by Maria Manhattan
I arrived in San Francisco in 1970 – the hippies had left for Marin,
and Haight Street had the leftovers of the previous very heady three
years. The Greatful Dead were still doing free concerts in
Golden Gate Park, but the summer of love was over.
I had come from New York City and a very traditional theater
background. (I had studied with Uta Hagen and Herbert Bergof
at the HB Studio. I had performed in dinner theaters and my
best moment was performing in a national tour of Tom O’Horgan’s Tom
Paine.) Alma Becker was working at the theater on Potrero Hill
and asked me to sing a few songs before a performance of a Gertrude
Stein play. Little did I know that that play would change my
life and create life long friends. The play was "Turkey and
Bones and Eating and We Liked It." It stared Bill Wolf (as
Cleopatra), Russ Ellison, and Dale Meader. These guys had
worked in alternative theater in Oregon, and were doing this funky,
hilarious, campy interpretation of a very obscure play with gender
bending and cardboard sets and this playful approach to theater that
I had never seen! I was totally taken in! You mean this
is theater too??? I had seen the Living Theater in New York,
and Liz Swados productions at the Public, but this was sooo over the
Sometime around then I caught a San Francisco Mime Troupe free show
in the Panhandle. Again, total awe! Here was a show that
captured the politics of the times – Vietnam – in a broad comic
style that was part Vaudeville, very handmade, and something I’d
never seen before.
I started working at the Sierra Club as an office temp. Fresh
from New York City, I had no idea what the Sierra Club was. I
thought maybe it was a fancy Dinner club that needed help with some
back office work. Well it turned out to be a bastion of
alternative eco types who all needed a day job.
I worked in the membership department which was growing beyond
anyone’s control. It was the beginning of ecological
consciosness and everyone wanted in.
I met the greatest people working there, many of whom turned out to
be lifelong friends. It was one of those jobs – you’re lucky
if you get a couple of these work situations in your lifetime –
where everyone is on the same wavelength and the lunatics are
running the asylum. No one was afraid to be who they were.
I met Norman Core there – my dear friend from New Orleans. I
heard this southern accent one day saying something totally
outrageous, and I just had to meet this guy. Norman came to a
costume party I threw as Ingrid Tulin’s character in Visconti’s “The
Damned.” We hit it off, bigtime. I met Ken Noble who was
a gem. He introduced me to his 3 housemates who took me under
their wing – Jill, Ev and Bobby. They lived on Steiner Street
in a duplex. I lived in an apartment in a Victorian on Fell
Street on the Panhandle. My downstairs neighbors and I were
great friends – Bob & Kathy and Aaron their son. So the
Steiner Street crew and the Fell Street folks started a tradition of
doing pot luck dinners with international themes. We started
with Greek night – somebody played the “Never on a Sunday” album.
The next dinner was Russian night – Russian shirts and Dr. Zhivago
soundtrack. And, the food had to be authentic. Well, we went
on from there and every dinner grew in extravagance. I did
Italian night – cleared out all my furniture, borrowed my neighbors
kitchen tables, went to Good Will and got old tablecloths, and
candles in jars with plastic netting, and turned my apt into an
Italian restaurant. It was a major event! The last of these
dinners was at Robert’s when he did Martian night. Lots of dry
ice and strange colored food.
I spent a lot of time in Golden Gate Park as my job was from 7am
till 1:30. So, afternoons I’d walk or bike over Hippie Hill to
my ceramic class. I remember seeing Hibiscus (of Angels of
Light, and Cockettes) dancing in costume with some little kid. I saw
him on Castro Street several times. He was always a total
vision. It was an amazing time. There was something going on.
It was a community. It was outrageous. There was real freedom,
now it looks like anarchy, but then it was just freedom.
Friends took me to a Cockettes show at the Palace – Journey to the
Center of Uranus with Divine. Hilarious! Original is an
understatement. Some of their drag was soooo over the top and
totally fabulous, then some of it was shocking because of it’s
banality. I’d only seen drag queens doing the glamorous Gina
Lolabridigida thing. Here was Pristine Condition dressed like a
midwestern housewife. Norman took me to a show Divine did
called “the Heartbreak of Psoriasis”.
I had seen Sylvester previous to this. He was Elton John’s
opening act at the Fillmore on Elton’s very first tour.
Sylvester came out dressed like an Oakland housewife. I
remember the 50’s wig, and the sequined capris … again, my mind
blown with this concept of drag. And of course, Sylvester’s
show was great. But Elton, blew the lid off the place.
No one had ever seen him and he knew how to put on a show. Elton
was spotted around San Francisco in later years just hanging out,
enjoying the scene. Lots of celebs would come to San Francisco
for the party. Rock Hudson used to be seen in the bars.
Lily Tomlin was always around town after her shows at the Boarding
House. My best surprise happened at a party in a flat in the
Castro – it was packed – lots of gay men, and my friend Ken and I
made our way through the throng into the kitchen to get a drink, and
who was leaning against the sink, wearing a stunnnig lavendar cowboy
hat that looked amazing against her beautiful skin – Lena Horne!!!
She was so cool, just smiled and nodded ... no big deal she was
playing the Fairmont.
Ken and I loved music and went out a lot. We saw Freddie
Murcury and Queen open for Traffic at Winterland! What a show!
Freddie gave Mick Jagger a run for his money. An amazing
performer. I think Patti Smith opened.
We saw some great shows at the Oakland Paramount – the Pointer
Sisters first tour, after they hit it big. Everyone went
decked! The audience was always just as much of a show as the
performers especially if it was for Bette Midler, or Laura Nyro, or
LaBelle! When Laura played the Paramount there were always
lots of women in black. The most unforgettable concert of
her’s was when she brought out LaBelle for her 3rd encore!
(The absolute audacity to wait till your 3rd encore!!!)
They then proceeded to sing most of the Gonna Take a Miracle album.
The audience was totally spent at the end of that night.
San Francisco celebrated Halloween like it was Christmas. It
was still a minor holiday in New York, but in San Francisco, it was
a major chance to get out and strut your stuff. We always dressed.
My neighbor Henry and I went to a party at Greg’s as Space creatures
– we were fabulous in mylar and beads. The scene on Polk Street and
Castro Street was to die for. Nuns with beards on roller
skates. A whole class of catholic school girls in uniforms – also
There were fabulous parties. Greg and I would sometimes watch
them go into the big party at the Galleria. They went alllll
out. Egyptian pharoh with his queen and entire court. Mayan
courts. Then there was the Hookers Ball that Margo St. James
and I went as fabulous witches.
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