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June 14 - 18, 1999

Tuesday, June 15, 1999

Get real, man

For those of us who pride ourselves on skating close to the cutting edge, it's humbling to recall that nothing is ever really new under San Francisco skies. Take the state-of-the-art entertainment complex that is presently announcing its presence south of Market, first in the form of the Zeum kiddy castle and now as another family entertainment enterprise, the Sony Metreon. Time travelers from the late nineteenth century might gawk briefly at the herds of cars that stampede their way, horns bellowing as they careen past the new buildings. But the facilities themselves would offer few surprises. It's all been done before, and not too many blocks away.

San Franciscans have rarely had to travel far to find places of public amusement. No sooner had the fever of the Gold Rush begun to subside in the early 1850s than a transplanted New York jeweler named Christian Russ built a mansion for his family in the sunny part of town near Harrison and Sixth. Being a hospitable chap, he made the elaborately laid-out gardens available for picnics and celebrations, and it rapidly became the custom to celebrate the Fourth of July, St. Patrick's Day, Bastille Day and other national holidays at Russ Gardens. The San Francisco Annals of 1853 describe a particularly rowdy May Day when 1,800 Germans, many dashing in brown linen, set up camp there. "With banners flying, and musical instruments sounding," the predominately male crowd "leaped, balanced and twirled, danced, sang, drank, smoked and made merry."

Before long, other recreation areas popped up nearby --- Hayes Park, at Hayes and Laguna; Happy Valley, near Hayes and Market; the Willows, at Mission and Eighteenth. Like Our Mayor, who chose Yerba Buena Gardens as the spot for his new election plunge, prominent politicians and businessmen could frequently be seen on sunny Sundays, glad-handing among the picnic baskets.

But the real Shangri-la occupied a vast expanse between Mission, Duboce, Valencia and Fourteenth, in an area that now abuts the freeway. Today a fine little restaurant resides there, surrounded by traffic grime and sparse vegetation. If you've ever wondered where Woodward's Gardens got its name, rest assured that it comes by the title rightly, for it sits on the site of the granddaddy garden of them all.

Contemporary photographs show a tree-lined fence, many people high, marking the edge of a broad sidewalk along Mission. On a good day, happy visitors arrived by the thousands, but --- in contrast to later pleasure palaces --- parking there doesn't seem to have been a problem. In one picture, several horse-drawn streetcars filled with passengers drive by a poster-plastered walkway and a few carriages --- the equivalent of taxis? --- wait near the curb.

Our twentieth-century play structures, built in an era avowedly dedicated to construction on a grand scale, would blush in embarrassment before the complex that made up Woodward's Gardens. It was huge. Our raspberry and seafoam Zeum, rising on its little hillside like a tiny Tibetan temple, seems puny compared to the majestic white stairway and gate, adorned with carved wooden bears, that marked the entrance to Woodwardís. And the monolithic Metreon, which stands at the end of present-day Yerba Buena Gardens like a miniature Great Wall of China, effectively blocking all views to the west, just looks piddling.

Like our own pleasure domes, Woodward's Gardens had a "corporate sponsor" --- its owner. For several years, R. B. Woodward had run the very successful What Cheer House at Sacramento and Leidesdorff (where a real-life plaque now marks the location). Ever the friendly publican, Woodward had accumulated a strange assortment of treasures, presented to him over the years by visiting seamen: the Chronicle of November 9, 1913, lists "walrus tusks, whalebone, wampum, corals and all sorts of large, medium-sized and small knickknacks." What to do with these oddities? Just as a congenial barkeep like Specs Simmons created the Adler Museum to house the curious mementos he had acquired over the years, Woodward decided to put them on permanent display. They became the centerpiece of a natural history museum which in turn --- according to the nineteenth-century fashion of classifying and curating --- formed the hub for other collections. There was a zoo. An aquarium --- in 1876, the largest in the United States. A conservatory of exotic plants. An art gallery of original paintings surrounded by recognizably fake Pompeian frescoes.

