Karen Larsen: Potrero Hill’s Publicist

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Calling long-time Potrero Hill resident Karen Larsen a publicist is “both accurate and absurdly insufficient,” wrote film critic Michael Fox, in a 2011 online profile.  Fox’s sketch of Larsen, prompted by her receipt of the San Francisco Film Society’s Essential SF Award, described her as  “…the most steadfast evangelist of independent films, filmmakers and festivals, serving as a painstaking press agent, tireless town crier, goodwill ambassador, de facto advisor, dedicated coach and tough-love mentor.”

Larsen is at least as devoted to the Hill, where she’s lived at Carolina and 23rd streets since 1972, as she is to the film industry.  She’s served on the board of the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, and helps publicize many local events, including the Potrero Festival and Potrero Hill History Night.

Larsen’s father, Paul Adams Johanson, sold newspapers on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.  Her mom, Margaret Jane West Johanson, attended Lowell High School. Her parents met at the University of California, Berkeley, where they were Daily Cal editors.  Her family lived in the East Bay; her mom would ask Larsen and her sister, Susan, “You kids aren’t going to the City, are you?” After reassuring her mother that they weren’t, at age 16 she applied red lipstick, making herself look 25, and headed for the jazz clubs.

Following brief stints in New York and Santa Cruz, Larsen settled in San Francisco on April 1, 1970. “April Fool’s Day,” she smiled. After living in Noe Valley, paying $200 a month in rent, in 1972 she moved into her boyfriend’s Hill house, which was bigger and cost $125 a month. She was eventually able to buy the building, and has lived there ever since.

Larsen worked as a researcher for Over Easy, KQED’s award-winning program about healthy aging, hosted by Hugh Downs, later Mary Martin and Jim Hartz.  Airing twice a day from 1977 to 1982, the popular program featured interviews with celebrities like Bob Hope, Van Johnson, and Valerie Harper, as well as on-location shoots. 

Larsen always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, with the right skills or a willingness and ability to learn. “Whoever wants to be a publicist?” Larsen asked ironically. She just fell into it. She was hired to do publicity for the San Francisco Film Festival, worked with John Ritter on his annual Cerebral Palsy Telethon and with famed theatre operator Mel Novikoff. From his offices in North Beach, above Café Roma, they’d descend multiple times a day for cappuccino. 

When Novikoff encouraged her to form her own company, she had the presence of mind to call it Larsen Associates, “even though it was just me.” Over the years there have been many associates, affectionately known as “Larsenettes,” including Marc Huestis, Lawrence Helman, Elizabeth Whipple, Leo Wong, Ani Klose, Corey Tong, Nancy Fishman, and currently Vince Johnson.

In search of office space, Larsen was walking by 330 Rich Street when she saw marble tubs and large mirrors being carted out of the building, the remnants of its former identity as the popular Rich Street Baths. She became the first tenant in the renovated building, which was recognized and remembered by many. Filmmaker George Kuchar came to her office and said, “I know this place.” As did several cab drivers; “I’ve been here.”

Out of an open office space, Larsen and her staff publicize the Bay Area releases of independent features and documentaries from Sony Pictures Classics, Zeitgeist, First Run, Strand, Shadow, Kino Lorber, New Yorker, and many other distributors. She’s taught classes at San Francisco State University, San Francisco Art Institute, Media Alliance, Film Arts Foundation, Bay Area Video Coalition, and the National Educational Media Network. In 2014 she was honored by the Women’s Film Institute; last May she received Roxie Theater’s “Lights! Camera! Action!” award “for extraordinary contributions to the field of independent film and service to the film community.”

Larsen’s three children and their families live close by.  According to her oldest daughter, Lael, who works at Christopher’s Books, Larsen “has been a lifelong inspiration to me. She’s the hippest person I know.”

Inga, the youngest, works at Bright Horizons Family Solutions, Inc.  Berit, known as “B”, lives in Half Moon Bay. Growing up, the girls were encouraged to study art, take dance classes, and expose themselves to culture. “Nana Karen” has nine grandchildren, some of whom have done stints working for her.

Larsen demurred about revealing her age. “I’m not Jane Fonda,” she said. “Or Gloria Steinem.”  She sat back and laughed, “I’ve had a lot of fun, I have to say.”