On this historic day when marriage is for all across the land, it’s worth noting that it started with a single marriage performed by Mayor Gavin Newsom in this building in 2004. Last night the Civic Center which has seen the marriage of Marilyn Monroe to Joe DiMaggio (1954) and the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk (1978) was lit up with pride. Time to rejoice and to celebrate our city, country, and humanity and all the hard work that went into creating this day. The SCOTUS ruling is just in time for the official gay pride march tomorrow in SF. Tonight is the annual Dyke March.

March on, brothers and sisters!
San Francisco City Hall lit for pride

Beach Blanket Babylon

peacenik character in Beach Blanket BabylonEven though it’s been running non-stop since 1974, it took me until this year to finally get to Club Fugazi in North Beach where Beach Blanket Babylon, Queen Elizabeth character in Beach Blanket Babylon the send-up show of shows, nightly skewers pop culture and its host city. The plot centers on Snow White who searches through time and culture for her prince, only to discover … well all will be revealed in good time at the show, my pretty.

Tell Tale Tops
The performers at this 400-seat nightclub theatre wear macro hair-and-headpieces more characters in Beach Blanket Babylonbefitting Alice when she drank the growth pill. And they sing and dance and even fly in them – and very well. Created by actor Steve Silver and continued by his wife, Jo Shuman Silver, after his death in 1995, Beach Blanket Babylon is considered to be the country’s longest running musical revue and has played before three million people including Queen Elizabeth who is one of those spoofed.
Silver, who started as a street performer on skates, took inspiration for the show’s name from the “Beach Blanket” movies Beach Blanket Babylon Poster starting Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon. It made him a wealthy man who gave generously to his city until AIDs claimed him.

Revised Revue
The show is continuously tweaked to mirror the fads, fashions, and personas of the day. No matter what gen you are, you won’t recognize some characters. For years, the show finished with the lit up Golden Gate Bridge balanced on a performer’s head. Now even that has been improved, er, enlarged upon. But I won’t spoil it for you. Go and see Beach Blanket Babylon yourself and be prepared to laugh at all the glitz, glory, and hilarity that comprise San Francisco and pop culture.

What is Great to Visit and Great to Leave?

Yesterday it was time for another trip to “The Rock” the term for Alcatraz Island that Alcatraz Island near San Francisco the children who grew up there abhor to this day. (See Chapter 18 of my book Chronicles of Old San Francisco to learn more about the juveniles who roamed the island during its famous penitentiary phase. The exhibit of the art of Ai Weiwei (more later) is what got my friends and me there. I had first gone in 1977 not long after the National Parks Service (NPS) took over the island; the last time was sometime in the 1980s. Click here for tickets.

view of San Francisco from Alcatraz Island ferry to Alcatraz Island near San FranciscoIt is always a thrill to get a closer view of the island and to see the bridge and the city from Alcatraz. The info panels at Pier 33 where you catch the ferry translate the word as “gulls”; my Spanish dictionary translates it as pelican or gannet. Alcatraz is the most popular attraction in the bay and the ferry people have their act down. The ferry itself is powered in part by wind (usually lots of it in the bay) and sun (a dicey proposition. There is nothing like the joie de vivre one experiences when the bay sparkles on the illumination of full sun and blue skies. But you miss part of the experience if you don’t experience the clouds of this “cool grey city of love” as poet George Sterling described it.

Alcatraz arrival viewWhen you arrive at the island an NPS ranger queries your disembarking boatload.
Q: Why is the 1.5 mile swim to SF from the island so treacherous?
A: Ocean current and water temperature.

Once the last person has straggled off the boat, the ranger quickly outline the rules and the lay of the land. Then you’re free to wander on your own, take an audio tour (free) buy a $1 guide (available in many languages), or take a ranger led tour (a few bucks).

Broadway, Michigan Ave., and C-D Cell Blocks
I recommend the excellent audio guide which allows you to navigate the prison. Eight cell at Alcatraz near San Franciscoformer guards and prisoners help tell the inside story of the prison which operated from 1934-1962 when Attorney General Robert Kennedy cell at Alcatraz near San Franciscoclosed it due the high operation cost (e.g. laundry was shipped to SF) not to mention that the facility dumped raw sewage into the bay. You will learn about the Birdman, see the cells of the 1962 escapees who were made famous by the Clint Eastwood movie, and the 1946 “Battle of Alcatraz,” a two day siege that brought in the Marines and left two guards and three prisoners dead. You will also see panel on the infamous inmates: Al Capone, Doric Barker, Machine Gun Kelly, and Creepy Karpis and large portraits of all four wardens. More of the prison is open than ever before including the hospital and gun room.

What’s missing

What I didn’t find was the history of the island before the well-known federal prison Penitentiary Sign at Alcatraz near San Franciscoperiod. Or a recounting of the Indian occupation  from 1969-71 which despite infighting, a barrage from the government, and eventual removal, resulted in a federal act and some returns of land.

Ai WeiweiAi Weiwei Exhibit
“The misconception of totalitarianism is that freedom can be imprisoned. This is not the case. When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a windowsill.
— Ai Weiwei

dragon head Ai Weiwei is a prolific, high profile artist-musician activist who is currently prohibited from leaving China, his home country due his outspoken views. He was not allowed to see the exhibit he created for a few of the buildings of Alcatraz which will be up through April 26.

My favorite creations were all in the New Industry Building: 1) Silk dragon kites one of which had round head inscribed “Every one of us is a potential convict”; metal bird sculpture 2) Wing of a bird viewed legos art of prisoners and exiles from the long narrow gun room above it; 3) A huge room full of Legos creating a posterized picture of current and famous prisoners and exiles such as Martin Luther King and Edward Snowden. The latter Ai Weiwei designed and volunteer laid out the Legos.

For more information including Ai Weiwei’s bio, over 90 of his works, exclusive articles about Ai Weiwei, as well as his exhibitions. visit Artsy’s Ai Weiwei page.

All in all, I highly recommend visiting Alcatraz for its views and history. Being in the prison with the ghosts of the past, however, makes one very glad to be able to escape, er, leave of one’s own free will.
seagulls at Alcatraz near San Francisco

One Good Book leads to Another: Aleta George’s new biography Ina Coolbrith – The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate

In Chapter 17 of Chronicles of Old San Francisco I set down the highlights and main story of Ina Coolbrith. As the editing of the book dragged on, this chapter was an add-on a year after I sent in the manuscript. I had a short time to research and write Ina Coolbrith biography bookcoverthe book and was anxious to get out of the 1800s but Coolbrith’s life and accomplishments kept reverberating in me so I sat down and distilled her life in the 1800 words allotted for each chapter. When the book ran long and one chapter had to be cut, Coolbrith stayed in.

This January I met Aleta George at a meeting and she sought me out because of this chapter. At the same time I was seeking to meet her. I found out that George had spent 10 years meticulously researching and writing Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate

Published by Shifting Plates Press last month, the book debuts three months before the 100th anniversary on June 29th of Coolbrith’s becoming the first Poet Laureate of California (and the U.S.) by being crowned with a laurel wreath at SF’s 1915 Pan Pacific International Expo. At 362 pages the book is an exhaustive study that deserves to be heralded as “The Book” on Ina Coolbrith. George told me that she researched the pronunciation of Ina’s name and concluded that it was “eye-nah.”

Early Life
George documents how Ina began life in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1841 as Josephine Donna Smith. young Ina photoShe was named Josephine after her uncle, Joseph Smith who founded the Church of the Latter Day Saints and Donna after her father, Don Carlos Smith and nicknamed Ina. Four months after Ina’s birth her father died and her mother, Agnes Moulton Coolbrith whose name Ina eventually adopted, abided by Mormon custom and entered into a “plural marriage” with Joseph Smith. When Smith was killed three years alter and the Mormons who were driven out of Nauvoo, Ina’s mother married William Pickett, second cousin to General George Pickett, the famous leader of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg.

All this happened before Ina could read, let alone write the poetry that she later become famous for. And before she reached San Francisco, the city she’s most associated with.

Ina Coolbrith as a young womanI’ll leave it to George to fill you in on that journey as well as about what Ina made of her life and how she influenced writers such as Jack London and Joaquin Miller. I will just add a few tidbits to give you the flavor and passion of George’s writing and a sense of Ina.

I have always wondered what it would be like to write a biography. To spend that much time on someone I would want to care for them a great deal. So I resonated with George’s prologue to the book where she confesses, “Writing a biography is an intimate affair. I love spending time with Coolbrith, her friends, and her times. Her devotion to poetry in a place and time when few women led literary lives made her a trailblazer, and her struggle to balance art, family, and work still resonates today.”

Ina Coolbrith as a mature womanWhat comes through in the book and makes it worth spending the time to read is the sheer strength of Ina along with her modesty about her poetry (which hasn’t weathered the test of time well). Ina worked long hours as Oakland’s first librarian to support the children left in her care following her sister and brother-in-law’s deaths died at great cost to her own life and poetry writing. About that she wrote, “I have dreamed entire poems, and stranger still, I have lost them to other writers. This is one example. I had the idea for a poem one day, and did not have time to write it … Six weeks later I opened a new magazine and there was my poem! Just as I had thought of it, almost word for word. I could hardly believe it … That is why I say poem are things. They will find birth.”

Final Words

Ina never wavered from connecting and supporting new writers and was a revered founder plaque at Ina Coolbrith Parkof the Ina Coolbrith Circle which met in her home on Russian Hill. You can visit Ina Coolbrith Park which is worth the uphill trek to experience Russian Hill, the park’s city views, and its plaque about Ina embedded in a rock.
Ina deserves the last words, and they will be about her city.

To San Francisco 1929

Fair on your hills, my City,
Fair as the Queen of old,
Supreme in her seven-hilled splendor-
You, from your Gate of Gold,
Facing the orient sunburst,
Swathed in the sunset gleams,
Throned in an ultimate glory,
City of mists and of dreams!


Second Tiled Stairway

On December 1 I wrote about community project that resulted in the marvelous tiled Hidden Garden Steps sign in San Franciscosteps at 16th and Moraga, well there’s another set of steps a stone’s throw away at 16th and Kirkham. Poppy tile at Hidden Garden Steps in San Francisco A docent stationed on these steps answered patiently informative. The Moraga project of 12 flights of steps proved a real booster for the neighborhood – raising morale and the looks of this Inner Sunset district neighborhood, improving health as people walk and run the steps, and connecting neighbors and visitors alike.

So when neighbors a few blocks away at 16th and Kirkham asked the artist if she would like to design another set of steps, she was delighted. Hidden Garden Steps in San Francisco The Kirkham steps are just as vibrant as the Moraga if not more, and much less traversed. So drive or walk the few blocks and enjoy. The docent told me that there are tiled steps in the Bayview neighborhood on Innes but I could find nothing online. Please make a comment if you have information.

Hidden steps with docent

leaning on railing at top right.

The docent also said that at California and 32nd Ave. a new set of tiled steps is under construction.Butterfly tiles at Hidden Garden Steps in San Francisco So if you want to see how these steps come together, go there. In the meantime, enjoy a couple of photos of the 16th and Kirkham steps. One last note, both sets of steps are like a fan: When you look up the steps you see the intricate mosaic tile design, when you look down the steps you see no tiles or design at all.

Barracks and Cemeteries and Lover’s Lane – Oh My!

The Presidio (Spanish for fort), which lies to the south of the Golden Gate Bridge, emerged in the Presidio sign in San Franciscomid-90s from its long military history which dates back to the Spanish settlement in 1776. Presidio barracks in San Francisco Part of the GGNRA (Golden Gate National Recreation Area), it is run by the Presidio Trust and the NPS. You can visit the parade ground and the barracks which have been repurposed as the Presidio Trust Museum, the Disney Family Museum, and the Commissary Café You can also wander a cemetery where Buffalo soldiers, a female Civil War spy, and other military personnel are buried – all described in Walking Tour #8 of my book Chronicles of Old San Francisco.

Pet Cemetery
Pet Cemetery at Presidio in San FranciscoIf you park on MacDowell Blvd., just south of Crissy Field (part of Tour #8), you Doyle Dr. construction in San Franciscocan walk up to the Presidio. On the way, under the Doyle St. ramp that leads to GG Bridge, there is a pet cemetery. Here the pets of military families continue to rest, despite all the building activity to construct a seismically safe new on ramp.

Into the Woods
Inspiration Point in San Francisco

View from Inspiration Point

Seeded with trees by the Army in the 1890s, the Presidio is also a green swath of enchanting paths that criss cross its forests. There is information about the many trails such as Lover’s Lane and the Bay Ridge Trail to discover amidst the Monterey Pines and cypress. There are also bike trails and overlooks such as Inspiration Point with cinemascope vistas of the city and bay.

This area made the walking tour too long so I couldn’t put in the book. You can reach it by car or use the free PresidiGo shuttle buses which have bike racks.

Check out SF’s Cartoon Art Museum

Popeye poster from San Francisco's Cartoon Art MuseumNear Market St. in the Yerba Buena district at 655 Mission St. is the Cartoon Art Museum. It’s “About Us” page declares it “the only museum in the western United States dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of cartoon art in all its forms.” On display are old Sunday comic strips such as The Yellow Kid and Little Lulu as well as Saturday morning cartoons, anime, comic books, and graphic novels. One of its five galleries shows continuous cartoons from a variety of eras none of which I’d seen and all of which I found interesting; they’re not necessarily mainstream cartoons.

Current Shows
Boxtrolls poster from San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum Show Me Your Papers poster from San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum The museum houses 6,000 original pieces of comic art and puts on 9-12 major exhibitions each year. Running until February 1 is “The Art of the Box Trolls;” until February 15 “Stranger than Life: The Cartoons of M.K. Brown” who has had strips in “National Lampoon,” “Ms.,” and other magazines. A third show, “Slinging Satire: Masters of Political Cartoons” ends March 9.

