Thursday, February 15, 2018

Emperor Norton's Bicentennial Birthday

Emperor Norton’s Bicentennial Birthday. 

San Francisco has always been a haven for the eccentric. Emperor Norton wasn’t the first to wander the streets in bizarre clothes, but his reign of a little over twenty years made him the most durable and endearing character in San Francisco history. He made being a tourist attraction a profession. There have been annual gatherings at his gravesite in Colma, but this year the Emperor will get more attention on the occasion of his two hundredth birthday. City Hall and Coit Tower were lit in gold in his honor. There were other events planned around the City. 
  San Francisco has always been a great place for someone to reinvent one’s self. There was no shortage of busted fortunes after the Gold Rush ran its course. Most who saw the elephant didn’t profit financially from it. There were other characters working the streets of San Francisco back then. Oofty Goofty let people hit him with a pool cue for a small sum. Two mongrel dogs became the City’s unofficial mascots. There was George Washington II and The Great Unknown. 

Fisherman’s Wharf is the main stage for “street performers.” The circus is in town every day at the Wharf and Pier 39. Over the years there have been jugglers, musicians, magicians, card sharks, mimes, break dancers, people painted silver. They compete for the tourist dollar. Those with more talent get more contributions. 
There’s been a Human Jukebox, a Pirate, The Space Lady, Bushman and so many others that I know I’m leaving someone out. Frank Chu will walk through, carrying his sign warning us of extraterrestrial invasion. Sinister clowns blow up balloons for children. Norbert Yancey played guitar and made silly rhymes outside of Ghirardelli Square.   
One of my favorites was a hardened looking middle aged guy with slicked back hair. He looked like an Okie who had fled the Dust Bowl. He preached fire and brimstone during the day, pounding on his Bible. We were all sinners in this Sodom and Gomorrah! He used a small speaker, but it really threw his voice. At night he switched to singing Sinatra and Dean Martin songs! He probably got more contributions then, “Thank you very much.”   
Among the Emperor’s Bicentennial birthday events was a lecture by John Lumea: “Will the Real Emperor Norton Please Stand Up?” Lumea is a writer and activist. He’s the founder and president of The Emperor’s Bridge Campaign. The organization tried to get the Bay Bridge named after Emperor Norton. It may have been as quixotic as any cause. The powers that be opted for Willie Brown.   
I’ve had a strange fascination with my fellow potentate. Here’s a guy who cracked up after trying to corner the market on rice. He was ruined, but reinvented himself. He became a symbol of the City. Lumea says, “He’s the patron saint of San Francisco.”  
About forty history buffs gathered at the California Historical Society on Mission Street in downtown San Francisco. The building looked like it was an old retail space. 
Of course Emperor Norton was there! Joseph Amster dresses as Emperor Norton and leads Time Machine Tours. He has become the new Emperor Norton. Amster’s uniform certainly looks authentic. He wears a military style jacket and a hat that is crowned with pigeon feathers. People posed for pictures with him. 
Amster is not the first to adopt the persona of the Emperor. Rick Saber, of E Clampus Vitus has channeled Norton for years at ceremonies and events. “In the spirit of the Emperor” the two get along well. There’s no rivalry between the two. Saber rarely appears as the Emperor now. 
Some special Emperor Norton artifacts were displayed in glass cases in the back of the museum. There were imperial promissory notes, telegrams, post cards and some of the Emperor’s own currency that he gave to worthy subjects. The most impressive piece was an ornate walking stick that was used by the Emperor. Most Emperor memorabilia was lost in the Fire of ’06.  
John Lumea is an expert on all things “Nortonian.” He’s a respected academic with articles in many respected publications. He tells us that Emperor Norton I is surrounded in myth and apocrypha. Lumea starts his lecture by asking, “ Will the Real Emperor Norton Please Stand Up?” Amster rises from his seat in the center of the room, but Lumea isn’t going for it. “Nice try.”  
There are two Emperor Nortons. There is the historical Emperor Norton. We do know much about his life. There is also the mythical, folklore Emperor Norton. Maybe more than any other figure in San Francisco’s history, Emperor Norton’s life was embellished by stories, especially newspaper stories printed during his time.   
Reporters, including Robert Louis Stevenson, loved to write about Norton. Mark Twain portrayed him as “The King” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Unfortunately some reporters created their own stories and even proclamations that they passed off as coming from the Emperor. This sold newspapers, but it created much  confusion. 

One of the more popular acts on the Wharf was Bushman. His act was primitive and ingenious. About twenty years ago a middle aged black man set himself up on a sidewalk on Bay Street. He hid himself behind bushes that he had brought with him. Bushman was patient. He preyed on fear. He was a hunter. Tourists had plenty to distract them. Bushman usually picked someone who looked distracted and off in their own world for a minute. They were usually looking around or talking when Bushman would shake the bushes and give a low guttural shout. Sometimes just shaking the bushes worked. People jumped and cried out in surprise. 
Then came the real fun. People who had been scared would go across the street and wait for the next victim. Sometimes there were twenty five or thirty people watching the show. Bushman had learned to make them wait across the street. Too many people standing around the bushes would blow his cover.  
People would be startled, but after the initial fright most laughed. A few were not amused. I saw one guy screaming right in Bushman’s face. Bushman faced some legal scrutiny after Wharf merchants complained. The City was afraid someone would drop dead of a heart attack.

