By: Mike Marino
Many people have truly Left Their Heart in San Francisco!! The Bagdad by the Bay has left its indelible imprint on visitors and residents alike and is many things to many people. Its The Golden Gate Bridge…a stalwart sentry sitting astride the entrance to the Bay..guarding the crown jewels of the kingdom. Its Alcatraz Island..formidable and lonely housing infamous ghosts from an infamous past and its Fisherman’s Wharf..sea salt, sea lions and spectacular views and gastronomic delights.
Above all, San Francisco is a forest of neighborhoods, each one unique in its diversity and culture and strung like a pearl necklace of eclectic enclaves throughout the free spirited city..each neighborhood…each pearl…priceless and diverse. One neighborhood in particular personifies the free thinking spirit of this city like no other….North Beach!! The ghosts of Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums roaming freely in the dark fog night….Italian foods wafting gently in the morning breeze…and enough pubs and night life to keep Jack London happy.Although Jack Kerouac is long gone…in North Beach…The Beat Goes On!
No visit to San Francisco, or Ess Eff, would be complete without a good asphalt kicking’ ride down Lombard Street and it makes for an excellent starting point for your Dharma Bum visit to North Beach. Billed as The Crookedest Street in the World, it also affords a spectacular Rice-A-Roni view of the bay from the top of the hill.
San Francisco is a city proud of its hills and yes, they are challenging to the first timer or uninitiated, but Lombard Street combines that challenge with the addition of landscaped, serpentine curves that will delight the senses as you make your downward trek. Winding and twisting, its the closest thing to an amusement park ride on asphalt that you’ll ever find and is one of the definitive Ess Eff experiences, that and riding on a trolley car of course. Route 66 may be the Mother Road and The Main Street of America, but Lombard Street is the most curvaceous street in the world, and because the street is lined with fragrant flora, it’s also the best smelling one too!
Many citizens of San Francisco have left their indelible imprint on this fair city, from the legendary Emperor Norton who acted as the flamboyant Head of State to a bemused and tolerant citizenry, to Carol Doda, who made a different kind of impact as she danced her way into history in a fashion that gave new meaning to the term…Northern (..and Southern!) exposure! However, one citizen left more than a legend in her wake and today a 180 foot cylindrical tower sits atop Telegraph Hill to firmly anchor her spot in the hearts and memories of San Franciscans…Lillie Coit.
Elizabeth Lillie Hitchcock arrived in Ess Eff from West Point, New York in 1851 at the age of 15. Legend has it that she helped aid in putting out a fire when the engine company (Knickerbocker #5) rushed to answer an alarm and was short on personnel. That day began her lifelong love affair with her beloved fire fighters.
Eventually, Lillie married Howard Coit and lived into the 20th Century where she died in 1929 at the age of 86. In her will she bequeathed 1/3 of her fortune to the city to use towards a monument of some sort as they saw fit. The monument decided on was to be built atop Telegraph Hill and would bear a resemblance to the nozzle of a fire hose..it was completed in 1933. (Others claim it’s something else. But that is not unusual speculation in a city that seems to abound in a variety of phallic architecture!!)
As you descend Lombard Street, continue on it until you reach the winding road to Coit Tower..(yes, winding roads are an amusing way of life here!) Once you’ve reached the parking lot you’ll be rewarded with a breath taking 360 of the city, and when you go inside the tower, you’ll be rewarded with a visual feast of some of the finest Diego Rivera inspired WPA era murals in the country. One of my favorite times of the day to visit for the view is in the wee smalls, just before sunrise. The lights of the city sparkling like small Italian lights on a large urban Christmas tree.
Coit Tower was and remains one of the most recognizable landmarks in this city of landmarks, and as the song says…I Left My Heart In San Francisco (everybody does!), but in the case of Lillie Hitchcock Coit, she also left a lasting monument in tribute to the free spirit of San Francisco, and to the free spirit of Lillie Coit in particular.
In the early 1950′s, the Jazz Muse was working her magic on a whole generation. The post-war years brought with them prosperity but it also brought a restlessness of spirit to to its youth. This restlessness brought on an era of experimentation…jazz..cheap wines..marijuana and sexual expression. The search for self was fueling the journey.
Eventually all these elements would collide and take shape to define the times from coast to coast. One neighborhood in particular pulled like the force of a spiritual gravity and came to personify the era and its ideals like no other….North Beach in San Francisco…The Mother Church of The Beat Generation!
