating.

But she continued to write and published a short story in the North American Review in 1982, the same year she moved to San Francisco, where a group of protesting high school friends from Pennsylvania had gathered.

Two of those migrants were Ed Polish and Jeff Errick, who racked up thousands of promotional figurines at Bay Area flea markets. Errick, Weis, and her then-boyfriend started the museum as a non-profit association. In its first location, at the back of their warehouse, it attracted alt-intellectuals who gravitated towards them. The museum got a larger exhibit in 1985 when it got a temporary space in the courtyard and on the second floor of the cannery across from the water park.

From there he moved to Mission Street. But the building was condemned after Loma Prieta. Polish and Errick moved to Oregon with their private collection. Ownership of the remainder of the museum’s collection was transferred to Weis and has been stored.

At that point, Weis went in search of additional income and responded to a search ad for a telephone sales representative at a software company in Mill Valley. When asked about his qualifications for the job, Weis replied, “Software is a concept. I can sell a concept. It didn’t earn him the job, but it did get him the interviewer, Gordon Whiting.

They married at the Berkeley City Club in 1996 and settled in Berkeley’s Elmwood. Their son, Ben, was born in 2001. Whiting worked as a technology consultant for Fantasy Studios and Saul Zaentz’s film production company. Weis spent five years lecturing on the history and impact of American advertising figures at clubs, marketing groups, museums, and universities. She then formed WeisPR to manage advertising for the documentary film and industrial arts communities in Berkeley.

She also wrote the text for the picture book “Berkeley: The Life and Spirit of a Remarkable Town” in 2004.

When Whiting and Weis moved to Altadena in 2018, they brought all of their artifacts in two 27-foot moving vans. The contents of these vans will form the collection of the Ellen H. Weis Museum of Modern Mythology. It should open in 2022 at the Valley Relics Museum, which occupies a hangar at Van Nuys airport. Donations and artifacts in his name can be sent to the Valley Relics Museum.

“It’s poetic that Ellen’s collection has found a new home in her life,” said Whiting. “It gave him a purpose and a mission to ensure that these lovable and important characters don’t disappear on eBay.”

Survivors include her husband and son, from Altadena, mother Aimee L. Weis, sister Margaret Chase, both from Ann Arbor, Mich and brother Fred Weis, from Arcata (Humboldt County).

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @SamWhitingSF


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