There is a surprising amount of controversy and debate around the Emperor’s correct birth date. His gravestone in Colma says 1819. Lumea says that research into circumcision records says the date is 1818. A quote in an old newspaper article about his birthday says it’s 1818. It’s believed the date on the gravestone is in error. Maybe there should just be another celebration next year.  
  Lumea recaps the biographical facts that we know for sure. Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco in 1849. He was what was called a man of means back then. He had $40,000 when he landed, and he invested in the wild real estate market of Gold Rush San Francisco. Soon his fortune rose to $250,000, a very considerable sum for the time, but Norton wanted more. He tried to corner the supply of rice in San Francisco. When ships loaded with rice unexpectedly arrived in the Bay, he was ruined. 
A year and a half later Joshua Norton entered the offices the San Francisco Evening Bulletin and declared that the people of San Francisco had made him Emperor of the United States. He demanded his proclamation be printed. It’s thought that the editor printed it as a joke on a slow news day. Readers loved it. 
The Emperor fit right in. It’s hard to imagine what those first days of his reign were like. Why were the people of San Francisco so ready to adopt him? San Francisco has always been a boom and bust town. Maybe that generated more sympathy for those down on their luck. Those that had succeeded in their new world realized that if fate had been slightly different, they might not have been so lucky.  
It’s interesting that someone who had schemed to create a monopoly became so popular. He must have had some charm. The Emperor was welcome to dine in the best restaurants for free. He was adopted and cared for by the people of San Francisco. The Emperor appeared at important civic events and was treated as a local dignitary. He was invited to the parties of high society. His proclamations were closely followed by newspaper readers. San Francisco loved Emperor Norton I.   
Did he leave San Francisco for a year and a half, or did he stay in San Francisco and just kept a low profile? We don’t know for sure, Lumea thinks he stayed in the City.  We also don’t know what he did in South America before he came to San Francisco. 
Many of his proclamations were created by newspaper editors. Emperor Norton stories sold newspapers. There is debate now over what proclamations were real. An enraged Emperor chose an abolitionist newspaper, The Pacific Appeal, to be his official mouthpiece. It was owned and operated by African-Americans. 
Lumea says that Norton was probably better off and more respected than we think. Early pictures of him show a gaunt figure. We can see he was well fed. As the years went by we can see his girth grow in pictures of him. The Emperor was not a teetotaler, but there’s not much evidence of his drinking. He was a member of all the “right clubs” and “knew the right people.” The Masons paid the rent on his small boarding house room. 
An over zealous police officer arrested the Emperor and tried to have him committed. The City quickly rose to Norton’s defense. Police officers then had to salute the Emperor. It must have been a comic sight. 

Interest in The Emperor has come in waves. Lumea says that in the Twenties and Thirties there were still locals around who had seen or at least heard about him. There was a resurgence of interest when he was reinterred in 1934. Newspapers told his story again when his remains were moved from San Francisco’s Masonic Cemetery and reburied in Woodlawn Memorial Park in Colma.  
  Lumea uses a paperback published in 1939 as an example of the misinformation spread about The Emperor. “San Francisco’s Emperor Norton. The Story of Norton I, Emperor of America, and Protector of Mexico” was written by David Warren Ryder. Lumea is a disciplined historian, “There is no attribution. There are no footnotes!” He recounts one story from the small book as an example. The Emperor is credited with starting the tradition of having a large Christmas tree in Union Square. Despite his curmudgeonly appearance he loved kids, and apparently they were drawn to him too. He came up with the idea of putting up a Christmas tree. 
Some merchants thought it was a good idea. They bankrolled the installation of “the largest fir tree in San Francisco.” Ryder describes Emperor Norton beaming at the happiness he’s brought to the local ragamuffins. To most it would be a heart warming story. Emperor Norton as Santa Claus. 
The problem is that it’s probably not true. There is a date for the ceremony in the book. An event like this would have been covered in the competing newspapers of the time. There is no article in any newspaper about it. Emperor Norton was getting a lot of attention in the daily newspapers. Lumea says there should be a verifying article somewhere. 

When I first visited San Francisco someone told me about The Human Jukebox: “You’ve got to see this guy!” On the lawn near Aquatic Park there was a large hand painted box. Arrows pointed to a brightly colored slot calling for donations. When money went into the slot a door on top of the box opened and The Human Jukebox played. The quality of the performance depended on the amount of the donation. Spare change got you a short toot on a kazoo. I did see someone put in a twenty dollar bill once and The Human Jukebox did deliver quite a performance. The Human Jukebox did take requests. I never saw him get stumped. 
The Human Jukebox was pretty intense. He tried to stay hidden in the box. Always on the edge, he ran afoul of the authorities when he was caught selling marijuana. This was a different era. It became a big story. Youth had been corrupted at a popular tourist destination. The Human Jukebox did return to the Wharf area, but it never seemed the same. He was mentally ill and wound up in a homeless encampment. 

Even in the early days of the Internet there were references and web sites mentioning Emperor Norton. It was an oddly popular subject on the early Internet. There was another spike in interest in 2005. 
Was the Bay Bridge the Emperor’s idea? Lumea says there are newspaper references to building a bridge across the Bay to Oakland before his proclamation, but the Emperor did have an idea for an underground tube under the Bay! 
Lumea says that even full biographies of the Emperor have misinformation in them. Even “the Drury book” has errors. (Norton I. Emperor of the United States. A Biography of One of America’s Most Colorful Eccentrics by William Drury. Dodd, Mead. 1986.) Another imperial biography is Allan Stanley Lane’s “Emperor Norton. Mad Monarch of America.”  
Lumea was doing such a great job of debunking some of the myths surrounding Emperor Norton that I started to wonder if he was a loyal subject. The historian tells us that an accurate portrayal of the Emperor gives us a better idea of his greatness.
The Emperor had egalitarian, progressive beliefs and views that were very unpopular at the time. He wanted Chinese people to be able to sue in court at a time when they weren’t accepted as witnesses. There is a story that he disrupted one of Dennis Kearney’s anti-Chinese demonstrations. The story is doubtful, but it is known that he spoke out against Kearney. He had chosen an abolitionist newspaper to be his official mouthpiece. He proclaimed that land should be given back to Native Americans.    
Maybe it was just safer to have these ideas expressed by someone who was considered mad or at least a bit goofy. The progressive ideas could be laughed off as comic, but they were being said.     
There is a Q&A. 
What about his currency? Did merchants really honor them? The Emperor did have his own currency and even bonds. Most of them were in the denomination of fifty cents. The California Historical Society collection has a rare five dollar denomination. Lumea says merchants had them printed and they gave them to Norton I to hand out as a form of advertisement. Merchants would honor the Emperor’s notes, but the currency was rarely cashed in.  
Lumea points out that the Emperor, and other San Francisco street characters were tourist attractions. They were a big part of the mystique of San Francisco. People did want to see them when they were in San Francisco. Most of the tourists that got the Emperor’s currency took them home as souvenirs. Now they go for nine or ten thousand dollars on EBay. Someone near the front cracks that Emperor Norton foreshadowed Bitcoin!     
Was he mentally ill? Lumea says that Norton was never diagnosed. Psychiatry was in its infancy. We do know that he suffered from depression. Lumea says that there really is a “historic personality disorder.” It gave us the old stereotype of the mental patient that thought he was Napoleon. 

Did he really have money when he landed in San Francisco? Lumea says that Norton’s father was nearly bankrupt when he passed away. Norton went to South America after leaving South Africa. He did have money when he arrived in San Francisco. Whatever he did in South America is still a mystery. Lumea says that we do know that the rice debacle did happen. It was documented in a court case.

“This isn’t really a question, but a comment.” The Emperor’s proclamation to disband Congress may be needed now more than ever. There’s no argument from this crowd.

Lumea says that we know that Norton sometimes stayed in Berkeley and Oakland. Proclamations were sent out from Brooklyn, California. Brooklyn was a separate town near Lake Merritt in Oakland. He visited the University of Berkeley often and was popular with the students. 

Was there really a Proclamation against using the word Frisco? The man in the Emperor’s uniform, Joseph Amster, rises from his chair and recites the Proclamation in his loud, stentorian voice. Use the word Frisco and you will be fined! It is still debated if Norton I made the “Frisco proclamation.” Lumea mentions that during his campaign to eradicate the word Frisco, Herb Caen never mentioned Emperor Norton. 

Lumea introduces Katzu and his wife. They are a couple who came from Japan for the Emperor’s Bicentennial events in San Francisco. He wrote a biography of Emperor Norton in Japanese. The friendly couple take a bow. They certainly win the prize for traveling the farthest!  

A member of the staff at the museum passes on a question. She says the first thing some people ask her is: What happened to the dogs? Where are they buried? Bummer and Lazarus were a couple of mutts who became as famous as The Emperor. They were not the Emperor’s dogs. They became mascots of San Francisco. 
After they died their bodies were displayed in a couple of bars. It was assumed they were lost in the Fire of ’06, but “New information  surfaced!” It was learned that the bodies had been sent to the DeYoung Museum for repairs. Unfortunately they became infested with bugs and the bodies had to be destroyed. 
It’s a reminder that so much of the history of San Francisco was lost in the Fire of ’06. Most of the City and its history were wiped out. Is this one of the reasons we’re so fascinated by the history of the City?

What was the best depiction of the real Emperor in the media? Someone immediately yells out, “Bonanza!” (A later Google search shows that there was an episode of Bonanza where Sam Jaffe played a very similar character.) Lumea mentions the Sandman comic book created by Neal Gaiman. The Emperor plays a big role in the story. It created another spike of interest in the Emperor. 

There will be other events honoring the Bicentennial including a free lunch at the Comstock Saloon on Saturday. “It’s at the border of Chinatown and North Beach.” The Comstock has quite a history. In the old days there really was a free lunch in San Francisco saloons. The price of a drink got you access to a buffet of meat and cheeses. It will take two drinks to get the free lunch on Saturday. “Inflation.” Lumea says that the owners of the Comstock Saloon are big Emperor Norton fans. 

There will be an “Emperor Norton’s 200th Birthday Bash” at the Mechanics Library. Unfortunately it is sold out. Lumea says there was a post about it on, and tickets quickly sold out. The Mechanics Library was one of the Emperor’s favorite spots. He wrote many of his proclamations and played chess there.
He may have been better off and saner than we thought, but we know he did have humble lodgings. After his death reporters converged on his small room in a boarding house near today’s Transamerica Building. The reporters confirmed his living conditions. There were nails on the wall for him to hang up his military coats. His funeral was a huge civic affair. Newspaper accounts say thirty thousand lined the route of his last procession.  

Carl Nolte paid tribute to the Emperor In his column “Native Son” in Sunday’s Chronicle. He says that the Board of Supervisors paid for the Emperor’s new uniforms when his got shabby. Nolte says that the fake proclamations created by newspaper reporters were “an early example of fake news.”
Nolte mentions some of the other characters who have been lost in the mists of time. At one time San Francisco had been graced by George Washington II, the Money King and Oofty Goofty, among others. Only the Emperor is really remembered today. He embodied the spirit of San Francisco.

There are still traces of the Emperor’s reign in San Francisco. There’s an Emperor Norton Inn on Post Street. Emperor Norton’s Boozeland honors his excellency with a mural. There is a plaque at Empire Park near the site of his old boarding house. The Bay Bridge should have been named after him.
The tech boom has been transforming the City. San Francisco has always changed, but the recent transformation is more ominous. Artists and eccentrics have been leaving. What made San Francisco different from the rest of the universe is being lost. The legacy of Emperor Norton is still celebrated, but will San Francisco lose its identity? The lunatic fringe was always a big part of San Francisco’s unique character. How would Emperor Norton advise us? What would he proclaim?  

Details of Bicentennial Norton events and much more on Emperor Norton I are at:

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Lost Landscapes at The Internet Archive

The Lost Landscapes of San Francisco: A Benefit for the Internet Archive. Monday January 29. 

The corner of Funston and Clement is about a half mile from my apartment. On that corner is a large, white two story building. It was obviously a church at some time. It has the classical architecture of a Greek temple. It was once the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist. On the board that used to announce services and sermons it now says Internet Archive.
The Internet Archive has a goal that seems almost impossible. During the early days of the Internet there was little thought to what its legacy would be. Everything was focussed on the next thing. Links went “bad” and early sites were abandoned. Who cared about the history of the Internet? “The Web was ephemeral. Unlike newspapers, no one was saving it.” It was hard to think of the Internet in historical terms.  
The founder of the Internet Archive is Brewster Kahle. He started archiving the Internet in 1996. The Wayback Machine preserved early web sites. 279 billion web pages! The mission of the Internet Archive is, “To provide universal access to all knowledge.” The Archive started digitizing books (11 million) audio recordings (4 million, including 160,000 live concerts) images and software programs. 

I Googled the former church’s address. 300 Funston. In seconds Wikipedia gave me the history of the building. There was a history of Christian Science. How long would it have taken to find this in “the old days?" Maybe it would have taken a trip to the library. Would I have bothered?
The founder of Christian Science was Mary Baker Eddy> She was a powerful, dynamic woman. Christian Science taught that, “Sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone.” Eddy’s followers believed in philosophical idealism. Reality is purely spiritual and the material world is an illusion. Sounds good to me. 
The religion was popular, but membership has dwindled. Christian Science drew media attention in the Nineties with court cases involving parents who did not get their children medical care. 
The Google search led to the Pacific Coast Architecture Database at: The cost of building the church was estimated at $125,000. The building was sold to the Open Library of San Francisco in 2009.

Tonight The Internet Archive was joining forces with Rick Prelinger to present Lost Landscapes 12. In the early Eighties Prelinger had started to collect and accumulate film footage that most archives and libraries were throwing away. He was going to digitize and preserve them. He saw film as a look back in time that was being lost. Home movies were a treasure trove of information.
Prelinger put together some of the footage and presented them as Lost Landscapes. They became popular events that sold out The Castro Theater. 

I had been dying to get inside this building and snoop. We checked in and there was a small lobby area with appetizers from the wonderful people of La Mediterranee Restaurant on nearby Fillmore Street.  A TV showed scenes from Lost Landscapes 7.  Tonight’s event was in The Big Room upstairs. It was a large auditorium that had served as the center of Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist. We would sit in pews facing a stage and small screen. A cardboard “Wayback Machine” was next to the screen. 
It was a church, and it was an odd setting. There were mannequins along one wall. Some were sitting in the pews that had bad sight lines to the screen. They were about half size caricatures, but they were oddly life like. In the back, behind the pews were two large black Internet servers. They were framed by church alcoves behind them. Lights on them blinked. They reminded me of an old science fiction move.   
Founder Brewster Kahle comes onstage. Tonight is a fund raiser and he thanks donors. He tells us about an anonymous donor that made such a fortune with Bitcoin that he donated a million dollars to The Internet Archive! This donor will also match any contributions in the next three months by two to one, up to another million dollars. So, if anyone knows how to raise a million dollars in the next three months, let Brewster Kahle know. 
He explains the mannequins. Anyone who is employed by The Internet Archive for three years gets their own dummy! It looks like quite an honor, and an incentive to stay working for the nonprofit. 
Kahle points out the monolithic servers in the back. Lights blink on them. Each light is a sign that someone is downloading something from 
Kahle admits that when Prelinger told him about his idea for Lost Landscapes he “didn’t think it would fly.” Why would anyone come to see someone else’s home movies? He didn’t like to watch home movies of his own. There’s many history buffs and film fanatics in San Francisco. Lost Landscapes became wildly popular. I’ve tried to attend before and found the event sold out well in advance. 
Most of the footage we’ll see are home movies. There are ads and odd commercial footage from the past. Prelinger has tracked down out takes from movies filmed in San Francisco. 
Prelinger asks how many are attending a Lost Landscapes event for the first time. I’m surprised when at least two-thirds of the crowd raise their hands. I’ve watched Lost Landscapes online, but it’s not the same. Tonight is an opportunity.  
Prelinger has a podium with a laptop on it. “Let’s see if I can get this thing to work.” He explains that there will be no sound to the clips. We are the soundtrack. We’re encouraged to yell out comments or questions. Prelinger often finds out during Lost Landscapes where some of the more obscure footage was shot. Sometimes he doesn’t know who the people in the home movies are. “If you recognize someone or something, let us know!”  
We’ve been trained to keep quiet during films, so this is quite a switch. So what do people do? This audience seems oddly quiet. There are comments and questions, but most just watch. Maybe it’s the Inner Richmond neighborhood.
The ads for Lost Landscape gave us an idea of the footage we would see tonight. New Deal labor footage. Out takes from The Line Up. The filming of What’s Up Doc? with Ryan O’Neal and Barbara Streisand at Twenty-Fifth and Balboa. Home movies and the clincher for me: North Beach clubs and nightlife! 
Some of the early footage we see is older. There are shots of the Bay Bridge being built. The City skyline from sixty, seventy years ago! Everything looks small. It was the mythical San Francisco that we have heard and read about. 
You have to feel like a bit of a voyeur watching someone else’s home movies, but the Latino family in the Portrero are so friendly and open to the camera that it seems OK. We see someone’s first Holy Communion and then a birthday party. At the end the kitchen is scanned. Someone in the audience wished it was her kitchen. 
There’s great historical footage. A labor dispute on the Embarcadero. Trucks that can’t be unloaded line up. Another clip shows Chinese protesting the loading of a Japanese ship with scrap metal. Prelinger thinks it's from 1939.  
China had already been invaded by Japan. A clip shows a parade in Chinatown to call attention to and aid Chinese refugees. Prelinger said the parade did have a big effect, including getting the first public housing put up in Chinatown. 
The North Beach footage is pretty cool. Most of it is of the neon signs of the night spots and restaurants. Some I at least heard of, many of them I did not. Ray’s. Vanessi’s. DelVecchio’s. Gay Nineties on Broadway. Finocchio’s gets some applause. Of course The Condor. A shot of The Bocce Caffe.
We see the mysterious Running Man. He’s appeared in Lost Landscapes before. He goes through Chinatown and runs up California towards Nob Hill. Prelinger still doesn’t know who he is. 
There are out takes from Don Siegel’s classic Film Noir: The Line Up. A school group herded by nuns gets off a bus and enters Sutro Baths. We get a great look at the inside of the building. The film is obviously of higher quality than the home movies.  
One family has great shots of iconic San Francisco sites. Coit Tower. A ride on the glass elevator at the St. Francis with a view of the Forties skyline. The huge, almost forgotten Fleishacker Pool. Fisherman’s Wharf. Playland. The movies concentrate on showing two young daughters, but we can spot places in the background. Even casual footage of Fisherman’s Wharf shows the history of the area. There’s an audible reaction during a short shot of the now gone exterior of the Steinhardt Aquarium. The seals frolic outside of the museum. 
People shout out comments and information during the show. It is still a bit surprising how many of us share an obsession with obscure San Francisco history. I’ve stopped wondering why. Is it selective nostalgia? 
One of the last clips is footage of a peace march in June of 1969. Prelinger says he concentrated on faces during his editing. The hair and clothing are very similar to today’s demonstrators. “Not much has changed.”          



Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Noir City 2018

Noir City 2018. January 26, 2018. 
It’s the Opening Night of the Sixteenth Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival, also known as Noir City. There is some buzz outside the historic Castro Theater. I get there an hour and fifteen minutes before show time. I want to deal with Will Call and go up the street for a piece of pizza at Oz’s. People with full festival “Passport” tickets are entering the theater. There’s a reception for them on the mezzanine in the balcony. Other fans with tickets for tonight wait in line to get their favorite seats. Many are dressed in the styles of the Forties and Fifties. People are clearly excited. 
There’s plenty of time to go up Castro Street and get my slice of pizza at Oz. It’s become a bit of a ritual for me. They have some exotic toppings including ostrich and camel. It’s early on Friday night and the neighborhood is rocking. 
Back to The Castro Theater. Volunteers guide the crowd in. Inside the door a young man in suit and fedora hands me a festival guide. The guide may be half the reason I’ve come here. It’s very well done with photos, thumbnail descriptions of the films and many Noir fun facts. There are pictures of the posters and lobby cards for the films we’ll see over the next ten days. 
It’s still exciting to enter the historic Castro Theater. I work some events there during the San Francisco International Film Festival and see at least a few other films there during the year. It’s still an amazing place and the best setting for a Noir film festival.
Three female singers are onstage doing standards. The Century Singers are  wearing slinky cocktail dresses. Their only accompaniment is an electric keyboard player. They’re entertaining people while they look for seats and socialize a bit.
There’s time to check out the scene on the balcony. An area is roped off for Passport holders who are treated to samples of food, beverage and Noir related products. There is an area the public can go into, but the real party is behind the velvet ropes. The wonderful people from Green Apple have quite a spread of Noir books. New editions of Noir classics have screaming, lurid pulp covers. So many books ... 
I was standing next to two Passport holders. They perused the festival schedule hand out. “Are you doing them all?” “No, I have to do something on Thursday.” Twenty four films in ten days. That’s not as intense as what some people do during the San Francisco International Film Festival, but it’s still pretty impressive. 
The Century Singers wrap up with the City’s theme song “San Francisco.” The mighty Castro Wurlitzer rises from the orchestra pit with Matt Hagerty at the keyboard. The house organist plays while the stage is cleared of microphones and wires. We’re treated to another version of the City’s song and people clap in unison. Maybe it’s the guys and dolls in period costume. This is a real San Francisco event.

The curtains part and the festival trailer begins. The Noir clips look a little too familiar. Isn’t that a scene from the film they showed a few years back? The one about the guys driving trucks loaded with dynamite through Mexican jungle and treacherous mountain trails? I recognize the opening theme song from my current favorite TV show, Vikings. It’s the Norse call to battle. The pounding beat is quite a combination with the clips of Noir violence. My blood pressure is starting to rise ... and the screen goes dark. 
The crowd is quiet. There are a few wise cracks, but most of us just wait in the dark. A few minutes go by and the trailer starts again. When it gets to about the same spot, the screen goes dark again.
Technical difficulties are a part of festival life, but it’s still surprising how patient the crowd is. I have to admit that I did wonder, how bad are the technical difficulties?
The reassuring voice of Noir City announcer Bill Arney introduces The Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller. Muller is his usual suave, dapper self. Does anyone wear a suit better than Eddie Muller? He certainly doesn’t seem ruffled by the bad technical start. 
Muller has personally sparked the Noir revival. There are plenty of fans in the Bay Area that yearn for nostalgia, but it was Muller really who gave the genre a huge boost. He hosts Noir festivals in other cities including Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago. He’s been getting more national exposure with his show on Turner Classic Movies: Noir City. It is aired at an unfortunate time, 7 a.m. on Sunday morning. With today’s cable TV technology it shouldn’t make a difference. Just tape it. But come on Turner Classic Movies. This show should be on at night!   
This year’s theme is Film Noir A to B. “A Dozen Double Bills! Classy As and Trashy Bs!” Younger generations don’t even know what a double feature is. Studios paired an A picture that had bigger production budgets and stars with a B picture. Usually the B picture played first. Noir City is usually a double feature anyway. It’s a step back to what going to the movies used to be like, and another of the festival’s links to the past. Muller says that a night out at the movies was a bigger deal in the old days. It was more of a social event. This year films from a certain year will be shown each night. We’ll go in chronological order from 1941 and go to 1953. What most consider the Golden Age of Noir. 
Muller explains the earlier technical difficulties. The trailer was from the 2014 Noir City: “It’s a Bitter Little World.” “They still want it to be 2014 up in the projection booth.” Most of the crowd wishes we could go back to 2014. Muller mentions why we’re really here. The goal of the Film Noir Foundation is to restore Noir films.
One of the Century Singers joins Muller onstage. He hopes she will provide a distraction from the technical difficulties. Annabelle is this year’s Ms Noir City. She attended the festival before she lived in San Francisco. Being Ms. Noir City, “Is a dream come true.” She’s an actress and singer. Muller and Annabelle talk fast. They’re probably making up some lost time from the trailer glitch. Ms. Noir calms things down by singing a song.  

Muller introduces and brings out tonight’s special guest. Victoria Mature is the daughter of Victor Mature. He’s the male lead in this year’s first film I Wake Up Screaming. She’s an attractive young woman. This is surprising. People in the audience are doing the math. 
Muller often meets the offspring of big movie stars and usually finds himself asking: What was it like being the son or daughter of a successful movie actor? How did people treat her father? How did fans treat her? Victoria says she certainly noticed how people gave her father the star treatment. She says she didn’t know her father when he was in his thirties, forties or fifties. At first I thought this was one of those Hollywood abandonment stories. Movie careers were demanding. 
The reason Victoria didn’t know her father during his stardom was that Victoria didn’t exist then. Victor Mature was sixty-two when Victoria was born. Muller exults and gives us a bit of a hip shake. “There’s hope for us all!” 
Victoria says that he agreed with critics of his acting. He used to say, "I'm a bad actor, and I have a hundred films to prove it!" 

