Lox-loving sea lion romps through ad-man’s first book

Meet Sasha. He wears a ‘Niners jersey and a black baseball cap. He loves to chow down on lox and bagels at the Cliff House, pizza in North Beach and chow mein in Chinatown.

Oh, and by the way, he’s a sea lion.

Apparently, this loveable cartoon pinniped is a major-league fresser (that’s Yiddish for “overeater”).

Which is exactly the sort of offbeat character author Ron Berman intended. The longtime advertising exec and Jewish community activist drew on his abiding love of San Francisco (and its world-class cuisine) to write his first children’s book, “The Adventures of Sasha the San Francisco Sea Lion.”

Written as a tourism pitch/love letter to San Francisco, the book is two parts Dr. Seuss, one part Frommer’s Guide. Berman’s singsong rhymes and Frank Hill’s charming illustrations should score with young visitors to the Bay Area. The book goes on sale this week.

It wasn’t hard for Berman to decide which tourist spots for Sasha to hit: Coit Tower, Pac Bell Park, Davies Symphony Hall, Union Square, Golden Gate Park, the Museum of Modern Art and Lombard Street all made the cut.

Though Sasha’s constant pigging out might raise a few eyebrows, Berman shrugs it off as a matter of art imitating life. “I’m a professional eater,” he says with a laugh. “But let’s face it: San Francisco is a great attraction when it comes to eating.”

Always ready to plug his hometown, Berman is better known in Jewish circles as a current or former board member of such organizations as Jewish Vocational Services, the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC and the Jewish Bulletin.

He’s also a seasoned veteran of advertising. Berman is the guy who actually wrote the old C&H Sugar jingle (“C&H, C&H/ Mommy uses it to bake her cake/ It’s the only pure cane sugar from Hawaii”), and he’s also the ad genius behind Meshuga Nuts, a confection founded in the Bay Area.

In fact, the idea for Sasha came about while Berman was on the clock, working the Pier 39 account.

“I thought they should have a mascot that asks tourists to come to San Francisco,” he recalls. “Then I thought it might be neat if there was a little story about the sea lions down by the pier, but since I think upside-down anyway, I thought, ‘Let’s have the sea lion visit the tourists.'”

Berman decided to take a stab at it himself. In a burst of inspiration, he wrote the text within a week.

Soon after, Berman teamed up with the Smith Novelty Company (makers of all manner of touristy chachkas, from chocolate cable cars to picture postcards). The company thought Berman’s cuddly creation would be perfect for tourists and San Francisco natives alike.

All he needed was the right illustrator. Piece of cake. The search only took seven years.

After many delays and fruitless auditions, Frank Hill, a Santa Cruz cartoonist, at last came into Berman’s life. Hill had polished his craft working with legends like Charles Schultz and Hank Ketcham. The two hit it off, and after several months of close collaboration, the book was done.

How does he know the book will click with kids? Berman road tested it on Sam, his 2-year-old grandson and a hard-to-please customer when it comes to kids’ books.

“He wanted me to read it over and over again,” says Berman. “So then I knew.”

Berman’s desire to give something back to the city echoes his equally ardent love of the Jewish people. That attitude he credits to the example set by his father, Henry Berman, who died earlier this year at age 92.

The elder Berman held many Bay Area posts in both the Jewish and non-Jewish world. Serving five mayors, he was a member of San Francisco’s fire commission, airport commission and others. “He was a wonderful productive leader,” says the younger Berman, who became bar mitzvah at Congregation Sherith Israel and went to high school with that synagogue’s soon-to-retire senior rabbi Martin Weiner.

In addition to his tireless work with various local Jewish agencies, Berman is a longtime member of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

He is also fund-raising chair for Cecil Williams’ Glide Community House, a 52-unit development for people who are homeless, fighting substance dependencies or living with AIDS.

With it all, Berman remains busy with his advertising business too, a career he found most helpful in writing a book for children. “In advertising, you only have 30 seconds to tell a story,” he says. “Advertising forces you to be concise. Kids don’t have the patience to go on and on, so you want it short and sweet.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.