North Beach Journal

Laughing it up

North Beach has always been a funny place — a haven for comedy and comics. In San Francisco’s early days (and where we now call North Beach was San Francisco), there was a mixed bag of men and a few women: miners, merchants, clerks, entrepreneurs, sailors, ruffians, con men, pranksters, rhymesters, balladeers, discontents, malcontents, misfits, storytellers, zealots, social climbers, and pompous asses. At times it was difficult to tell one from another. All wanted to get rich, eat and drink gloriously, laugh out loud and entertain themselves. Plays, ballets, pantomimes, blackface minstrel shows, and comic skits were performed in saloons, dance halls and theaters of this “instant city.”

One of the earliest comics — presumably a gold miner — slipped in the mud at the corner of Clay and Kearny streets in 1849 and scrawled this anonymous poetic traffic warning:

This street is impassable
Not even jackassable

But let’s name names. Here are a few to put up in lights: “Doc” Robinson did comic impersonations of prominent citizens in 1850; his partner, James Evrard, did female impersonations.

Oofty Goofty and Big Bertha played Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet at the Bella Union on Portsmouth Square in the 1860s. Bertha tipped the scales at 280 pounds. For the balcony scene, she read Juliet’s lines from the floor. Oofty Goofty, a tiny, unbalanced wild man, played Romeo from the balcony.

Bert Williams was Stanford’s first African-American. He starred in a minstrel show on the Barbary Coast in 1880. And moving right along, Charles Pierce, female impersonator at Finocchio’s on Broadway who “did” Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, and Joan Crawford in the 1950s.

Another decade and The Cockettes, the gender-bending drag and glitter group, came along. Beach Blanket Babylon, brash and bouncy, premiered in 1974. Then along came Scott Beach, the fastest quip in the West. Considering the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, Beach wrote:

We knew that it was serious and nothing to
be wrote off
When Rather came and did the news with
both his tie and coat off.

And last, but certainly not least, Phyllis Diller and the Smothers Brothers at North Beach’s Purple Onion and Will Durst also deserve a place in this comic pantheon.

North Beach has always embraced larger-than-life characters that add vigor to the neighborhood’s zany history. One of those characters was flamboyant, beret-topped, Italian-American Enrico Banducci. Classically trained violinist, operatic baritone, nightclub impresario, sidewalk cafe owner, and a fine cook, he operated the hungry i, one of the most influential showrooms in American history.

Banducci’s talent-spotting helped launch the careers of comics, folk singers and other show business staples like Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, Professor Irwin Corey, Shelley Berman, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Woody Allen, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, and even Barbra Streisand, who was only 19 when she played the hungry i.

At his Broad-way sidewalk cafe, Enrico’s, he hosted such high profile buddies as Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, John Huston, Duke Ellington, and Carol Channing. “They all liked to hang out with me. I played a little Mozart on my yellow shellacked violin, sang a little Puccini and fed them my grandmother’s minestrone,” he once said.

Asked about Woody Allen, he replied, “He was always too nervous to
eat anything.”

But my vote for most unusual comic in North Beach history goes to Grimes Poznikov, the Human Jukebox. A shadowy figure hidden in a painted refrigerator packing case that looked like a jukebox, Poznikov remained silent until a passerby inserted a dollar bill into a slot. The bill disappeared. Then the jukebox player selected a tune by pushing a small circle on the box. At that point a cardboard flap flipped open and Poznikov and his battered trumpet poked out and played the opening bars of “April in Paris,” or whatever. A fixture along the northern waterfront in the ’70s and ’80s, Poznikov ended up homeless and died in 2005. Just where he fits into the long history of North Beach comics — if at all — is a subject for debate. Somewhere between comedy and tragedy, he was man inexorably reduced to machine.

You remember a while back when Woody Allen was seen all over town shooting his new movie with Alec Baldwin and Cate Blanchett? None of the action is set in North Beach, but a second unit crew filmed Washington Square and Coit Tower. The story’s about a wealthy New Yorker who moves to San Francisco and lives with his sister after losing everything in a divorce. Makes sense so far. It’s due to be released this summer. The working title was WASP 12, for Woody Allen Summer Project 2012. Now we understand he has given it the title Blue Jasmine. That works better than WASP 12.

But have you heard the one about the trucker who drives beneath a very low Golden Gate Bridge exit ramp and gets his truck stuck under it? Traffic backs up for miles. A police car shows up and the officer says, “Stuck huh?” “No,” replies the truck driver, “I was just delivering this bridge and ran out of gas.”

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Ernest Beyl has a secret desire to be a comic, but he says he's not nearly fast enough for stand-up. E-mail: [email protected]