Half the fun of Noir City is Muller’s introductions to the films. He thinks The Maltese Falcon was the first Noir film, but some make a case for I Wake Up Screaming. The third prototype Noir film was Stranger on the Third Floor.  It was originally titled Hot Spot. Director H. Bruce Humberstone made only one Noir film, but he helped define the genre.
What the first “real” Noir film was is a matter of some debate. I wondered which one was made first. Which one was released first? Does it make any difference? There were certainly crime dramas before 1941, but Muller means the classic era of Noir, 1941 to 1953. 
Muller says he’s often asked, in what city where were the most Noir films made? Most Noir films were filmed in Los Angeles. New York was second and San Francisco was third. I Wake Up Screaming was filmed in Los Angeles and has some vintage shots. He points out that in LA Noir films the camera tends to pan along a horizon. In New York the camera tends to pan up and down accenting the height of the skyscrapers in the urban jungle. 
I Wake Up Screaming starts with a panoramic view of Los Angeles. The opening music is “Street Scene” by Alfred Newman. It’s a familiar Noir theme that was used in three other films. 
Betty Grable (Jill Lynn) visits her sister at the cafe where she is a waitress. Carole Landis (Vicky Lynn) is “the hash slinger” who wants to escape the cafe and “be somebody” enjoy the high life. Betty Grable tries to talk her out of this. Sometimes the sisters look identical to me.  
A large guy lurks outside watching Landis’ every move. Her sister is concerned, but Vicky Lynn says dealing with creeps is just a part of the job! He tries to hide in the shadows and follows them home. 
Later the Victor Mature character, Frankie Christopher, comes into the cafe. He’s a promoter. “Sports, women, anything.” Frankie is a cool guy. He’s quick with handouts to those down on their luck. He’s smitten by Vicky Lynn, and who can blame him. He offers to take her out on a night on the town. There’s a bit of a Pygmalion subplot. He and a couple of his friends talk about taking someone and introducing them to high society. Would even a lowly waitress fit in? They take her to a posh nightclub, and Vicky Lynn quickly proves them correct.  
Some of the background music is the melody from Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It’s a bit surprising. I Wake Up Screaming was a Twentieth Century Fox production. Why did they use the song from an MGM classic? Muller later comments that the tune will probably give us nightmares later.  
Things go bad quickly. Frankie finds the body of Vicky Lynn. He’s standing over her when her sister walks in. It doesn’t look good. “You don’t think I did it!” 
Well, the cops do and they give him the third degree. They even use the spotlight on him. The whole deal. “Let’s go over this one more time...” 
One of the cops is the creepy guy who stalked Vicky Lynn at the start of the movie. Cornell is played by Laird Cregar. He made a career with parts like this. “So what if I’m a peeping Tom!” That’s part of his job. “I made sure she got home.”
Cornell is sure that Frankie is guilty and becomes obsessed with pinning the murder on him. He brags about how he will get him the death penalty. The cops have got nothing on Frankie and he’s free to fall in love with the “good” sister. He takes Jill Lynn/Betty Grable to her first nightclub, boxing (“We’ll sit in the gallery. That’s where the real fans are.”) and a late night swim in a public pool.   

An early suspect is Elisha Cook, Jr. He was the hapless gunsel in The Maltese Falcon. During the introduction Muller gives him special mention, reminding us that he’s a San Francisco native.  
Cook is a desk clerk. It looks like being a desk clerk in a hotel is a great slacker job. Does anyone do cowardly fear better than him? When he’s accused his wild eyes bug out. He’s already sweating. 
There are the usual Noir plot twists to try to keep you guessing. There’s much running around. Scary cop Cregar visits Jill Lynn. She says that you can’t live without hope. The cop answers, “It’s been done.”
Some scenes look familiar. This happens to me all the time with Film Noir. Maybe I saw it on TV years ago. 

Intermission. The balcony area mezzanine has been opened up for the public. Sponsors display their wares or give away samples. A young guy is passing out comic books. He’s not getting much attention with this crowd. It’s a DC book: Batman in Noir Alley. Batman meets Eddie Muller! They search for the stolen Moroccan Raptor. It’s odd to see Eddie Muller in a comic book.
The crowd is enthusiastic and it’s clear how much people enjoy the festival. Attendance seems weak for Opening Night. There’s plenty of room in the balcony. 
This year's trailer is shown and it's worth the wait. Serena Bramble creates well edited combinations of music and Noir.   
Muller is back onstage for a new feature this year. A trivia contest! We’re encouraged to sign up, but there is a warning. You have to know your Noir or you’re going to look very silly onstage. 
A young woman is this year’s first contestant. She will get three clues and then she must tell us what Noir film is being described. 
The first clue: This was the only Noir film that had a title song that became a Top 40 hit. You can guess after one clue if you really know you’re stuff and want to impress the audience. Muller reminds the crowd: No help from the audience!  
One of the main characters is a flamboyant newspaper columnist. People in the audience that know the answer are squirming.  
I have to admit I was thinking Bad and Beautiful, but she guesses right: Laura. She wins a stack of DVDs.  

The second film will be the B film of the double feature: Among the Living. Muller says it’s a cross between Horror and Noir. “It was early in the Noir game and they were still figuring things out.” It’s also Gothic. The film takes place in the South. “Where people are hidden in attics for a couple of decades.”
Muller tells us that writer Lester Cole makes some social commentary during the film. He was later blacklisted. I’m surprised there’s no mention of Dekker’s demise.

Albert Dekker plays twin brothers. They are the son of a wealthy industrialist and the founder of the town. The film opens with the father’s funeral. The lower classes are huddled outside the gates of the cemetery making snide remarks. 
Paul Raden (Dekker #1) has returned for the funeral. His brother had died when they were ten, or so he was told. The family doctor (Harry Carey) arranged for another child to be buried and he faked the death certificate. Really the brother had been thrown against a wall when he tried to defend his mother from some kind of evil advances from the father. John (Dekker #2) suffered brain damage that drove him insane. He is kept hidden in an attic room for twenty-five years.

This one is pretty wild. We first see John in the attic in a strait jacket. Black servant Pompey (pronounced Pom-pee) takes care of him. Is he all right? Will he behave if the strait jacket is taken off? 
John wants to be sure his father isn’t buried next to his mother. So that “He can’t hurt her anymore.” Pompey tells him the father is buried somewhere else, but John doesn’t believe him. He’s learned not to trust anyone during his twenty-five years of being locked in the attic. He has to see for himself! He strangles Pompey and escapes by jumping out a window. Too bad he didn’t think of that before during the previous twenty five years, but he is insane.  
It may not be the acting job of the century, but playing identical twins has to be a challenge for any actor. The “insane” Dekker, John, gets more of the screen time. Paul seems to fade into the background. Dekker didn’t get an Oscar nomination for this. I didn’t realize Paul’s wife was played by Frances Farmer until I saw her name in the credits. She doesn’t have much of a role.

