Maurice Kanbar on his signature red scooter in 2015. (Photo/File)
Maurice Kanbar on his signature red scooter in 2015. (Photo/File)

‘Looking to do good’: Maurice Kanbar, S.F. philanthropist and eclectic inventor, dies at 93

Maurice Kanbar was by all measures a wealthy man. Yet wealth did not interest him. “I don’t want to make money,” he told J. in a 2015 cover story. “I’m looking to do good before I leave this planet.”

Kanbar finally did leave the planet, and he definitely did some good while here. The inventor, entrepreneur and philanthropist died Aug. 20 in San Francisco. He was 93.

Kanbar’s inventions covered the gamut, from a handy-dandy lint remover to the nation’s first multiplex movie theater and his most profitable creation, Skyy Vodka. His patents brought in the funds he needed to make the world — including the Jewish community — a better place. His name adorns the 450-seat Kanbar Hall at the JCC of San Francisco.

“He was a well-known benefactor of the JCC,” said chief executive officer Paul Geduldig. “He immediately got behind us 20 years ago when we were recommitting to a larger vision for the JCC. He was one of our lead donors, and our largest gathering space bears his name.”

That lead gift totaled $2.5 million, and Kanbar continued to support the JCC in life and in a legacy gift.

Kanbar’s father emigrated from Greece to Jerusalem and later moved to New York, where he and his wife raised three sons, including Maurice. They lived in Boro Park, Brooklyn, a Jewish neighborhood then and now.

“They wanted me to know I’m Jewish,” Kanbar told J. about his parents, “and to be very proud of being a Jew. There was a time when Jews liked to ‘pass’ [as non-Jews]. That was not my parents. [The lesson] stuck to this day. If you understand Judaism, you have a great deal to be proud of.”

At Philadelphia University he studied materials science and engineering. His first invention, a lint remover he dubbed D-Fuzz-It, earned $200,000 in its first year on the market. Kanbar was 21 at the time. He went on to address hazardous needlestick injuries among health care workers by creating the SafetyGlide hypodermic needle protector. He also came up with an evaporating cryogenic gas that froze the lens of the eye without the hazards of liquid nitrogen. Altogether, he held more than 50 patents.

Maurice Kanbar demonstrating two of his inventions in 2015: a handheld eye exam tool (left) and the Cig-Saver, which snuffs out a cigarette for later use (right). (Photos/File)
Maurice Kanbar demonstrating two of his inventions in 2015: a handheld eye exam tool (left) and the Cig-Saver, which snuffs out a cigarette for later use (right). (Photos/File)

In 1984, Kanbar moved to San Francisco, whose streets he would navigate on his signature red Argo scooter. Over the years, he found continued success both as an inventor-entrepreneur and as a real estate developer.

But his best-known invention was a brand of vodka.

Learning that alcoholic spirits often contain high levels of impurities called congeners — the likely source of hangover misery — Kanbar set out to create a vodka free of the pesky things. Over a period of years, he perfected a pure vodka by distilling it four times. When it came time to name it, he said, “I looked out my window one day at a beautiful blue sky. I said there it is: Sky vodka. But ‘Sky’ was too generic. That’s when I added the second ‘y.’”

Launched in 1992, Skyy became a best-selling brand. Kanbar sold Skyy to Campari Group in 2001 for $300 million, according to press accounts.

As a philanthropist, he funded the Maurice Kanbar School of Film & Television at New York University; the Kanbar College of Design, Engineering & Commerce at Philadelphia University (now Thomas Jefferson University); the Maurice Kanbar Center for Biomedical Engineering at Cooper Union; the Marcus National Blood Center in Ramla, Israel; the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS); and Bar-Ilan University among other Israeli institutions.

Locally, he funded the Kanbar Cardiac Care Center at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and gave generously to the Exploratorium; KQED; Salvation Army; San Francisco Symphony; San Francisco Girls Chorus; San Francisco Film Society; UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television; and the JCCSF.

“He said he couldn’t imagine the city of San Francisco without a JCC,” noted Geduldig, “so he left a very generous gift in his estate plan that would go toward an endowment dedicated to media and technology.”

Kanbar never married or had children, but his work and new ideas kept him busy until the end.

“I don’t stop thinking,” he told J. in 2015. “I’m certainly often lonely, but I’m never bored. I keep thinking what else can I do.”

Maurice Kanbar is survived by brother Elliott Kanbar and numerous nieces and nephews. The Kanbar family requests that donations be made in his memory to hospice organizations or to HIAS.

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.