Hungry i club owner dies at 85
SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (AP) – Enrico Banducci, who provided a stage for up-and-coming comedians such as Mort Sahl, Woody Allen and Bill Cosby at his hungry i nightclub during the 1950s and 60s, has died of natural causes, according to a family friend. He was 85.
A beloved, beret-wearing fixture of San Francisco’s Italian-themed North Beach neighborhood, Banducci also founded the city’s first sidewalk cafe, the eponymous Enrico’s on Broadway, where the clientele included firefighters and felons, Frank Sinatra’s rat pack and performers from nearby strip clubs.
Enrico’s had long-since been taken over by others and the hungry i closed, casualties of changing cultural tastes and their creator’s penchant for living a fast life that eventually outpaced his earnings. Married five times, Banducci was living with his niece in South San Francisco when he died in his sleep on Oct. 9.
“I think losing the hungry i (in 1970) was a heartbreaker for him,” said Brad Rosenstein, who became close with the impresario while curating an exhibit on the club for the San Francisco Public Arts Library and Museum. “He still owned Enrico’s for another 18 years, but he did take a step back from that life.”
Born Harry Banducci, the son of a farming family in Bakersfield, Banducci reportedly changed his name to Enrico after opera singer Enrico Caruso and came to San Francisco at age 13 to study the violin with the concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony.
He bought the hungry i in 1948, and within a decade, the night club was showcasing the talents of performers who would soon outgrow its brick-walled cellar. Lenny Bruce, Barbra Streisand, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart and folk groups like the Kingston Trio were some of the performers who got their start there.
“Every artist said the way he treated them was like no other night club owner they knew,” said Rosenstein. “If you heckled, if you annoyed the people on stage, you were thrown out. He said, ‘I’m paying them not you.’ It was like a theater much more than a night club.”
For his part, Banducci credited his success in booking future stars to good fortune.
“I can’t say whether I discovered them or not. It was a time when everything just fell in. Anyone you picked up you discovered. The environment was correct. But the (hungry i) was the leader. Other clubs looked to see who we booked,” he told The New York Times when the club closed in 1970.
Banducci is survived by a daughter, Allegra, who lives in Italy, and a son, Gregory, of Richmond, Va.
A memorial tribute to Banducci is being planned for Oct. 28 at Enrico’s, according to Rosenstein.