We can tell the twins apart. It’s easy. The insane one hasn’t shaved. John goes into the town which looks more like New York City than a small mill town. He’s a wide eyed innocent returning to civilization. John is fascinated by seeing people, especially Millie Pickens, played by a stunning Susan Hayward. It’s easy for John to make friends. He has a big roll of money that he innocently flashes around and spends. 

Among the Living has the pacing and atmosphere of an old Horror film. I thought Bela Lugosi would pop out from behind the weeping willows at any minute. 
John seems almost normal. Being around Susan Hayward probably helps, but eventually he goes back to his insane ways. A young woman is killed and the community is outraged. A monster is on the loose! Paul is talked into offering a $5,000 reward. 
This sets the locals off into mob action. Everyone wants that reward, but they seem to just roust some of the even less fortunates. Vagrants and usual suspects are rounded up. The insane killer is standing right next to them, but he must be OK because he’s with Susan Hayward.     
Just about all the films shown at Noir City can be found online. I’ve watched some of them. They’re still absorbing, but there’s just something wrong about watching a film on a computer. It shouldn’t be such a big deal. It’s still a screen and you can’t beat the convenience. The films are usually free. There’s still nothing like seeing these films on a big screen. It’s fun to be among dedicated Noir fans and hearing the crowd’s reactions. There are laughs at unintended double entendres or slang that has a much different meaning today. 






Friday, December 29, 2017

The Book Launch. Hinckle and Thompson

This was an event I didn’t want to miss. Last Gasp Books and Comics was having a “Book Launch” for their ambitious publication of: “Who Killed Hunter Thompson?” I had seen mention of the event online. The Sunday Chronicle had an article about the event at the bottom of the front page. Another article inside recounted some of Warren Hinckle’s exploits: "Friends Remember Hinckle =  bar by bar.” The first bar mentioned was Cookie Picetti’s Star Buffet. That really got my attention.  
The book is an anthology with thirty contributors describing their adventures with the good Doctor. It begins with a “book length introduction” by Warren Hinckle. The heavy tome is 530 pages and weighs three and a half pounds. 
The list of contributors is too long to repeat here, but here are some that stand out for me. Susie Bright, Robert Crumb, Johnny Depp, Ben Fong-Torres, William R. Hearst III. Dan O’Neill, Paul Krassner, Garry Trudeau, Wavy Gravy, S. Clay Wilson, Tom Wolfe. Even Governor Jerry Brown gets into the act.
The book has been heralded as the long awaited appearance of “The Night Manager.” Hunter Thompson and Warren Hinckle had shared an upstairs office at the infamous Mitchell Brothers Theater. The Mitchell Brothers Theater was a revolutionary advance in the area of adult entertainment! They redefined the strip club. Hey, it was the Seventies! Hunter was hired as the night manager, but that was probably just an excuse to hang out there all the time.    

“The Night Manager” was expected to be a description of Hunter Thompson’s adventures at the theater. Fans waited well over a decade for the book. It never appeared. Dark rumors swirled. One story was that organized crime had paid him to not publish the book. “The Night Manager” was probably just a victim of Hunter’s procrastination. Ron Turner said it never got started. Gonzo journalism and deadlines just didn’t mix.
Sam Whiting’s article in the Chronicle says that after Thompson died Jim Mitchell advanced Hinckle $10,000 to work on a book about Thompson. That was over ten years ago. Hinckle was notoriously hard to work with. He usually ignored deadlines. “Who Killed Hunter Thompson” was finished hours before Hinckle passed away.     
The book launch was held at 111 Minna, an art gallery. During the day it serves as a cafe. At night it’s a bar disguised as an art gallery. The Gallery is a block from the historic Palace Hotel. Technically it is South of Market, but I think of it as being an outpost of the Financial District. Maybe in today’s tech boom it doesn’t matter anymore. The bars and restaurants I passed on the way were crowded on a Monday night. 
The gallery is on a corner where Minna, which is really an alley, meets Second Street. This event would have drawn a big crowd anyway, but the article in the Chronicle guaranteed it. I arrived early. The event started at 6 p.m. I got there about 6:15. There were a few people outside. I entered and was surprised to find the place was already packed. It was still early. Where were they going to put fashionably late arrivals?   
I had been here for the Fortieth Anniversary of Last Gasp Anniversary, but that had been held in the larger Frank Zappa room. It puzzled me why they had it in this smaller room tonight. I checked the larger room. A sign warned: “Private Event.” It must have been some big Christmas party. The Frank Zappa Room does have an impressive bust of the man himself. It’s worth a visit.   

Right inside the door there was a table with copies of the book for sale. I debated getting a copy but there were about five people in line, so that could wait. I didn’t feel like lugging it around and I'm not much for asking for autographs. Another Hunter Thompson book? Maybe I’ll at least get a look at it first.
The paintings from the Gallery’s feature show that month were hanging around the room. “Forks In The Road. The Mike Davis Solo Show” had surreal landscapes that perfectly fit tonight’s event. There were works of another artist: “It Was Written In the Future. The Beau Adams Solo Show.”   

A table held some artifacts. There was an odd figurine of Hinckle. I recognized an ad from Hinckle’s mayoral campaign. Buttons with his opponents names were stuck on piles of dog feces. “Tired of the same old crap?” Hinckle did have a down to earth sense of humor. There were pieces of original Ralph Steadman art work. 

Hunter Thompson and Hinckle came along after the heyday of the Beats in San Francisco, but I expected some of the old guard of San Francisco’s literary scene to be there. Anybody who was anybody in San Francisco’s literary scene had to be at this one! San Francisco had been losing its true eccentrics at an alarming rate. There won’t be too many more events like this.  

People seemed to know each other and there were warm greetings and reunions. What had I expected? Maybe I would spot a familiar face from the North Beach days. Wait a minute... Who’s that guy. At least I know who he is. It’s Barry Melton! The Fish from Country Joe and the Fish! Well, at least I know who he is. Jerry Cimino, the founder of The Beat
Museum in North Beach entered.

