Back Story

Hard times but good times: S.F. in the Great Depression

A trip to Sutro Baths was one way Beyl knew his father was out of work. photo:

Boom and bust is not unknown to San Franciscans. The bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 was a shock to me. I suppose it shouldn’t have been. Remember those Super Bowl ads that featured upstart companies with funny names, seemingly without products? And, of course, there are those who are predicting the present tech bubble to burst. But my job with these Back Story columns is not to predict but to recall. This month, I’d like to recall hard times, but good times here in San Francisco during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This is what I remember or was told by family members.


Later the same year I was born in Fresno, my mother, father and I moved to San Francisco — with me in a basket. We made the trip in my father’s 1922 Willys Knight Country Club Phaeton, a very fancy car. My father bought it used, but he never admitted how much he paid for it. He had a good job in the kitchen of a Fresno hotel. Later, through a chef named Victor Hirtzler from my father’s hometown, Strasbourg in Alsace, he got a job as a cook in San Francisco’s Hotel St. Francis.

A year later, with my father firmly ensconced as a cook at the St. Francis, my family was already starting to think about the year-end holidays — Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings, food to serve friends, gifts to give, a Christmas tree. Optimism abounded. It was a time of easy credit and installment buying. Then on Black Tuesday, Oct. 29, 1929, the stock market crashed and sent everything spinning downward. Banks closed, credit dried up. (In 1931, a scholarly book came out with the title: Can Governments Cure Unemployment? We are still asking that question, aren’t we?)

The exuberant hurly burly that was San Francisco stuttered to a crawl. It seemed everyone was out of work. My father, however, retained his job. He sold the fancy Phaeton — “for peanuts” he told me many years later.


We lived in a rented flat out on Turk Street, almost to the Pacific. Across the street were sand dunes. In a few years, I had a paper route. I delivered the old San Francisco Examiner. Then a bit later I also sold donuts door-to-door. That was tough. We ate a lot of donuts.

Actually, we ate quite well in those days. There was not much meat. Fish was cheap. We ate a lot of soup — split pea, lentil, vegetable soup. Occasionally we went out to dinner, usually at Original Joe’s that opened in the Tenderloin in 1937. You could get what we then called “a good square meal” for a buck or two. Sometimes we ate at Lucca’s, the Italian, family-style place at Powell and Francisco in North Beach. It had a sign: “All you can eat for 50 cents.”


Yes, there were periods when my dad was out of work. But the family hung together and looked forward to better times. There was work to be had if you didn’t mind heights.

Construction began on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in 1933. That bridge was completed in 1936. The Golden Gate Bridge was begun in 1933 and completed in 1937.

Some artists got jobs through the Public Works of Art Project, a federal government New Deal program. They painted frescoed murals on the interior of Coit Tower, which was completed in 1933. Another federal program putting people back to work was called the WPA (Works Projects Administration).

As a kid, I didn’t really know we were in hard times. I wasn’t necessarily depressed by the Depression. But I could always tell when my father had lost his job even though it wasn’t discussed with me. He loved to swim and if, during weekdays, he took me by streetcar out to Land’s End at Point Lobos to swim at nearby Sutro Baths, the massive, glass-enclosed Victorian amusement center that featured several heated saltwater tanks — my father was out of work.


Although prohibition ended in 1933, my mother and father — not big drinkers — didn’t take advantage of it. Hanging out in bars wasn’t their thing. But there was other entertainment. We played Monopoly and got a jolt from dealing with the play money.

And we listened to our radio, a large wooden tabletop model that ran on vacuum tubes and resembled the doorway of a medieval cathedral. We gathered around it and listened to serials: The Romance of Helen Trent (“… the real life drama of Helen Trent, who, when life mocks her, breaks her hopes, dashes her against the rocks of despair, fights back bravely …”), or Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. Other radio favorites in those lean days were Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, and One Man’s Family, a story about a well-off family who lived in Seacliff overlooking the Golden Gate — a different world from my Turk Street world.


A popular Tin Pan Alley tune of the day was “Time On My Hands,” sung by Rudy Vallee. In 1936, Bing Crosby gave us “Pennies from Heaven.” Other optimistic songs were “Happy Days Are Here Again” and “We’re in the Money.”

We also went to movies: adults a quarter, kids a dime. We saw screwball comedies, light romances, and Busby Berkeley dance movies with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — classics I still enjoy. Others were King Kong about the giant ape that kidnapped actress Fay Wray to have his way with her and scaled the Empire State Building (construction had begun in 1930. It miraculously opened a little more than a year later). Feel-good films during the Great Depression were You Can’t Take It With You (we didn’t have it anyway) and later, in 1939, the Wizard of Oz with Judy Garland.

Baseball was great entertainment, cost little and banished worries for a while. We went to Pacific Coast League baseball games. Bleacher seats at Seals Stadium, 16th and Bryant, were 50 cents for adults and 10 cents for kids.

I had two autographed baseballs — one with signatures of the Oakland Oaks, and one with the autographs of Seals manager “Lefty” O’Doul and Joe DiMaggio. Years later, I was relieved of the responsibility of owning these treasures, when a friend of a friend swiped them.

Lefty O’Doul, a San Francisco native born in Butchertown south of Market, had been a star for the Yankees and later for the Giants in the majors. He became manager of the Seals in 1937. Joe DiMaggio played for him. Occasionally my father and I took the ferry across the bay and a streetcar to Emeryville where the Oakland Oaks played. I had my favorites there, too — Dolph Camilli, first baseman; Smead Jolley, outfielder; and Ralph Buxton, pitcher. Then, as now, there was a fierce cross-bay rivalry.

The Great Depression lasted until 1939 when World War II started kicking everything into high gear again. But the WW II years in San Francisco is another Back Story for another time. As I said earlier in these memories of growing up in the years of the Great Depression — they were hard times but good times.

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