Welcome to this re-release of a post that I did a few months ago. Like a director’s cut in film this is a longer, more detailed version of the previous, with more personal anecdotes thrown in.
Looking for a beach at San Francisco’s North Beach? THE San Francisco beach is Ocean Beach but that long stretch of sand along the chilly Pacific is miles away and over the San Francisco hills. You could go a mile or so northwest to Aquatic Park where hardy souls jump into the cold bay waters for a brisk swim. South Beach is, well, south and that’s a marina with no real beach. North Beach? There is no beach at North Beach.
At one time in North Beach you could’ve stumbled onto Beach Blanket Babylon. No beach there though, unless it was on the stage. Beach Blanket Babylon (known informally to friends and fans as BBB) was the title of a bawdy musical review that enjoyed a 45 year run and over 17,000 performances at Club Fugazi in the heart of North Beach. Producer Steve Silver named the show after the Annette Funicello/ Frankie Avalon beach movies of the 1960’s and if you’re familiar with those movies then you’re either old or you’re an aficionado of campy old movies.
BBB was a parody of the pop culture and politics of the times portrayed through the adventures of the main character, Snow White who travelled the world in search of her Prince Charming. The show was most famous for the outrageous hats worn by the characters (In the closing scene, longtime cast member Val Diamond would sing the song San Francisco while wearing a ten foot wide, 250 pound hat depicting the San Francisco skyline). I regret that I never took Cora to see this whacky show that delighted even Queen Elizabeth II in 1983. Still I’m one of the over 17 million people to have seen BBB. I used to sneer at BBB as something of a tourist attraction until 1978 when I was cajoled by my girlfriend Linda into dinner and a performance.
Linda and I were working at Fox Hardware, a retail store in downtown San Francisco when we met. Our’s was a short and interesting little run punctuated by arguments over some of the dumbest damn things. There was the argument in front of a club in Cancun over disco music that had us stomping back to our hotel room separately and then doing the classic pissed off balancing act on opposite sides of the bed. We fought about King Tut; yes King Tut. Being Chinese-American she wasn’t cool with the way the movie The Deer Hunter portrayed Asians. That argument simmered for days. But in the end BBB was something that we did agree on. It was a delight. The show became such a landmark that one block of Green Street in North Beach was renamed Beach Blanket Babylon Boulevard.
Why no beach at North Beach? Originally there was a North Beach beach where the waters of the bay lapped up around what is currently Francisco Street, which is five blocks from the current center of North Beach.
In the late 1800’s, as a part of city expansion, landfill was added along with the construction of docks, wharves, warehouses and all the complimentary industries of sin that are part and parcel with a waterfront; saloons, bordellos and gambling establishments. After all the landfilling, the waters of the bay ended up a good five blocks further north.
The district’s proximity to the docks made it a natural melting pot of incoming immigrants, British, Irish, German, French, Italian, Peruvian, Mexican, Swedish, Canadian, Chinese, Russian and Greek could all be counted as residents, some temporary, of North Beach.
After the 1906 earthquake most of the ethnic groups left North Beach, with the exception of the Italians. Immigration from Italy continued and during the period between the world wars the North Beach population of those claiming Italian descent swelled to 60,000. After World War II the Italian community began to shrink as fewer immigrants moved in while residents began to move to different parts of The City or to the growing suburbs.
Today many of the Italians are gone. I used to enjoy having coffee at Stella Pastry or a sandwich at Molinari’s and enjoy the atmosphere. You could close your eyes, smell the dusky espresso or fruity Chianti and listen to the old Italian men speak rapid fire in the mother tongue and imagine yourself in Rome. That scene has sadly become a rarity now. Still the Italian flavor hasn’t completely left North Beach. Below, the Italian tricolor is visible throughout North Beach.