These exhibits were designed to be educational and uplifting, but most nineteenth-century San Franciscans sought more exciting entertainment on their day off. When the kids tired of swinging on the swings and making faces at the leopards, they probably dragged their parents off to the three-cornered amphitheater for a show. Woodward rarely disappointed them. In the 1860s he played Ed Sullivan to a traveling troupe of Japanese acrobats --- the first to visit the United States --- and the audience cheered. In the 1870s, he played Buffalo Bill to a troupe of Warm Springs Indians --- fresh from a triumph on the side of Federal soldiers in the Modoc War --- and the audience cheered.

A band platform, brilliant with hanging flowers and streamers, offered live music. A restaurant provided food for people who hadn't packed a lunch. And then there was, as newspaperman Robert O'Brien reconstructs it, "the arena, where you watched the Roman chariot races, and the pavilion where you (and five thousand others) saw the Three Arnold Brothers in their Silver Statue Clog; Major Burke in his rifle drill; Ida Siddons, the rope-skipping dancer; Orndorf and Kidd, the Dutch comedians; the Big 4 Minstrels and the stars of Emerson's Minstrels. The balloon ascensions on Sundays, and Tom Baldwin's parachute falls, and Herman the Great, the man who was shot from the mouth of a cannon."

The people of San Francisco could enjoy all this, and much more, for an admission fee of 25 cents. And it was all live. In fact, you can bet that the slightest threat of simulation, the least hint of virtual reality, would have provoked long lines of angry visitors, demanding their money back.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Now voyager

Just back from a sparkling holiday --- renewed, refreshed and, as usual, reprehensible.

We sailed east on the elegant Ile de Ennui, a floating palace that offered myriad activities, such as mumblety-peg, spillikins and ring-a-levio. We were also invited to participate in something called bailing-the-bilge. That occurred after we ran into bad weather just this side of the Azores --- or the Eyesores --- or something like that.

Yes, Europe is very expensive, particularly the overpriced Over-Cote d'Azur. That's where we ran into trouble. I spent so much money at the casino, I had to sell my dear friend, Daphne, into bondage.

Being short on funds, I was forced to cancel my reservation on the Concorde and return by crop duster --- which took me as far as New Jersey. Ah, but let's face it, my dear: We'll always have Bayonne.

When I finally got back to San Francisco, I had the flu and the computer had a virus. I couldn't retrieve my e-mail so I called the server and those folks snapped into action: they wiped out over 300 e-mail messages. I kid you not.

But I was never too keen on opening the mail anyway. Must have come from my days of being a mail clerk. Did I ever tell you how I got a job at KCBS Radio all those years ago? I told them I was qualified because I'd been to the post office many times.

Yeah, I know. The story is in my book. Did I ever tell you about my book? OK, knock it off, Bruce.


* * *

Speaking of the oblivious, I see where New York subway riders were unaware of a dead passenger for five hours. Well, you never want to make eye contact anyway. With the current heat wave in the Big Apple, the dead can hardly be discerned from the living. Surprising the deceased wasn't carted off the train and sold for body parts.

And it was saddening to hear of the death of Mel Tormé. When I was working as a chef at the Fairmont Hotel, I would often sneak upstairs --- which was strictly against the rules --- to watch the shows in the late, great Venetian Room. All the legends performed there: Ella Fitzgerald, Frankie from Bayonne, The Mills Brothers.

There was no backstage --- only a waiter's station --- from where the performers would make their entrance. Tormé's show had begun and I took my place in the side area. Tormé would spend a great deal of time during his show talking about himself. He began to reminisce. "You know, ladies and gentlemen," he intoned, "I was just standing over there" --- and he gestured toward where I was standing. The spotlight immediately hit me --- me in my white cook's jacket, drenched in red wine and brown sauce.

I was frozen in the headlights like venison. Tormé continued and the audience began
to snicker. He looked confused, then looked over to see me standing there. "Oh, my God!" he gasped. "Don't look over there!" The waiters --- in their black jackets --- chased me down the stairs like gendarmes. I got away and concealed myself in some corner of the immense kitchen.


