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A Broadway kaleidoscope: The golden age of North Beach street life

Seedy, exciting — who’s to judge? (photo: thomas hawk / flickr)

The nineteen sixties — if your personal history allows you to remember back that far — gave us the golden age of Broadway, that southern boundary of North Beach. At least that’s how I remember those times through my fog-covered glasses.

I have lived in San Francisco since I was an infant, brought here from Fresno by my parents. Yes, Fresno. I called the “City” my home until a wild job search sent me to Southern California for an interlude — an interlude that worked, until it didn’t. I returned to San Francisco in 1965 during those golden years of Broadway I’m talking about. A friend helped me find a Telegraph Hill apartment, a short walk from the excitement and pleasures of Broadway as it was then. I still live on Telegraph Hill. And now, as then, it’s only a short stroll to the present Broadway. Though I don’t really partake in the “excitement and pleasures” of the street anymore because those two concepts don’t apply these days. There are two reasons: I am getting older, and I become irritable and tiresome. That leads me to the second reason: Broadway is getting old and has become irritable and tiresome, too. You can say that I’m ready for a Broadway renaissance. I feel it coming.

When I think back to Broadway’s golden years (and I’m defining Broadway as that two block stretch from Montgomery, west to Columbus) much has changed. At the same time, I suppose little has changed. Back then Broadway was kaleidoscopic. Bright visions were tumbling by at high speed. That was exciting. I suppose kaleidoscopic is a descriptive word for Broadway even today, but the excitement is gone.

Two San Francisco Chronicle comrades introduced me to Broadway — music critic and social commentator Ralph J. Gleason and photographer Peter Breinig.

OPENING MY EARS

I was a jazz fan and Gleason knew jazz. He took me to the jazz clubs, all within that two-block Broadway stretch — The Jazz Workshop, El Matador, Basin Street West, Sugar Hill. The Jazz Workshop offered a graduate course in what jazz was all about. In those times, it was all about Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz. There were nights when it was possible to hear Dizzy Gillespie at the Jazz Workshop, walk across the street to Sugar Hill and hear bluesman Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins, then drift up to Basin Street West and enjoy the Count Basie Orchestra. I remember Carmen McRae singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” at Sugar Hill and Dizzy walked across the street from the Jazz Workshop, sneaked up behind Carmen and began playing an obbligato on his trumpet. Magnificent! Another evening, Charles Mingus at the Jazz Workshop snapped a bullwhip over the heads of his audience because it had been unruly by chatting during one of his stand-up bass solos. While there may be some live music now on Broadway, we’re talking midgets here as opposed to the giants of yesteryear.

THE HANGOUTS

For me, hanging out on Broadway began and ended with Enrico’s at 504 Broadway. Enrico Banducci opened it in 1958. Peter Breinig presented me to Banducci. It was like introducing me to the pope. “Bandooch,” as we called him, knew everyone and handed out blessings. These blessings came in the form of being welcomed at the “family table” and to eat Enrico’s pasta, and to listen to him play his violin. And occasionally to be introduced to visiting out-of-towners like his hungry i headliners Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, or Mort Sahl. The hungry i (and, by the way, it was all lower-case) was the most influential showroom in American cabaret history — a story for another time. Enrico’s was often the scene for gatherings of Hollywood royalty — Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Paul Newman, and his wife, Joanne Woodward. It was at Enrico’s one night that Bandooch serenaded Duke Ellington with a screeching violin version of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” Duke kissed Bandooch on both cheeks and said “I love you madly.”

THE TOPLESS CLUBS

Before the California Gold Rush began in 1849 women were few and far between in the sleepy Mexican village of Yerba Buena. But once word got out of gold at Sutter’s Mill, things changed. Miners flocked here as did a few adventurous women merchants, and teachers, for example. So did dancers and waitresses — and bare breasts were commonplace.

In June 1964, bare breasts became institutionalized. Carol Doda launched the topless craze that swept San Francisco — and the nation. Big Davey Rosenberg, publicist for the Condor (560 Broadway at Columbus), asked Carol Doda, a Condor waitress, to dance in a topless swimsuit. She did and San Francisco has never been the same since.

Soon a North Beach Club called El Cid, now the New Sun Hong Kong Restaurant (606 Broadway at Columbus), was headquarters for the second topless dancer in North Beach. She was Gayle Spiegelman, billed as the Topless Mother of Eight. She really did have eight kids. (What did movie sex kitten Jayne Mansfield and Gayle Spiegelman have in common besides the urge to display their chests for fun and profit? Both were decapitated in horrific auto accidents.)

A few weeks later, along came Yvonne D’Angier, billed as The Persian Kitten at the Off-Broadway (1014 Kearny). She was an Iranian citizen and was later threatened with deportation. Flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli intervened. Some say he married her to give her U.S. citizenship, but I can find no record of that.

I also recall a topless shoeshine stand. There were also topless bands, a pool hall with topless pool players, and a topless ice cream joint. In 1967, some clubs began featuring bottomless entertainers. I’m hesitant to add that things went down from there.

The sexual revolution was in full swing then. Comic Lenny Bruce and others were challenging legal criteria for obscenity. What a great city I thought. I still think so.

THE RESTAURANTS

The restaurants on Broadway then were grand, lusty Italian joints with verve and style and food that sent you away with a warm glow of contentment.

New Joe’s (540 Broadway) was established in 1928. It was the first of our restaurants that believed in dining as theater and put the hot pans, flames licking their sides, on view from the sought-after counter seats. New Joe’s gave us Joe’s Special (hamburger, eggs, spinach and onion).

And Enrico’s wasn’t just a coffee house and bar. It served robust Italian food. Banducci himself was frequently in the kitchen preparing ravioli from his grandmother’s recipe. The secret ingredient was calves brains.

Then the incomparable Vanessi’s opened in 1936 and occupied the prime corner spot, 498 Kearny at Broadway. My greatest memory of Vanessi’s is strolling down Telegraph Hill with Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck’s alto saxophone player, and striding into Vanessi’s for cold, straight-up martinis, followed by a rare steak.

Swiss Louie’s (493 Broadway) opened in 1936 as well. It was dimly lit and as smooth as an Italian silk shirt unbuttoned to the waist. The waiter deftly finished your culotte steak in a copper pan right at your table. He warmed it with sweet butter and Worcestershire Sauce.

All are gone, but a reincarnation now exists of that wondrous North Beach Italian style. It is Original Joe’s (601 Union), a class act keeping the tradition alive.

THE AMBIENCE

Yes, in the good old days there was a palpable, almost nonchalant ambience on Broadway. We were all hipsters then — or worked at it by reading Beat literature and by not urinating in doorways. Nowadays would-be hipsters are mostly crude outliers and they frequently use neighborhood doorways for a binge purge.

In the old days, I remember the characters that “ran” Broadway —those who made it tick — were louche and loopy, XXXL personalities. Today, it seems this new breed of Broadway characters is undersized and mostly lewd and larcenous.

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