Founded in 1984, the Cartoon Art Museum received a major endowment in 1987 from Charles M. Schulz, creator of “Peanuts.” The museum holds classes for adults and kids and also contains a research library, and a bookstore.

Check out Books, Building and More at SF’s Main Library

San Francisco Public Library Exterior It took an act of the California congress – the Rogers Act of 1878 – and the advocacy of Andrew Hallidie, inventor of the cable car, to create San Francisco’s first public library in 1879. In those days, only men were hired as librarians.

Today – a few buildings and librarians (both male and female) later – the grand SF main library  stands at 100 Larkin St., opposite the Civic Center. This latest, 376,000 square ft. incarnation opened in 1996 and should stand for many years. Factoid: The library was featured in the 1998 film City of Angels ironically about its rival city, Los Angeles.

Why Visit the Library?
San Francisco Public Library exhibit poster for A La Vie In addition to books and the expected library collections, a Children’s Reading Room, research areas, and computers, the city’s main library hosts free exhibits, classes, lectures, and other events.
I visited and can recommend as current exhibit occupying the Skylight Gallery on the sixth floor. It is “Alive! Children of Buchenwald.”  This photo and text exhibit relates the lives of a few of the 600 boys who survived this Nazi concentration camp in a barrack set up by the camp’s Jewish underground and will be up until March 15, 2015.San Francisco Public Library Interior

On January 27 (International Holocaust Remembrance Day) there will be a screening of the documentary “The Boys of Buchenwald” film screening. 6 p.m. at Koret Auditorium.

San Francisco Public Library InteriorWhile you’re there, be sure to explore the building’s architecture, which features a five-story central atrium, bridges, an auditorium, and a grand staircase rises four stories, and a lit wall installation inscribed with the names of more than a hundred authors. The building’s interior is crowned by a spiraling window – which resembles the eye of a hurricane.

A Walk in the Park: Kew the Conservatory

The Conservatory of Flowers, which resembles a huge wood and glass bird cage, was modeled after the greenhouse Conservatory of Flowers Exterior (San Francisco) at London’s Key Gardens. Located in Golden Gate Park Conservatory of Flowers Interior (San Francisco)and opened in 1879, it’s the oldest glass-and-wood Victorian greenhouse in the Western Hemisphere.

Dracula Plant Conservatory of Flowers (San Francisco)

Dracula plant

(Named for its “fangs.”)

The Conservatory is a living museum comprised of four galleries – Lowland Tropics, Highland Tropics, Aquatics, and Potted Plants – it houses carnivorous plants, rare orchids, prized century-old philodendron, and lily pads so sturdy they can hold the weight of a small child. The conservatory has been saved from rot and the wrecking ball several times most recently from 1995-2003 when its 16,800 lead paint-glazed window panes were replaced with safety glass.

Admission is free the first Tuesday of each month.

Special Exhibits
Routinely, often around Christmas, the Conservatory hosts special exhibits. Acquascaping at Conservatory of Flowers (San Francisco)Currently, until April 12, 2015, they’re offering Aquascapes: The Art of Underwater Gardening.

Aquascaping is defined as a craft or an art, depending on whom you talk to, and consists of artfully arranging plants, stones, caves, and driftwood in aquarium. Acquarium at Conservatory of Flowers (San Francisco)It’s under water gardening. An aquascape can be Zen and imitate ancient forests, abstract, or imitate any number of riparian or tropical habitats. Begun in the 1930s by the Dutch, aquascaping has spread to countless countries and is particularly popular in Japan. There are annual aquascaping competitions with hundreds of entries per contest.

Cleaning a plant in an aquarium  at the  Conservatory of Flowers (San Francisco)

Cleaning an African Crinum plant

with a toothbrush

The Conservatory exhibit consists of freshwater tropical fish and plants from Africa, Asia and South America that swish about in aquariums cut into Disneyesque hard plastic rock walls. The fish and plants will grow and change over the course of the exhibit so you may want to visit more than once to witness the transformations.

Christmas Comes to the Castro – and More

Castro Christmas Tree San FranciscoIf you hurry, you can still catch the tree at the SE corner of the 18th and Castro – an intersection as famous locally as Haight-Ashbury. Rainbow Crosswalk San Francisco Christine Jorgensen

Speaking of that famous crosswalk, it’s now adorned with rainbow stripes. And the sidewalks fanning out from it area studded with bronze plaques of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Christine Jorgensen, and so on. Once you’ve seen The Imitation Game, you’ll be clamoring for Alan Turing to join this sidewalk parade of GLBTQ history. It’s history at your feet, literally.

Over rainbow signSpeaking of movies, I also liked this T-shirt sticking out proudly from a window. Go the HRC store (575 Castro St.) and the GLBT History Museum (4127 18th St.) to learn more about GLBTQ and Castro history.
Happy New Year San Francisco