* * *

Headline in Monday's Drudge Report: "Woodward Says Hillary Asked God, 'Why Me?'" In this Clintonian era, I must ask: "Why us?"

CNN then aired the first "exclusive" interview with George W. Bush --- one of hundreds of "exclusive" interviews to come. Presumably "W." will be the next president of the United States. Al Gore may have invented the Internet, but "W." invented the mechanical bull. And that will make all the difference.

The media have already been discussing how "W." was a wild boy in his youth --- and one helluva drinker, as well. What? A Texan who drinks? At least he admits he inhaled his bourbon.

That reminds me how I was first introduced to the political process --- through Miss Reingold, a popular East Coast beer.

As a youngster --- maybe 6 or 7 years old --- I'd sometimes accompany my parents to the "beer garden." These really weren't bars. They'd also have food and were family-oriented. All right. They were bars. To keep me busy and away from the adults, my mother would direct me to the cardboard standup promotion for the election of Miss Reingold. I had a wonderful time filling in the ballots and looking at the pictures of the pretty women.
In this way, I was given my first introduction to the democratic process --- the power of the vote and that inexorable element of politics: sex.

It's amazing I didn't grow up to seek public office. It seems my grandparents had a terrible fight one Election Day morning --- it was either 1932 or 1936, or could have been 1940 --- that's because the Socialist Party candidate, Norman Thomas, ran for president each of those years. My grandmother stormed out of the house. When she returned, she defiantly announced to my grandfather that she had voted for Thomas. They didn't speak for weeks.

One might wonder how James Carville and Mary Matalin keep it together. For the sake of the William Morris Agency, no doubt. Politics not only makes strange bedfellows, it can prevent people from sleeping together.


* * *

Meanwhile, down at the Shorenstein building, the mood was dark yesterday. Those in charge of the Presidio project are being punished by having to eat Monopoly pieces. A lot of San Franciscans are ecstatic about the prospect of Lucasfilm's Digital Arts Center taking up residence in the new national park. Though the project won't be completed for years, many young people are already getting in line to attend the opening.

Another new proposal, placing cell phone antennae at the end of the Golden Gate Bridge, fuels the continuing cell phone controversy. If the phones are as dangerous as is alleged, then we all are going to be cooked medium-well any day now.

Speaking of meat, at Izzy's restaurant, I saw the spitting image of Izzy Gomez, the legendary saloonowner --- who died in the 1940s, and for whom the Marina restaurant is named --- seated at the bar. But it wasn't Izzy, it was his grandson. Is he also in the bar business? I asked. "Sort of," he smiled. "I drink a lot."

Tim Delaney, owner of the neighboring Delaney's Saloon, was walking up Pierce Street from Chestnut the other day and by the time he got to Vallejo Street, he had counted 33 SUVs parked along the way. Of course, we need these heavy, four-wheel-drive vehicles. It's a jungle out there, particularly in the Financial District.

SUVs are notorious gas-guzzlers. That's why I was amused to see one pass me by on Polk Street with a bumper sticker reading "Support Earth Day." And yes, the driver was on a cell phone.

--- Copyright Bruce Bellingham 1999

Friday, June 18, 1999

Take me out to the mallgame

Tuesday evening, FOX-TV ran an hour-long special devoted to the brave new world of special effects created by Industrial Light & Magic. They're pretty good effects, as any Star Wars aficionado will attest. We're no longer forced to endure the painful suspension of disbelief that used to accompany monster flicks or sci-fi adventures. Today's dinosaurs and aliens look as real as their flesh-and-blood co-stars.

Or vice versa. The advent of computerized characters has changed the way we look at movies. It was common --- in the naive, early days of the silents --- for spectators to exclaim in astonishment at the reality of the scenes before them. The camera, they knew, could not lie. Now, of course, we know it can, even without the help of multimedia magicians. But the presence of toons and droids calls attention to the constructed nature of the medium. Just as kids learn at an early age that there's no little man inside their TV, they understand that both Yoda and Darth Vader are just pictures on the big screen.

It's all storytelling. It's make-believe. It's fun.

And then there's the Metreon: "The Ultimate Entertainment Experience."

