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Posts Tagged ‘Broadway San Francisco’


Many who have read my pieces on San Francisco will have concluded that Haight-Ashbury is my spiritual home, and they are probably right, principally because of the music that exploded out of there in the mid-sixties. But it is the cultural movement that pre-dated the hippies by a decade and more that most plays to my sensibilities.

The Beats, with their emphasis on free expression in literature, poetry, music, theatre and lifestyle (sex and drugs), were, whether they knew it or not at the time, the major inspiration for those young people in London and other urban areas in Britain who flocked to coffee bars and folk clubs in the late fifties and early sixties, just at the time that I was becoming aware of wider societal issues. Moreover, many of the rock stars that, a decade later, I worshipped, for example Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane, learnt their trade in the coffee houses of the Bay Area, heavily influenced by the events a few miles away.

Although the Beat Generation originally emerged in New York with the early works of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, it was San Francisco’s North Beach, the “Little Italy” neighbourhood nestling beneath Telegraph Hill and rubbing shoulders with bustling Chinatown, where it arguably took root.

And, although North Beach may not quite be the Italian enclave it was half a century ago, the influence of the Beats remains to this day. Certain landmarks are place of pilgrimage for both my generation and anyone who believes in free expression and alternative perspectives on the issues of the day.

My walk begins at my favourite San Francisco watering hole, Vesuvio, interestingly still called a café rather than a bar, and not just because it is where Neal Casady, inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s classic Beat novel On The Road, first met the writer at a poetry reading in 1955.

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A few groggy steps across Jack Kerouac Alley stands one of America’s most famous and important bookstores, City Lights, which celebrates its sixtieth birthday this year. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, now 94 and San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate, and Peter D. Martin, first opened its doors at around the time of the coronation of the new Queen, Elizabeth II, across the Atlantic.

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I never leave San Francisco without visiting the bookstore and coming away with at least one book. Many of the more interesting and challenging books on the city’s past, present and future are published by City Lights and they are not easy to get hold of elsewhere. Two and counting at present on this trip!

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With the addition of The Beat Museum on Broadway in 2003, the devotees’ experience of the area has been enriched still further. Aside from the fascinating exhibit in the museum itself, the adjoining shop sells an amazing collection of books, DVDs, posters, t shirts and other Beat memorabilia. Whilst I managed, at least on my previous visit, to resist the blandishments of a signed book by Wavy Gravy at $45 (but there’s still another trip), I still bought another. If distance makes visiting the museum itself out of the question, they run an excellent online store too.

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Although I am not qualified to say whether Broadway, which cuts across Columbus, has the same caché as it once had (though I think I do know the answer to that), there can be no question that the days of Lenny Bruce’s risqué comedy act at the hungry i and Carol Doda’s historic breast baring at the Condor are long past.

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North Beach is still awash with coffee houses, many of which were haunts of unemployed writers and musicians in the heyday of the Beats. Café Trieste is perhaps the most prestigious with its live opera, oh so cool attitude and blisteringly strong espresso. Seats are hard to come by for all those reasons – well, at least inside! 

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I think it’s only fitting that we should finish back at Vesuvio – I hear that Bob Dylan has dropped in for an espresso.

And I’ll leave you with an image that describes the Beat’s relationship to polite society like no other.

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Our first full day in San Francisco and there was much to look forward to, including brunch at the Cliff House and our fifth trip to Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon in the evening, he timing of both dictated by tradition and designed to orientate us quickly back into life in the city.

After a comfortable night’s sleep in our new apartment in the North of the Panhandle, we woke to gentle but steady March rain that left large pools at the bottom of the wooden steps leading down from the kitchen to the shared back garden.  The forecast, however, was for it to clear later in the morning to leave a cloudy but dry afternoon and evening.

The Cliff House at Ocean Beach was just a straight ten to fifteen minute drive along Fulton Street to the Pacific Ocean. We passed a verdant Golden Gate Park on our left, whilst on our right, we caught tantalising glimpses of the towers of the glorious Golden Gate Bridge looming over the dense foliage of the Presidio.

We parked several hundred yards short of the Cliff House to enable us to take in the bracing appetite-inducing air for a few minutes before we entered the bistro.  The ocean presented a turbulent picture with a swift succession of high rolling waves chasing away anyone brave or foolhardy enough to venture too close to it.

The scene was, however, still a busy one – joggers passing in either direction at varying speeds;  people , like us, strolling contentedly in a wind ravaged state of dishevelment; but most of all, dogs everywhere bathing in the freedom and exhilaration of exploring the endless expanse of beach.  We must have seen a dozen different species, from caped miniature poodles and chihuahuas and enigmatic huskies to slavering rottweilers. It is claimed that there are more dogs than babies in San Francisco, and on a morning like this, you would not doubt it.

We felt as if we were committing an act of animal cruelty by not having one of our own to exercise.  Momentarily, I contemplated hiring one for the week because, after all, this is San Francisco and anything is possible.  But pets are not allowed in the apartment – probably just as well.

We had a twenty minute wait for our table, allowing us the opportunity to check on upcoming events such as the Wednesday prix fixe dinner and jazz evenings, and look in the gift shop.  As ever we both ordered Eggs San Francisco (two poached eggs and crab on toasted sourdough bread with roasted potatoes and fruit), accompanied by the establishment’s signature warm rolls – delicious.

Feeling replete we took another longer walk in the adolescent sunshine along the beach towards the south, inspecting the periodic bonfire pits on the beach.  Crossing the Great Highway for the return to our car, we called in at the Beach Chalet to marvel at the fabulous Lucien Labaudt frescoes depicting everyday life in the thirties in the city. The brewery and restaurant on the first floor apparently have outstanding views of the ocean, a fact we need to verify before much longer.

We abandoned our planned food shopping trip as we needed time to get ready for the evening (and for me to finish my previous blog post).  The mild, partly cloudy late afternoon weather encouraged us to take the long walk to Club Fugazi in North Beach for the early evening performance of Beach Blanket Babylon.  The near hour and a half  journey took in some of the less salubrious parts of the city (Fillmore and Civic Center) before turning off Market Street to snake through Grant in the heart of Chinatown.

Sadly and inevitably, there was no shortage of vagrants around the Civic Center vicinity, though we experienced no intimidating panhandling.  I did purchase a copy of Street Sheet from a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to the queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs when she dresses as a witch and tempts Snow White with a poisoned apple.  He even sported the hunch back and hood.  But he was very friendly and appreciative of my $2 donation.

For the uninitiated, the Street Sheet is a magazine that has been published by the Coalition on Homelessness since 1989, and is designed to provide information and support programmes for homeless people in the city.  The philosophy is not dissimilar to that of The Big Issue in the UK, in providing its vendors with the opportunity to earn money for food, shelter and other necessities.

We joined an already lengthy line outside Club Fugazi around fifty minutes before showtime.  I collected our tickets from will call (box office) and joined Janet in the queue.  We were surrounded by a dozen boisterous ladies of a certain age in varying states of drunkenness attending the show as part of a bachelorette party.  Whilst we didn’t begrudge them their fun, we couldn’t help but hope that their seats were in a different part of the auditorium.

Our prayers were answered as they lurched off to the area close to the stage on the ground floor whilst we were escorted to our seats in the center balcony – our preferred area to watch the show.  Arming ourselves with a bottle of Woodbridge White Zinfandel and a large packet of pretzels we were ready to support  Snow White in her worldwide search for a prince. No sign of the queen this time – which is just as well as Snow White had a hard enough (or not as the case may be) time without her.

Once again, Beach Blanket Babylon delivered.  Although we had only been twelve months before, there was still a lot of new content along with the familiar staples.  The highlight for me was when San Francisco Giants baseball stars Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Brian Wilson (no, not the real ones) burst onto the stage holding the World Series trophy and singing We Are the Champions. Her Majesty the Queen’s appalled put down of the upcoming wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton was hilarious and a typical Beach Blanket Babylon satirical slant on a subject often treated too reverently, no more so than in the States.

We had decided that we would try the North Beach Restaurant for dinner for the first time, provided we could gain entry (we hadn’t booked).  The restaurant looked very busy, but on presenting ourselves at the front desk, we were whisked to the only free table for two, adjacent to the kitchen.  That may not sound the most appealing location, and it was rather cramped, but Janet found it fascinating, catching regular momentary glimpses of the frenzy behind the scenes action as the front of house staff crashed through the doors leading in and out of the kitchen.

But what of the food and service?  This was traditional Italian fine dining at its best.  My linguine with porcini mushrooms and scallops was outstanding, as was Janet’s seafood risotto – even surpassing the excellent meals we had enjoyed at the Riva Grill in South Lake Tahoe a few days before.  And our waiter was suave, attentive and witty – well, Italian.

I had wanted to visit The Beat Museum on Broadway for some time, so as the night was still young (10pm), we called in.  The museum itself had already closed for the day, but we spent some time perusing the bookshelves and other fascinating memorabilia, and I bought a couple of books I had not seen before, one the 700 page Hippie Dictionary –  A Cultural Encyclopedia of the 1960s and 1970s by John Bassett McCleary and The Beats – A Graphic History.

After a canter past the fleshpots of Broadway, we sought refuge in Vesuvio’s bar on Jack Kerouac Boulevard – yes, another first night tradition.  Once more we succeeded in claiming the only two seats available, at the bar.  After a couple of drinks we walked down Montgomery through the Financial District before boarding a number 5 MUNI bus at Market to transport us back to the apartment.

It had been a long day but a satisfying one. We were truly “at home” again in our favourite city.

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San Francisco can claim more than its share of personalities who have changed the course of society and popular culture, and Carol Ann Doda ranks high on that list.

She was born on 29 August 1937 in Solano County, California, and grew up in Napa.  Her parents divorced when she was three. She dropped out of school and became a cocktail waitress and lounge entertainer at aged 14.

Described as a “lovely, busty and curvaceous blonde bombshell” she achieved fame, or notoriety depending upon your point of view, on 19 June 1964 at the Condor Club at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in North Beachby dancing in a topless swimsuit, the first recognised entertainer of the era to do so, and spawning similar exhibitionism across the country. In fact, within 48 hours, the neighbouring bars had also gone topless, and at one point, 28 clubs along the Broadway strip were advertising bare-breasted dancers.

Her act, which she performed twelve times nightly, “began with a grand piano lowered from the ceiling by hydraulic motors;  Doda would be atop the piano dancing.  She descended from a hole in the ceiling.  She go-go danced the Swim to a rock and roll combo headed by Bobby Freeman as her piano settled on the stage.  From the waist up Doda emulated aquatic movements like the Australian crawl.  She also performed the Twist, the Frug and the Watusi“, all dances familiar to those of us growing up in the sixties.

She later spent $20,000 on enhancing her bust size from 34B to 44DD through a total of 44 (“just a coincidence” she said) direct silicone injections (now illegal because the plastic tends to migrate), earning her breasts the nickname of “the new Twin Peaks of San Francisco”.  She had them insured for $1.5 million with Lloyd’s of London, but never had recourse to claim on it. In his 1968 book, The Pump House Gang, Tom Wolfe referred to them as “two incredible mammiform protrusions, no mere pliable mass of feminine tissues and fats there but living arterial sculpture – viscera spigot – great blown-up aureate morning glories”.

Such was her popularity that delegates from the 1964 Republican National Convention flocked to see her and, four years later, she was given a film role as Sally Silicone in Head, created by Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson, and featuring The Monkees.  She appeared in another six films. The U.S.S. Kittyhawk aircraft carrier named her Pinup Girl of the Year and she even received a Business Person of the Year award from Harvard.

