In an old brick building off Folsom street, down a narrow alley that runs behind Slim's 333 Club, lies the Warren Hellman Museum, a tribute to the late founder of San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Though opened in October 2012, the museum is now open to the public every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., giving Hardly Strictly fans a more convenient opportunity to learn about the banjo-pickin' billionaire investment banker who founded the free festival, and the history of the event itself.
Visitors to the museum will inevitably meet Michael Pedro, a diehard fan of Hellman and Hardly Strictly, who drives down from his home in Vacaville every week to oversee the museum during its opening hours. Pedro, a retired accountant and operations manager, volunteers his time. Often he gets paid in dinner from the kitchen at Slim's. But mostly, Pedro does it out of appreciation.
"[Hellman] kind of changed my perspective on things, just because of the guy he was," says Pedro. "He spent all his time making this money, and then he figured out what he wanted to do with it. And because of his love of the music and his genuine passion for it, he created Hardly Strictly."
Pedro stumbled into the gig almost by accident. Shortly after the museum opened last fall, he was chatting with Hardly Strictly booker Dawn Holliday in front of a museum TV showing pictures of Hellman. Unexpectedly, one of the pictures was of Hellman and Pedro meeting at Hardly Strictly 2008. The two laughed about it. Then, a couple weeks later, Pedro got a call asking if he'd like to oversee the place.
"I told Dawn, if I lived closer, I'd be over here three or four times a week," Pedro says, laughing. "I really would."
Prior to this, he wasn't a personal friend of Hellman's, just a fan -- albeit a hardcore one. He sent Hellman an email after his first Hardly Strictly in 2001 and was elated to get a response back from the founder himself. They met several times, at Hardly Strictly and other roots music festivals around the country. In one email, Pedro urged Hellman to bring out Doc Watson, the late, great guitar player, whom Pedro had seen about 30 times. He got a response in five minutes, with Hellman asking for more information about Watson. Four years later, in 2010, Watson played Hardly Strictly. He died last May.
The Hellman museum is divided into three rooms: The main space is a shrine to all things Hardly Strictly, with photo albums and posters from every year of the festival, artifacts such as Hellman's Star of David-encrusted jacket (meant to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the festival), a banjo, and live recordings playing of past performances. The entry room commemorates Hellman's personal life and character, including his marriage, work as an investment banker, and his interest in music. (There's a funny poster with a series of fake mugshots, in which Hellman dressed up as various imaginary criminals.) A third room off to the side shows videos about Hellman's life and live performances from the many years of Hardly Strictly, with the TV framed by the founders instruments.
Housed in what used to be a recording studio, the brick-walled museum has an air of understated grandeur, especially the main room, with its high, bright windows. Pedro says he loves just hanging out there, although he wishes more people would visit. He's hoping the new evening hours bring more people. But the quiet environs do seem to beg the question: What does he do all day?
"I check my messages on my iPad, a couple of times I brought my guitar and I just sit here and play," Pedro says with a chuckle. "Time goes by quickly, and I like the vibe of this place. I've watched this same video 250 times. It never gets old."
The Warren Hellman Museum is at 1479A Folsom St. It is open from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesdays.