My assignment to come to San Francisco was a very good one. In 1978, I got a two bedroom apartment downtown within walking distance of Fisherman’s Wharf and the TransAmerica Pyramid where I worked. In my second bedroom, I built and furnished a darkroom for my photography hobby. I set up a photo studio with seamless paper in the living room. I was set to photograph the beautiful people of San Francisco.
One day I stepped into the elevator with a camera around my neck and there were two beautiful women who asked if I did portfolios. I made appointments for the next day and then asked the landlady who they were.
“Oh, those guys work at Finochio’s. They’re female impersonators.”
“Uh, thanks for the tip.”
When they showed up for the shoot, I was cool and didn’t freak out. They were very good models. The headliner never blinked as long as I had a camera in my hand. I had never shot 360 consecutive pictures without a blink. We also went out to the Legion of Honor and the Palace of Fine Arts in wedding gowns. They were exhibitionists and never failed to draw a crowd wherever we went.
I would stop people on the streets and take their pictures or bring them into the studio and began to develop quite an interesting portfolio. I worked with street musicians and comedians from the many comedy clubs in the city. They were not all beautiful people, one in particular was a 74-year-old man who called himself Saint Francis. I first met him at an open air art show. It was a nice day and he was in a green tank top with a cowboy hat, shoulder length hair and four inch beard. He would stop women and talk to them briefly and the women would get down on the ground with their knees together and their ankles splayed out to the side and continue to talk to him. This was strange. I just had to find out what he was up to. I ask one of the women what they were doing. “Saint Francis said that we were animals before we were people and some of us were frogs. The way you could tell who was a frog was to get in that position. If it felt okay then you had been a frog.”
I asked if I could do a special shoot of him and made an appointment. When I got to his place, the basement of a house in the Ocean Beach area of San Francisco, I saw that he was a REAL character. Other photographers over a period of many years had made large prints of him in a great variety of costumes, turbans, hats, uniforms, and all. He had been a rivet bucker on the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge in 1935. He was the person who held a cupped anvil against the red hot rivet while someone else whacked it with a pneumatic hammer. He lost most of his hearing at that time, that’s why he talks so much. He doesn’t do well when he has to listen, so he controls the conversation so he knows what’s going on. I got some great pictures and we had a nice picnic in the west end of Golden Gate Park.
Another character I got to know was Rosie Radiator, whose dance group was called the Pushrods. Rosie taught just about everybody in the Castro to tap dance. She would take a group of fifty people and tap dance/march across the Golden Gate Bridge or down Market Street. She would tap dance in front of a building under construction and the iron workers would spray paint ‘Rosie Radiator’ on the steel girders. She claimed her mother was the original ‘Rosie the Riveter’. She had a big studio in the loft of an old warehouse in South San Francisco. I was almost tempted to take a loft in the building and join the commune.
There was a gal comedian living in that building who sometimes dressed in a nun’s habit and played the trumpet. I met her and Carrie Snow at the Holy City Zoo and the two of them provided some great comedy shots for my portfolio.
There was a refrigerator, in an open area of the building where Rosie lived, stocked with booze and in the freezer were rolled joints. Anyone could take what they wanted and leave money in a can. The refrigerator was run by a guy known as the ‘Human Jukebox’. He had a little square tent painted like a jukebox and had a Punch and Judy type curtain in the front where he would pop out and play a really funny but bad version of a song requested on a badly banged up bugle. There was a hole to put the money in. He always had customers and he worked at the end of the cable car line kitty-corner from the Buena Vista Bar. He had a lot of problems with the law. It seems if someone put a $20 bill in the slot and didn’t request a song they got a baggie of grass. A $5 bill got a rolled joint. His excuse was that people needed a place to get their stuff and he was just doing a public service. He got busted a lot and got bailed out by the locals. The tourists just enjoyed the music and fun.
One of the comedians, Patricia, was a comedy writer and put out a monthly publication of topical jokes some of which made their way into late night talk shows. Sometimes she would get a call from Johnny Carson to write a special and got paid to keep it exclusive so other comics would not be using it. I became good friends with Patricia and she took me home to meet her relatives at Mardi Gras time in New Orleans. Seeing Mardi Gras with a native and being involved with the non-tourist activities of New Orleans is a real treat, something you just can’t buy.
Pat would tip me off when Robin Williams or Dana Carvey planned to test a new act at the Holy City Zoo. Her ex-husband, whom she was still friendly with, was the manager there. I would have spent more time with Pat but, being an entertainer, she stayed up late at night and I had work to do in the daytime.
Penn and Teller, the bad boy magicians, spent their pre-fame days doing a sidewalk show in the lobby of the Hippodrome Theatre on Broadway near Columbus. There were three in the group at that time. There was a tall thin man who played the violin who was funny but I can’t remember a thing he said. After he left the group, Penn and Teller did some nightclub acts at Bimbo’s on Columbus, half a block from my apartment. Bimbo’s burned a couple of times while I lived there. Seems like that was the only thing that made money for the property. Penn and Teller are big in Las Vegas now and have their own TV production company.
I met a dancer who held the choreography rights from the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation and I was her masseur and photographer for a short while. Her dance studio provided some very interesting subjects to photograph. Like the original Isadora she was difficult to capture and hold. Her world and mine were not compatible.