A photographer wandered through the crowd. He had a professional camera. People gladly posed for pictures, but one guy did crack, “Is this going to be posted on Face Book?” He was trying to be humorous, but I could tell that it seemed like a repulsive idea to him. I figure it probably will be posted on Face Book.

I headed to the no host bar. It didn’t look good. In fact, it looked hopeless. Three bartenders were obviously overwhelmed. I made a stand for a while. I could have used a beer, but I hadn’t come for the booze. It was a chance to survey the room. The place was packed.

Display boards with photos divided the room into parts. Tables with a seat for the contributors were placed around the room. Each spot had a card with the signers name. Few of the signers had arrived. There was a card for “Governor Jerry Brown.” If he showed up his security would love getting him in and out of here.   

Meeting an idol usually doesn’t work out. It was during the early Eighties. I was taking an afternoon break in Tosca, a great North Beach spot. Murals on the wall were covered in nicotine. There was a back room with a pool table. An empty pool table was a valuable find at the time. As the years went on Tosca became a haven for celebrities, especially writers and those in the entertainment field. The back room was closed off for VIPs. Tosca was the kind of place with both Country and Western classics and Opera on the juke box.   
  An odd looking guy was standing near the bar. I thought he looked strange, even for North Beach. He seemed to be mumbling to himself. It took me a minute to realize who he was. I knew that Hunter Thompson had been hanging around in San Francisco and that Tosca was one of his spots. 
He said something to the bartender. I couldn’t understand a word he said. He talked in an odd, staccato way. This was my chance. I offered to buy him a drink. It’s funny to think back at how naive I was.
He recoiled and looked at me like I was a repulsive insect. I was a little surprised.  Buying drinks usually worked back then. Certainly he would want to compare notes on the state of the world with me. My buddy Hunter and me weren’t like everybody else. I’d tell him what a great writer he is, and he would share his literary secrets with me. He quickly went back to the privacy of the back room. Maybe he was tripping on something. Later I figured out how many times this probably happened to him. A younger, star struck fan wanted to hang out with the great writer.   

The place was just getting too crowded. I retreated across the street to a bar called Eddie Rickenbacker’s. Rickenbacker’s had been one of the early “fern bars" in the Seventies. It was a place to pick up members of the opposite sex. There were new owners, but it still had some of its historic decor. It wasn’t extremely crowded. Young people stood at the bar and had a good time.
I had seen Hinckle around, usually in Gino and Carlo’s. There’s not too many guys who wear an eye patch, even in San Francisco. Hinckle was one of the regulars. There was some of that North Beach aloofness. Hinckle was deeply rooted in San Francisco. He edited The Fog Horn, the student paper at the University of San Francisco. His big break was transforming Ramparts. It had been a Catholic literary magazine. Hinckle put it at the center of Sixties controversy. He was one of the first to question what was going on in Vietnam. Nixon put him under government surveillance.
Hinckle was something that was called a journalist, but he was also a prankster. He loved to roast City officials, especially prissy Mayor Dianne Feinstein. He got San Francisco police so riled that they arrested him for walking his beagle, Bentley, without a leash. The harassment backfired when pictures of the incarcerated beagle ran in the newspapers.

San Francisco has many “Sister” cities. One of them is Cork. Hinckle loved to mock the local authorities. He arranged for a visit from one of Cork’s City Council in June of 1986. Usually this wouldn’t have attracted much attention, but the councilman Hinckle invited was Bernie Murphy.
Hinckle was stirring it up again. I couldn’t remember most of their shenanigans and did a Google search. There were obituaries from The Irish Independent News and The Irish Examiner of September, 2007. Murphy was an illiterate “sandwich-board man” or as he put it, an advertising agent. Cork had been hit hard by the Recession. Casey ran for the City Council. Murphy rode a protest vote and was elected by embittered voters.  
Others saw it as “a betting coup.” The odds had started at fifty to one. Heavy betting for him lowered the odds. It was suspected that solicitors bet on him and then funded his campaign. The bookies “took a hammering.” Hinckle appreciated his notoriety. He invited him to San Francisco.

Murphy said he came to get a new set of teeth, but his official mission was to promote investment in Cork. His fellow legislators didn’t feel he was “representative.” He arrived for a ceremony at City Hall with an empty suitcase. He said he would take delivery of promised aid money right then and there.
A report about the ceremony said they were headed to Gino and Carlo’s. They were celebrating, but I’m not exactly sure what they were celebrating. For some reason the City authorities didn’t fill Bernie’s luggage with cash. He didn’t seem to mind. There was some kind of strange Irish diplomacy going on.  

On election day The Argonaut was planted on doorsteps and distributed throughout the City. Hinckle resurrected the news paper founded by Ambrose Bierce. It was one of my favorite parts of an election. There would be articles about the election, and there were great articles on San Francisco history. I still have copies aging in a box.

I left Rickenbacker’s, crossed the street and went back to the Minna Gallery. People were starting to huddle outside the front door. I went up the alley that was next to the gallery. 
It’s hard not to recognize Ron Turner, the creator and owner of Last Gasp Publishing. He’s tall and has long, stringy white hair and beard. He looks like a Hippie elder statesman. He was with four people who looked like they were in their twenties. He was obviously pleased to have the book out. Hinckle was notorious for procrastination and ignoring deadlines. Turner must have been ecstatic to get this book done. 

It still puzzled me that they weren’t using the big room for the book launching. A couple of valets stood in front of the door to The Zappa Room. It didn’t look like anyone was there. The valets almost looked embarrassed.  
There was a side entrance and I slipped back into the Gallery. There was more room back here and I had another look. There still weren’t many signers. Few were gathering autographs. The night was certainly a success though. 
It was still early, but it was time to leave. I couldn’t figure out what, if anything was going to happen. 
The construction of the Moscone Convention Center had eradicated a strip of nearby bars that catered to newsmen. Breen’s was gone. M&M’s moved up the street, but was never really the same. They would be called dive bars now, but in older San Francisco they were respectable establishments that served those in the newspaper industry. I hit these places in my early days in San Francisco. I knew they probably wouldn’t be around long. 
I imagined Warren HInckle and Hunter S. Thompson ditching out of the book signing and going down the street to a dark and smoky bar. God knows what they would be talking about in these dark times. Thompson always had a great way of describing evil. What would he be saying about Trump?