Within a four-story, 350,000-square-foot structure, Sony has erected a carefully planned fantasy world designed to appeal to every taste. "Metreon has it all," the publicity proclaims. And improving on the MTV mode of short cuts and sound overlays, Metreon offers it all at once, submerging visitors in a bath of visual and auditory cacophony.

Pause: a fable for our time. A desperate young mother phones the family pediatrician. Her little son, in a terrible emotional state, cries all day and sleeps fitfully at night. The doctor examines the child and questions the mother about his life at home. He should be happy, she replies, because everyone delights in playing with him and giving him interesting new toys. The doctor's face grows serious. Put away those toys, he advises, and give him only one or two at a time. The poor tot's brain is running on overload, and he doesn't have time to process anything. The diagnosis turns out to be correct. Supported by the security of simplicity, the child quickly calms down and regains his cheerful disposition.

Lacking this wise pediatrician's guidance, I plunged into the new silver-green building at the corner of Mission and Fourth. It was opening day, and the place was packed. Metreon employees in black logoed T-shirts stood at every doorway, greeting visitors with well-trained enthusiasm. Commercial courtesy is no sin. It has run Disneyland smoothly and profitably for decades, but the Metreon takes the custom to schizophrenic levels. The disconnect between the warm welcome by "crew members" to a "guest service culture" and the blatantly mercantile tone of the enterprise only calls attention to the unreality of this new "entertainment" medium.

Forget the hype. This is an expansive, expensive mall. If you entered at the right door, you were handed a glossy, four-color "Map and Guide," a paper document appropriately in short supply in this electronic universe. (Or were the Sony people simply shy of putting anything in writing that they might be held accountable for later?) The brochure offers an overview of the attractions that await a visitor. And a subtextual reading offers a peek behind the scenes.

The first thing you notice is the dusting of tiny letters, like gnats, that follow most of the attractions listed in the brochure. Nothing has a name; they all have trade marks and service marks. There's Where the Wild Things Are TM SM; Airtight Garage TM SM; The Way Things Work in Mammoth 3D TM SM; and of course, Metreon TM SM. There's also The Way Things Work Shop TM SM and the Wild Things TM SM store. Oh yes, and among the collection of "small, bistro-style restaurants" known as Taste of San Francisco TM SM (which looks a lot like a mall food court), there's Buckhorn TM SM and LongLife Noodle Co. TM SM. In case you miss any of them, one page of the brochure contains --- in tiny print, like the rapidly recited legalese at the end of a car ad --- a listing of every single mark and the company it's registered to, along with a copyright notice: "All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form."

There's no charge, Metreon crows, to enter this paradise, although movies and other "attractions" cost money. You can make things easy for yourself and use plastic, in the form of an Access Metreon Card, purchasable at any dispensing machine. The same plastic also works in the restaurants and the shops, which are mainly spin-offs from the attractions or showcases for Sony products. Listen to the blurbs. Discovery Channel Store --- Destination San Francisco TM SM: "Interactive and educational exhibits and products that empower people to explore their world." "Hear Music TM SM at Sony Style: "The new way to discover your next favorite record." Metreon Marketplace: "An eclectic street fair full of unique finds from the Bay Area." By any other name, it would smell as sweet: it's still a mall. (The Marketplace houses stalls selling souvenirs such as guidebooks and picture frames, many made in or near San Francisco. On the Metreon's website, a Marketplace also appears among the many opportunities for online shopping, but the merchandise has lost its local color. It ranges from a plastic Metreon water bottle for $10 to a Metreon wool-and-leather jacket for $275.)

The Metreon is certainly the best penny arcade in town. On opening day, the hands-on toys were a big hit, particularly among Java One fugitives wearing name tags, jackets and ties. At times, the younger set looked a little overwhelmed, but they'll learn. In one store, a mother faced her little girl, holding out a toy in each hand. "Which one do you want?" she asked. "Both." "You have to choose," firmly enunciated, set off a tornado. "No," the little girl bellowed, arms flailing, feet stomping. "No," she shrieked, all the way out the door. She'll be back.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

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