“Vintage Nostalgia”

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I’ve been coveting a piece of Alex von Wolff’s artwork ever since I first experienced it months ago at Aperto, my neighborhood Italian restaurant. Vintage matchbook covers blown up to over ten times their original size depicted Shadows on Telegraph Hill, Playland at the Beach, Hippo hamburgers, Bimbo’s 365 Club, and many more venerable San Francisco venues. They were apparently printed on canvas, then stretched onto a frame. The interior of the matchbook was reproduced onto the edges, transforming a small piece of ephemera into a significant object.

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When I learned that von Wolff had an exhibit at the Triton Hotel downtown, I eagerly went to see more of his work: a plastic elephant-shaped key from the San Francisco Zoo, Zim’s, broiled hamburgers “Be Cool, Be Gay on San Francisco Bay – visit Treasure Island,” Golden Gate International Exposition, “World Famous DiMaggio’s on Fisherman’s Wharf,” and others.

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I couldn’t put my finger on what made his work so appealing. They seemed rather straightforward, maybe even silly. Were they actually art? They nevertheless haunted me. I contacted the artist, who invited me to his studio, but somehow I never quite made it.

I did identify with his artistic statement: “Lately I find myself working on the ‘Vintage Expansion Principle’ – a habit of taking little artistic relics of the past and giving them new life, larger than life, on canvas. Current subjects include matchbooks, lighters, postage stamps, vintage B/W photography and stills pulled from 8mm film from the 60s.” I don’t quite understand how these small cardboard artifacts offer a window into another world, of cigarettes and rotary phones, men wearing hats and women gloves, of a San Francisco that no longer exists.

Finally, my boyfriend and I arranged a visit, and met at von Wolff’s converted garage space the walls of which were covered with his wonderful artwork. I was validated that Allen immediately shared my enthusiasm for the blowups. And Alex was extremely affable, spending over an hour chatting with us. I thought about the matchbook covers I’d amassed over many years, which I finally discarded a couple of years ago. I’d carefully sorted through them, picking out the San Francisco-related venues and donating them to the San Francisco History Room at the San Francisco Public Library. Not knowing what to do with the rest, I bagged them up and took them to Goodwill.

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Knowing that I could ill afford even a moderately-priced piece of artwork, Allen suggested he buy me one as an early birthday gift. I gratefully accepted his generous offer, but then I was faced with the dilemma of how to choose from amongst all the colorful canvases? I finally settled on the Cliff House image. It was the first place I remember from a trip to San Francisco with my family circa 1962. For years my father had extolled the Top of the Mark cocktail lounge, Emporium department store, and the City’s many fine dining establishments. On our visit we had enjoyed a Crab Louis salads at the famous Cliff House, and I had ever since been bewitched by the odd edifice at the end of the city, seemingly at the end of the world. Through its checkered career, it seemed to echo my own in the city since 1972. Alex offered to produce the image in the size we wanted, and have it ready by the following weekend, when he’d be hosting open studio. Now it hangs in pride of place in my kitchen, where I admire it throughout each day.

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Alex’s next exhibit will take place at Moby Dick’s, a gay bar just a block or two from the GLBT History Museum where I have incorporated matchbook covers into an exhibit about San Francisco “gayborhoods” as lost urban landscapes. Alex is creating canvases of vintage gay establishments specifically for the venue. I look forward to more of his irresistible images of San Francisco’s lost past.

 

 

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“The Never-Ending Saga”

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A few months ago, on a friend’s recommendation, I read Mani Feniger’s The Woman in the Photograph: The Search for My Mother’s Past. I was fascinated by her story, sparked by the discovery of a “lost” photograph,of her exploration of her mother’s early life in pre-Nazi Leipzig. Feniger’s search to understand the young woman who eventually became her mother resonated deeply with me.Many aspects of her journey echoed my own.

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I had completed, or so I thought, my own family memoir, My Grandmother’s Suitcase, in which I too try to understand my family’s early history. Based on photographs, correspondence and documents saved from the 1920s and ‘30s and transported by my grandmother from Paris to New York to Los Angeles, then taken by my mother to her home in Seattle and finally ending up at my home in San Francisco. Why had this material been saved? The story, which spanned nine decades, four generations, and three continents, seemed to be asking to be shared with the world.

I engaged in genealogical research, contacted long lost relatives, and worked diligently on structuring the narrative. Seeking advice from professional editors, members of a now-defunct writing group, various friends, my psychotherapist, and my so-supportive partner, I wrote, rewrote, and revised. I don’t know how many separate drafts of the manuscript I completed, yet I persevered. Various versions were diplomatically rejected by a publisher friend, and not so diplomatically by an agent. I had co-authored two books and co-edited two others, but this one would be different: extremely personal and solely mine. How to respond when well-meaning friends asked about the manuscript’s status? I found myself at a crossroads: should I renew my research of potential publishers and/or agents, explore the self-publishing options, or just give up?

I reached out to Mani Feniger and early in our multiple conversations, which took place over several weeks via email and phone, I proposed a public program to help promote her book. We would have an onstage conversation at the Jewish Community Library about our family stories, our research and our writing. Then she would sell and sign books. I was more inspired than envious that she had a well-produced volume, while I didn’t. Not yet.

I had recently enjoyed several handsome self-published books, including Longing For Elsewhere: My Irish Voyage Through History and High Times by my friend Renée Gibbons.

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I also read some less-than-satisfying memoirs, some self-published, others brought out by well-respected publishing houses. I realized there was no reason I shouldn’t also be able to accomplish my dream of putting my story into the world.

A colleague recommended Barbara Sjoholm’s book An Editor’s Guide to Working With Authors and I ordered a copy. I found it concise, well-written and practical, based on years of the author’s experience and expertise. I recommended it to several writer friends and eventually I bit the proverbial bullet and engaged Sjoholm’s editorial services. Armed with her respectful, supportive and constructively critical feedback I am now in the process of summoning the time and energy to return to the manuscript for the next set of revisions.

“How do you know when a piece of writing is finished?” a non-writer friend once inquired. “It’s never ‘finished’,” I replied. “You’ve got a deadline or you’re tired of working on it. Otherwise it can go on forever.” I certainly hope that’s not the case with my book.

I look forward to meeting Mani (our schedules have heretofore precluded a face-to-face rendezvous) and our public conversation on May 13. Perhaps soon I’ll have a saleable product to sign after an event. In the meantime I continue to read more memoirs.

“San Francisco as necropolis”

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Cemeteries have always fascinated me and I visiting them frequently: the sprawling necropolises of Forest Lawn in Glendale, Pére Lachaise in Paris, Woodlawn in the Bronx. Intimate ones like the pioneer graveyards in Weaverville and Columbia. While some people apparently find burial grounds morbid or macabre, I feel them to be filled with magic and mystery. It’s a bit like time travel: ow we honor our dead offers insight into how we lived.

I knew that San Francisco’s cemeteries had long ago been moved to Colma, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I uncovered the surprising story. Among the excellent sources are John W. Blackett’s website San Francisco Cemeteries, Deanna L. Kastler’s short article in the Winter 1992 issue of the Argonaut, and Trina Lopez’s 45-minute documentary, A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries.

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Of the City’s early burial grounds I had visited the churchyard cemetery next to Mission Dolores (after all it appeared in Vertigo) and the military cemetery in the Presidio and learned that Dolores Park was once two Jewish cemeteries: Hills of Eternity, owned by Congregation Sherith Israel, and Home of Peace, owned by Congregation Emanu-El.

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The San Francisco Public Library buildings (both old and new) were built on the site of the old Yerba Buena Cemetery, which had been abandoned in the late 1850s. Not to say that any uninterred bodies remain, but what I perceive to be a toxic energy field in that area reminds me of the movie Poltergeist, in which the ghosts invade a suburban housing development, discovered to have been built on the site of an old graveyard in which the bodies were never removed.

I didn’t realize that Lincoln Park was the site of City Cemetery, Potter’s Field and later Golden Gate Cemetery, the largest in the city. In 1993, during renovations and expansion of the Palace of the Legion of Honor museum, hundreds of bodies were discovered. Supposedly reinterred in Colma, the headstones had been removed, leaving unmarked graves. They’re still there, sleeping under the oblivious golfers and museum-goers.

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Much of the middle of San Francisco’s 49 square miles, now termed the Inner Richmond, was dominated by the “Big Four” cemeteries developed in the 1860s: Odd Fellows, Masonic, Laurel Hill, and Calvary. I have several maps framed on my living room wall showing big swatches of green where the cemeteries spread.

The cry “Remove the cemeteries” began in the 1880s, by 1900 the graveyards were filled and deteriorating, and in 1902 burials were prohibited within the city. In the 1920s bodies from Mason and Odd Fellows Cemeteries began to be removed to Colma and in the 1930s and ‘40s Laurel Hill and Calvary remains were transferred. The headstones were used for a variety of building projects including Buena Vista Park, the Wave Organ on the breakwater near the St. Francis Yacht Club, and landfill at Aquatic Park and Ocean Beach.

The newly available real estate was used to develop the campuses of St. Ignatius College and San Francisco College for Women (now both part of University of San Francisco), Laurel Heights neighborhood, Rossi Playground, Jordan Park, and many other civic projects. One of the few remnants of this history is the San Francisco columbarium, whose verdigris neoclassical dome floats above the Pier One on Geary Boulevard. But more about that another time…

“Lost Urban Landscapes”

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“Walking down a city street, a casual visitor cannot perceive the ghosts that inhabit various sites as businesses change and buildings are razed. Preservation confronts development, and queer history in particular has long been ephemeral. Urban neighborhoods form organic geographic entities, their demographics and social characteristics shifting over time. Economic, gender and ethnic diversity, as well as density and functionality, are subject to continual change for a variety of reasons.”

I wrote the above for “Gayborhoods: Lost Queer Landscapes,” an exhibit I’ve curated as part of all new “Queer Past Becomes Present,” opening in mid-May at the GLBT Historical Society Museum at 18th and Castro. Across the large wall dominating the rear of the gallery I investigate once vibrant, now disappeared neighborhoods of North Beach, the Tenderloin, and the Valencia Street Corridor.

I am fascinated by lost urban environment, constantly curious about what used to be. On a trip to New Mexico many years ago, I became obsessed with Route 66, much to the dismay of my boyfriend. Now, whenever I wonder aloud what the history of a building or site might have been, he teases me by saying “It was part of Route 66!”

One of my favorite books is Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape. Published in 1997, Brian Ladd’s thoughtful meditation confronts Germany’s controversial past as it engages in the process of reunification. How have specific buildings been used, how best to acknowledge those uses, mark the memories?

Shimon Attie found a brilliant way to acknowledge the past in his “Writing on the Wall” series of slide projections of pre-war photographs of Jewish establishments onto the same or nearby addresses in 1992. “Fragments of the past were introduced into the visual field of the present. Thus parts of long destroyed Jewish community life were visually stimulated, momentarily recreated.”

Steinstrasse 21: Slide Shimon Attie: "Projection of former Jewish-owned Pigeon Shop (1931)"

Shimon Attie: “Projection of former Jewish-owned Pigeon Shop (1931)”

Having lived and worked in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood, I am fascinated by its rich history. The African American community, though largely wiped out by “Urban Renewal” is commemorated by the Historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District, a mere echo of when the neighborhood was known as the “Harlem of the West.” The Japanese community, decimated by removal to relocation camps, is represented by a historic walking tour, Japantown businesses as well as by the Japan Center, constructed in 1968.

 

Diller’s Kosher Butcher Shop and Delicatessen, 1179 McAllister St., with Harry Diller (owner), circa 1940. photos/courtesy: the jews of eastern european origin collection (wjhc 1976.007), judah l. magnes museum

Diller’s Kosher Butcher Shop and Delicatessen, 1179 McAllister St., with Harry Diller (owner), circa 1940. photos/courtesy: the jews of eastern european origin collection (wjhc 1976.007), judah l. magnes museum

I am surprised that nowhere is there any mention of the Jewish community that thrived in the early decades of the 20th Century. The bakeries, delis, schools and synagogues are long gone. A temporary exhibit in 2009 paid homage to the heritage, but even the cell-phone walking tour was short-lived. What would it take to somehow mark this important aspect of this neighborhood’s rich community?

As San Francisco continues to evolve, most recently due to the impact of the technology industry in “Silicon Valley,” it is simplistic to identify these changes merely as “gentrification.” It is important to remember the neighborhoods which remain haunted by the memories of what once was.

“There’s no place like home!”

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“Did you watch The Wizard of Oz last night?”

How old was I before I was able to answer yes to the neighbor kids’ question? I knew the 1939 film was broadcast every year – in early December between 1959 and 1962, thereafter in the spring – but we didn’t yet have a television set. It seemed like ours was the last house on the block to get one.

