Sam McManis

Discoveries: Shazam! A junk-art house grows in Greenbrae

Captain Marvel, depicted over Greenberg’s shoulder, inspired the site’s name, Rancho Shazam.
Captain Marvel, depicted over Greenberg’s shoulder, inspired the site’s name, Rancho Shazam.

Even after spending an hour with the man and his mise-en-scène, I’m still not sure which is weirder – Lee Greenberg himself or his housing complex-cum-public art space he so lordly calls Rancho Shazam School of Art and Technical Stuff, located a spit wad’s shot away from the Lucky Drive exit off Highway 101 in Marin County.

Scratch that. Call it eccentric, not weird.

As Greenberg eloquently points out, in this astringent New Yawka accent he hasn’t shed four decades after leaving Queens, you graduate from weird to eccentric if you have a little money. I’m not certain where Greenberg got his money – impolite to ask, being a guest in his home and all – but he certainly qualifies as a Grade-A choice eccentric, a survivor of a once-flourishing breed of Bay Area junk-art artistes, now sadly shunted aside to society’s margins as the region’s housing market goes more upscale and its citizens more upstanding.

By whatever label, Rancho Shazam (more on the name in due time) is a head-turner and probably has been responsible for more than a few fender-benders on Highway 101. It’s a two-story, two-building quasi-apartment complex made of glinting corrugated metal, set on a third of an acre crammed into a finger of land at the shore of the Corte Madera Inlet, the freeway crowding in from the west and Mount Tamlpais looming eastward. The buildings’ industrial, longshoreman chic is offset by a whimsical, wacked-out array of ornamental oddities that have drawn the admiration of art lovers and the ire of the Marin County zoning department.

Space for this article precludes a full accounting of the pieces that make up the oeuvre of 73-year-old Greenberg, aka Captain Marble (more on the name soon, promise), but here are some highlights:

▪  The remnants of Foam Henge, a faux version of the famous druidical megalith Stonehenge that stood for years before county inspectors considered it a separate structure and violated code.

▪  Mt. Pee Pee, a blushingly phallic foam tower crafted from said dismantled megalith, serving as something of a sentry leading to the 15 live-work studio apartments rented for a pittance to starving artists.

▪  The Floating Bicycle, which, as its name implies, is a gold 10-speed strung along a wire 50 feet high between the two buildings, held aloft for a series of levers and pulleys.

▪  The Tin Man, officially a mailbox but so much more: a junk-art version of Michelangelo’s David, replete with a torso made from the original boiler Greenberg inherited when he moved in, a tiki-torch staff, ruby-slipper earrings, a yellow-caution-taped bandana, a heart from a See’s Candy box and a sign proclaiming, “Directions: $ .05.”

▪  A “Yacht Club” on the water out back, including a deck with a fire pit, a wall where Greenberg projects movies on warm summer nights, and an actual 40-foot yacht that fortunately remains forever anchored because it doesn’t look at all sea-worthy.

Oh, and did I mention the moat, the series of circular pool slides suspended from second-floor windows, the staircase to nowhere, the functioning hot tub on a roof, and several grappling hooks and a 12-foot wheel that, in a previous incarnation, served as a base for a boat crane?

It’s all there. But Greenberg seems especially smitten with the moat, because he got into a tussle with Marin County inspectors over the addition.

“The county thought I needed a permit because they said it was taller than 18 inches,” he said. “But look at it. It’s sunken. It’s minus-inches. They really need to read their own regulations more carefully.”

But why a moat?

“You have to cross it to get to the property,” he said.

But doesn’t that seem too forbidding? Doesn’t that go against the art-should-be-accessible ethos upon which Rancho Shazam was founded?

“No, not in the least,” he said. “I just like moats. Anyone can come by and take a look at the art. I’ll come out and show them around. That’s one reason it’s here.”

To get at some of the other reasons, you need to step back from the scene and engage in a little biographic exploration.

Greenberg is happy to oblige that request, too, taking you into his inner sanctum, also known as his living room. There you are surrounded by more artistic imaginings, sandblasted whales and other marine mammals on marble and slate, paddles, propellers and wheels dangling from the ceiling, all manner of oil paintings and steel- and wood-cut sculptures, many in the form of lightning bolts. Follow him into his sleeping quarters and, on one side of his king-sized bed, are shelves of toy trains, ringed by a track, and on the other a glass display of vintage toys, circa 1900.

But it’s the lightning bolts that stick out. In fact, there’s one dangling from Greenberg’s left earlobe. It’s an exact match to the bolt adorning the chest of the giant oil painting of Captain Marvel in an ornate gilt frame hanging prominently in the living room.

“You wanna know why I’m Captain Marble and this is Rancho Shazam?” he asked. “You wanna hear the genesis story? OK. I came here in 1970, left my Board of Education position in Manhattan to pursue the houseboat lifestyle in Sausalito. I was an artist working in marble and slate, so I called myself Captain Marble.

“In 1991, two years after the earthquake, this property was rubble,” he continued. “It was all wet and ruined. I bought it. Built it all. By hand. I can call it a ranch because, due to a zoning anomaly, this is listed as A-2, B-2, limited agriculture. So I had chickens here. My favorite was called Shake ’n’ Bake. Those chickens gave me the license to call this Rancho Shazam. Now, as you know, Shazam is what Captain Marvel uttered to change from a homeless newspaper boy to a superhero. That’s my avatar.”

Even getting the property dirt cheap, and even doing all the work himself, the construction of Rancho Shazam must have strained Greenberg’s financial resources, especially since he says he rents out the live-work lofts below market value to promote the arts.

So you risk being impolite and ask him about money.

He beams: “People ask me, ‘How’d you get to be a person of leisure?’ I say, ‘Well, I avoided most of the pitfalls. I never did drugs. I never got married. Never had children. Never had to give away half of anything in a divorce. I never had to send anybody to college.’ The key: Don’t have expensive baggage. Those drugs, they’re costly. I may have been the only one I knew back then who never did drugs.”

Which makes Rancho Shazam all the more remarkable.

Think about it: This surreal wonderland, this twisted Oz, was conceived and created without pharmaceutical enhancement.

Rancho Shazam

Where: 14 Lucky Drive, Greenbrae

Hours: “Like, whenever people drive by,” said owner Lee Greenberg

Cost: Free