Doda created a further seismic impact in the entertainment industry on 3 September 1969 by dancing completely naked at the Condor, though she was obliged to reinstate the bottom part of her costume in 1972 after the California alcoholic beverages commission prohibited nude dancing in establishments that served alcohol.

She explained that “even in liberal San Francisco, what I did was technically a crime. The cops raided. The owner and I ended up in the slammer. I was back slamming on stage in two shakes of a stripper’s tail”.

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in October 2011 Doda stated that she only caused a scandal “about a year and a half after I started, because the cops came in and said no more bottomless unless  you move the tables back 5 feet. I had to explain to the people we can’t do bottomless and topless because the health department folks are afraid our pubic hairs will jump into your drinks”.

As a witness during the trial of two completely naked dancers at the pink pussy Kat in Orangevale, California, arrested for “indecent exposure and lewd and dissolute conduct”, she performed to live song and dance numbers and a 17 minute movie entitled Guru You, at the Chuck Landis Largo Club in Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, which was set up as a temporary courtroom. Cross-examined by a deputy district attorney, Carol, dressed in a red miniskirt with blue piping and beige boots, explained that her act, rather than being pornographic in itself, represented a a satire on it, “to show people the humourous side of sex”.

She also became a spokesperson for Channel 36, now known as KGSC-TV, in San Jose when, filmed from the waist up and wearing clothes, she’d intone “you’re watching the perfect 36” (there was no channel 44 at the time).

Doda returned to dancing at the Condor three times a night in 1982, at the age of 45, performing to blues, ragtime and rock ‘n’ roll, dressed “in a gold gown, traditional elbow-length gloves, and a diaphanous-wraparound.  Her clothing was removed until she wore only a G-string and the wraparound.  In the final portion she was attired in only the wraparound.  Her small body looked slimmer without clothes which was emphasised by the dwarfing effect of her breasts”.

Despite the notoriety she earned by being the first dancer to break the topless / bottomless taboos in the U.S., her act was rarely regarded as sleazy.  As she herself said: “I always just wanted to give people a good time, have fun.  Nothing really dirty – just fun”.

Larry Inla, who spent most of 1966 playing in a band called Stark Naked and the Car Thieves at the Galaxy, a couple of blocks from the Condor, reiterates this point, recalling that, thanks in no small part (sic) to Carol, “it was a fantastic place at an incredible time” and that the “ambience was more naughty-but-nice, in a sophisticated European city kind of way, not a sleazy, dirty kind of way”.

Retiring from stripping later in her mid forties (“you can’t go on stripping forever”), she formed her own rock band, the Lucky Stiffs, with whom she played for several years.

Doda now runs the highly respectable “Carol Doda’s Champagne and Lace Lingerie Boutique” in a pretty courtyard at 1850 Union Street in Cow Hollow, which she opened after San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, who was a clear fan, announced in the paper that she was going to do so. She specialises in “plus” sizes and waits on customers personally. She takes particular pride in being recommended by Macy’s, Nordstrom, Sacs, Neiman-Marcus and bridal stores who can’t cater for larger sizes.

Well into the new millennium, she has continued to put ten years of voice training to good effect by singing, whilst fully clothed, club standards like All of Me  at a variety of North Beach clubs, including Amante’s and Enrico’s Supper Club. In late 2011, at the age of 74, she was still performing at Gino and Carlo’s Bar on Green Street in North Beach, where she had been for around twelve years.

And finally, in a city with high foodie credentials, she has been truly immortalised in having a gourmet hamburger named after her at Bill’s Place at 2315 Clement at 24th in the Outer Richmond! Unsurprisingly, it consists of “two third of a pound plus hamburger patties served side by side on a sesame seed bun, each patty topped with an olive and full garnish on the side”.

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