The term The Beat Generation was first used by Jack Kerouac in 1948. In 1952 John Clellon Holmes introduced the phrase to the masses in an article in the New York Times Magazine. Called This Is The Beat Generation. In 1958, Mr. San Francisco, Herb Caen coined the term Beatnik!! Jack Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922 and attended college in NYC. Eventually he was pulled to the West Coast and settled into (for awhile) The North Beach area.
An enclave of thinkers..poets..wino’s and spirituality, it was a neighborhood that was a melting pot of sweet jazz and the smell of marijuana drifting into the fog nights of the city.
In 1957, Jacks book, ON THE ROAD was released by his publisher and has since influenced the asphalt and inner search in generations of Dharma Bums. Although Jack was no stranger to the nightlife of North Beach, he did find time to write the novel and he did so at 29 Russell Street..a must see on every Dharma Bums Beat Pilgrimage to the city. Its not the house that Jack built..but it is the house that Jack wrote in. Jack Kerouac died in Orlando, Florida in 1969 at the age of 47.
TO GET TO 29 RUSSELL STREET: Go up Union Street to Hyde Street..turn left and go to the first right turn only street…that’s Russell Street, turn right and half way down the block on your left will stand 29 Russell Street complete with large brass numerals to mark the location..no plaque..no placard…but if you listen carefully on an early San Fran morning, mixed in with the sounds of the foghorns, you might just hear the frantic pecking of a ghost typewriter coming from inside the building!
Alan Ginsberg’s poem HOWL pierced the Beat night skies like the cry of a wolf in the forest. It was a rallying cry that was heard by a whole generation…a cry that brought maturity to a movement then in its infancy. Revolutionary for its time, it defined The Search…and brought all the elements into line like Beat planets orbiting around a poetic sun…complete with ideas that raced through the minds sky like meteors on a collision course with the Establishment.
Ginsberg, like Kerouac, was also from NYC and followed westward to San Francisco and immersed himself in the waters of The Beat Baptism. HOWL was read for the first time in public in October of 1955 at the legendary Six Gallery…(Six Poets..Six Readings!) In attendance was a who’s who of Beatdom..including Kerouac and Cassidy (Dean Moriarity of ON THE ROAD fame) As Jack passed around the wine jug, Allen’s sweet voice rang out and HOWL could be heard across the universe. Although Alan was living in Berkeley at the time of the reading, he was living on Montgomery Street in North Beach when he wrote it. If Kerouac gave a generation its words, Alan Ginsberg gave it a voice.
1010 MONTGOMERY STREET: This was the Poets Pad where HOWL was written. It’s located on Montgomery Street between Vallejo and Broadway.
3119 FILLMORE STREET (THE SIX GALLERY) Now defunct as a gallery you can still visit this historic beat location. Its on Fillmore Street between Filbert and Pixley or just 4 blocks south of Lombard Street. Jack just might pass the wine jug to ya!
Every Dharma Bum has an old worn out, dog eared copy of ON THE ROAD tucked away somewhere in that canvas rucksack, usually right next to the beef jerky, extra flannel shirt and pair of clean socks..asphalt numb..thumb out…you hitch a ride in an El Camino…bang across the bridge and into the city, to the only logical place to buy a replacement copy,
No one stop on your Dharma Tour of North Beach epitomizes the literati essence of the Ess Eff Beat Era more than City Lights Bookstore. Founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, it is the Fort Knox of Beat prose and poetry, and the repository of revolutionary and evolutionary ideas and artistic expression. In 1955 City Lights began publishing the works on an eclectic range of cutting edge writers, thinkers, sinners and saints…yes, HOWL was published by this premier vanguard of avant guard publishing houses.
One can only imagine the after hours port, prose and poetry conversations that were held there lasting long past the night and into the morning…record players scratching out a jazz beat…laughter erupting like Vesuvius, not to be confused with Vesuvio’s! That’s another story. Voices flowing with a symphony of ideas..drifting out into the ultra cool San Franciso nights…Ghost Voices…now long gone.
Today when you visit City Lights, you’ll find shelf after shelf of everything from Camus to Haiku…and when you journey to the second floor you’ll find a Beat Literature Garden of Eden, and Beat Generation postcards too, along with the works of Kerouac…Cassidy…Kesey…the long gone ghost voices whose words wait patiently on their pages for your eyes to give them new life again….and The Beat Goes On!
261 COLUMBUS AVE: Located at the corner of Columbus Ave and Jack Kerouac Alley, your just a hop, skip and jump from Vesuvio’s!
In Italy, the volcano Vesuvius exploded, rocking the earth, spewing ash and lava for miles. In North Beach a similar eruption occurred in October of 1955 when Neal Cassidy..(Dean Moriarity of ON THE ROAD fame) stopped by for a shot of liquid liberation at Vesuvio’s on his way to a poetry reading at the Six Gallery. It was at this moment that Vesuvio’s became the official pub of choice for the Beats.
The talk and smoke drifting through the bar like a great plume of Beat smoke and ash, the booze pouring forth like a raging flow of lava. Vesuvio’s was established in 1948 and also has the distinction of being the place where Jack Kerouac holed up and cancelled a meeting with author Henry Miller who wanted to meet the young author after reading and being impressed by DHARMA BUMS. Henry waited it out in Big Sur as Jack whiled away the hours at Vesuvio’s. The night got longer, and the meeting never occurred.
Today Vesuvio’s has a great collection of art work, articles and Beat memorabilia, as well as a variety of drinks named after some of the famous Beats including The Jack Kerouac. Its a combination of rum…tequila…orange/cranberry juice and lime ..all served up in a large bucket glass. Cheers!! At Vesuvio’s you can belly up to the bar and order your Kerouac 365 days a year from 6AM until 2AM. Barkeep…Another round!
255 COLUMBUS AVE: Vesuvio’s is located at Columbus Avenue and Jack Kerouac Alley…right across from City Lights Bookstore where you can pick up a copy of Jack Kerouac…The Book..then head on over to Vesuvio’s and order..Jack Kerouac..The Drink!
If the Beats had their writers and their dark poetry, they also had a phalanx of comedians who illuminated the American consciousness with their black humor, held up to the face like a mirror to expose the social hypocrisy of the times. Mort Sahl, sophisticated, cutting edge political satirist slicing through the American political landscape like a Ginsu knife through butter…Woody Allen…East Coast personified who made neurosis cool…and the caustic acid bath humor of Lenny Bruce who taught a whole generation how to talk dirty and influence people.
Two venues became the laugh-think temples of these high priests of satire and appropriately both were in North Beach..Enrico Banducci’s HUNGRY i and Bud Steinhoff’s PURPLE ONION..(It was Banducci who suggested the name PURPLE ONION to Bud!!) In addition to the comedy workouts, these landmark institutions also hosted a boatload of folkies and minstrels including the legendary Kingston Trio among others. Lenny may be gone, but the influence lives on!
THE PURPLE ONION: 140 Columbus Avenue..today is a head bangin’ venue for an eclectic mixture of industrial strength music.
THE HUNGRY i: 599 Jackson at Columbus Avenue…if your hungry to get an eyeful, then this is the place to be. Just sit back and watch the strippers strut their North Beach stuff
No history of North Beach would be complete without the place that made titillating history in the 1960′s and launched a young waitress like a sputnik into the topless night skies of San Francisco legend, and in the process becoming one of the 8 Wonders of The Western World!! The now legendary Carol Doda gave topless dancing a bouncing start by jump starting her 34′s into an ample pair of 44′s, hell, even Dirty Harry claimed that the 44 was the most powerful weapon on the planet.
In June of 1964, Carol Doda launched her 44 attack by wearing a topless bathing suit designed by the legendary Rudi Genreich..and danced her way into infamy. A part of Carol’s act called for her to gyrate while descending to the dance floor atop a piano that was powered by hydraulics. As the piano began its slow erotic descent, Carol moved suggestively, powered by her own inner hydraulics, perched on the piano like a bouncing candelabra for an invisible Liberace..from that day on Carol had the gravitational power of a sun pulling patrons to her like orbiting planets in a topless universe. Carol retired from the Condor in the 1980′s and in addition to keeping active in the social, artistic and business life of San Francisco today she is proprietress of Carol Doda’s Champaign and Lace Lingerie Boutique located at 1850 Union Street.
Footnote: The movie THE ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATO’S is no match for the real life ATTACK OF THE KILLER PIANO! One night after closing, one of the bouncers of the Condor Club, along with one of the clubs dancers, decided to make beautiful music together while lying atop the hydraulic piano. At some point during this symphony, the switch was hit and the piano began its slow rise to the ceiling. In time, the bouncer and the dancer were pinned to the ceiling, the dancer cushioned protectively by the bouncer who lay atop her, both of them squeezed between the ceiling and the piano like a bartender squeezing a lemon. The dancer was discovered alive in the morning by a janitor. As for the bouncer, it was the last concert performance of his career.
THE CONDOR CLUB: 300 Columbus Avenue at Broadway near Big Al’s. The club closed for awhile but has since reopened as a sports bar/bistro.
Although Finnochio’s closed in 1999 it was a North Beach landmark from the 1930′s that certainly proved that men will be …well..girls!! Joe Finnochio began his career during the era of Prohibition when speakeasy’s dotted the urban landscape, defying the completely impossible to enforce Volstead Act. If the speakeasy was the symbol of the Roaring Twenties, then Finnochio’s eventually became the symbol of the Flamboyant 30′s.
Legend has it that one night in one of Joe’s speaks, a male patron decided he had enough intoxicants in him to break into an imitation of Sophie Tucker. The patrons were amused and Joe’s keen eye saw a new idea. That Sophie Tucker imitation became the seed idea for Finnochio’s. Opening in June of 1936, the boys began to imitate everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Tallulah Bankhead…feather boa’s and shaved legs…sequins and pearls…sashaying down the runway into fame and infamy.
In time, the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield had their admirers imitate them and of course..no Impersonator Review would be complete without an appearance…by Liza!! Finnochio’s, more than any other place, proved once and for all that life was indeed a cabaret…old chum!
Eve Finnochio decided to close the old girl in November of 1999. Skyrocketing rents and dwindling audiences signaling the death knell. There was a closing ceremony and as Finnochio’s packed up the last of the mascara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented ….That’s a Drag.
FINNOCHIO’S: 506 Broadway at Kearny (You Go Girl!)
Pop…Goes The Culture. Leave your inhibitions at the door and get ready for a good hearted romp of outrageous satire and some of the most extravagant costumes and hats ever to grace the stage! BEACH BLANKET BABYLON is the world’s longest running musical review ever…Period. Premiering in June of 1974 at The Tivoli Theater in San Francisco, BABYLON has camped it up and poked good natured fun at pop icons with charm, grace and of course, good old fashioned San Francisco style flair.
In addition to the biting humor and flamboyant costumes, the real standouts of the production are the hats…to die for. Huge cityscape diorama’s perched atop the cast members heads like a city balanced on a fault line. BABYLON has also gone on the road to London and Vegas, but to fully appreciate the true experience of theater, BABYLON style, its best to enjoy it at its home at the Club Fugazi in North Beach. Makes Elton John’s costumes look like three piece suits.
CLUB FUGAZI: 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd (Green Street)
THE CHURCH OF DIRTY HARRY Dirty Harry Callahan is to San Francisco as the Little Old Lady is to Pasadena. Clint Eastwood magnumed his way through a series of Dirty Harry movies, filling the silver screen with images of a myriad of bad guys biting the bullet and in the process, some of the best shots of San Francisco landmarks. One of the most recognizable and must see on your tour of North Beach is the SS Peter and Paul Church on Washington Square Park…or The Church of Dirty Harry.
If the facade looks familiar, its because these are the steps where the priest gets whacked by the rooftop psycho..(the snipers rooftop perch by the way is located at The Dante Building at 1606 Stockton at Columbus Ave) Dirty Harry may have ruled the Park in the 70s but in the Beat 50′s it was a favorite hangout for the Beat Literati..including Mr. Kerouac.
You can almost picture him now, lolling in the grass, soaking up the sun and some cheap wine on a lazy San Francisco afternoon. Today you can emulate those Beat afternoons by grabbing a custom made pastrami sandwich, a hunk of cheese and delicious dessert from a variety of Italian deli’s, markets and bakeries that dot the North Beach landscape like sea lions at Pier 39. Don’t forget to stop off at Coit Liquor on your way to give your lunch a distinctive Kerouac touch.
North Beach today is home to early morning practitioners of Tai Chi and most days you can enjoy the symphony of sounds and sights…laughter..picnic voices…kids running and playing…Frisbee’s flying low like Stealth bombers. The beat of the city playing a Chianti melody. As always, in North Beach….The Beat Goes On!!!!