Then one of the kids described the scene where the door to Dorothy’s sepia Kansas house opens into the Technicolor land of Oz. “Wasn’t that neat?” By now I’d seen the movie, but I didn’t know what they were talking about. Again, we seemed to be late in getting a color television.

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Living in the bland suburban tract felt akin to Dorothy’s existence in Kansas. No one understood me, I was bullied by other kids, and I longed for another place. For a while that other place was Los Angeles, where my grandmother lived. With her fancy clothes and jewelry, her red hair, and her sophisticated sensibilities, she was Glinda to my boring parents Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. I couldn’t possibly be related to them, could I?

My "Baba" aka Georgette Simon Burns.

My “Baba” aka Georgette Simon Burns.

My “Glinda” seemed to understand me, taking me to movies and operas, fancy parties and restaurants. My times with her in the city were inspirational, but then I would have to return to the brown-and-white world of the suburbs.

I read the book by L. Frank Baum as soon as I was able, then quickly devoured the more than dozen titles in the series. I checked them out from the Buena Park Public Library and sequestered myself in my room. Being transported to the magical land of Oz was far preferable to playing baseball in the cul-de-sac with the other kids.

I didn’t know anything about Baum’s Populist allegories, if they ever even existed, nor did I know who Judy Garland or Billie Burke were. All I knew was that somewhere there might be a place for someone like me.

Finally I found that place. I saw the film for the first time in color, shortly after I moved to San Francisco in 1972. Was it at the Castro Theatre? Though it was available, over the years on various video formats, I only watched it at the Castro, with an audience of gay men, as if it was a religious experience. I quickly grasped why the film became a metaphor for the many gay people who moved to the city to find themselves. This is what the kids had seen so many years ago. This was what I’d been imagining.

Over the years I saw Dorothy and Glinda portrayed in the long-running San Francisco musical review Beach Blanket Babylon, and by drag queens. I saw the very first public performance of Wicked, running almost four hours, before it became a Broadway hit, then read, Gregory Maguire’s revisionist Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, on which it was based. I read Geoff Wyman’s 1992 novel Was, the annotated version of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Ruby Slippers of Oz by Rhys Thomas.I wouldn’t say I was fixated on Oz, merely intrigued by its multivalent metaphors.

This year, the 75th anniversary of the classic film, my many memories were triggered. I have lived in San Francisco for over forty years and I hope never to leave. Glinda was right: “There’s no place like home.”

“Starring San Francisco”

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Last week a movie was being filmed across the street in the community garden. At first I was annoyed to see the “no parking” signs along my block, but my anticipation of inconvenience quickly segued to pleasure that some location scout and/or director appreciated my neighborhood as an ideal film location. I could just imagine characters wandering the verdant labyrinth backed by panoramic views of the cityscape. On the day of the shoot I peered from my window trying to see what was going on, but aside from lots of trucks parked, and crew running around, I saw little or nothing. I didn’t even find out the name of the film. Oh, well… I realize I’m less interested in watching the actual making of movies than in seeing the finished product on the screen.

Two books on San Francisco movies have come out relatively recently. (By which I mean since Will Shank and I published Celluloid San Francisco: The Film Lover’s Guide to Bay Area Movie Locations in 2006). Christopher Pollock’s Reel San Francisco Stories: An Annotated Filmography of the Bay Area is a comprehensive listing of more than 600 movies shot in San Francisco, in whole or in part. World Film Locations: San Francisco edited by Scott Jordan Harris, part of the University of Chicago Press’ World Film Locations series, offers iconic images and essays to highlight seven selected San Francisco films.

I am pleased to have been invited by various branches of the San Francisco Public Library to present two film programs in June. “Starring San Francisco” traces the city’s rich history of movie making and “On Location: The Golden Gate Bridge on the Silver Screen” looks specifically at one cultural icon as depicted in dozens of Hollywood movies. Seeking to update my talk I quickly researched recent films, identifying Blue Jasmine, Contagion, La Mission, Milk, Hemingway and Gelhorn, Pursuit of Happyness, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and something called 180. While I’d seen, or at least heard of the others, 180 was completely unfamiliar. Directed by Jayendra, it turned out to be a Bollywood movie largely set in San Francisco and largely incomprehensible. Oh, well.

Now my boyfriend informs me that the new version of Godzilla coming out next month takes place in San Francisco. I watched the trailer and can’t wait to watch the Golden Gate Bridge destroyed, yet again!Image

Here’s a still from The Core (2003)