Retro Date Night: On the town in San Francisco…in 1937!

golden gate bridge 1937 by san francisco public library

It’s Friday night. The weather on this winter evening is fair and mild, about 48 degrees. The stars are out and San Francisco’s foghorns are silent. The towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, only a few months shy of completion, glow against the western sky at sunset. Cable cars clank their way up the steep hills of California Street. Men in fedoras and overcoats, women in hats and seamed nylons pass quickly by. This is one of those golden evenings that the city by the bay is known for. Never mind how we got here, but it’s February 19, 1937, and the weekend is ours. Want to go out on the town tonight and see what’s doing in 1930s San Francisco?

Welcome to the first episode of the “reboot” of a very successful series of blog articles that I did last year. The “Throwback Thursday” series, 14 articles in all that ran last winter and spring, sought to give you a “you are there” feel for what it was like to go out on a Friday night in Manhattan in various times during the 20th century. The series was so successful among the readers of this blog that I thought I’d do it again, except this time we’re sampling weekend life in San Francisco throughout the last century. Just like the previous series, each of these articles is historically accurate: the names of shows playing, addresses, menus, prices, etc. are all exactly as they really were on the specific date in question. I know that second-time-around relationships rarely work in the long term, but we had a lot of fun hopping through time in New York last year, so what do you say? It might be fun while it lasts. Then again we did wind up in 1937 for the first installment, and the Depression era is not known for being especially fun. Still, if you’re game, let’s see what we can find to do in the Bay City.

location of vanessi's san francisco

In 1937, a restaurant called Vanessi’s was located on this corner, 498 Broadway Street. Somehow I doubt Cardinal Richelieu was a regular guest.

Let’s start with dinner. San Francisco has an abundance of great restaurants. Amelio’s, at 1630 Powell Street, is evidently famous for their “New York cut steak.” I’m not sure how “new” New York steaks are, but hey, this is 1937. Or we could go to Riviera, which is on Stockton & Union Streets just opposite Washington Square Park. This restaurant has a charcoal broiler–again, I have no idea how (if at all) revolutionary that is in this time. But why settle for just dinner when we can have a floor show? The Café El Portal, Fulton at 8th Avenue, has music and dancing. Dinners are priced at 50 and 75 cents, which sounds like a real bargain. Then there’s a place called Vanessi’s, at 498 Broadway, which is open all night. Dinner is $1.25 and they have a café and cocktail lounge. Their advertisement tells us we can “dine in the Richelieu Room, drink your cocktail at the bar with the tropical rains and Venetian moon in the background!” This sounds awfully romantic.

Then I thought we’d take in a live show. New York has Broadway, but San Francisco is no slouch when it comes to live theater. In fact there’s a performance of Hamlet taking place at the Curran Theatre at 445 Geary Street, which is pretty much the most top-notch theater in the city. An up-and-coming British actor named Leslie Howard is playing Hamlet, and the rest of the cast is from the New York production. It starts at 8:20 but I couldn’t get a ticket price. There’s also a play called Bichon, a comedy in three acts, playing at the Theater Francais, 1470 Washington Street. Or if you’d like to support some dramatic artists who are down-and-out because of the Depression, we could go to the Federal Theater, 960 Bush Street, which is run by the Federal Theater Project, one of FDR’s New Deal agencies. They’re doing a show called The Crock of Gold which is a marionette show. It is said of this show that the donkey puppet is especially lifelike. Hmm, marionette donkeys or Leslie Howard doing Shakespeare…that’s a tough call!

The Good Earth, based on the novel by Pearl S. Buck, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1937, but lost to The Life of Emile Zola.

If live theater isn’t to your liking tonight, we could always go to a movie. Most of the pictures are double bills, with an A and B feature. The biggest thing happening in movies tonight is the premiere of the new film The Good Earth, starring Luise Rainer, based on the Pearl S. Buck novel. Tickets went on sale today at the St. Francis Theater box office, Market & Mason Street, and prices range from 50 cents to $1.50. That’s pretty steep for a movie ticket, to be honest. Cheaper digs, at the same theater they’re showing Maid of Salem starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. This movie was made locally, if you consider Santa Clara local. Tickets are 40 cents. Then there’s George Arliss in Man of Affairs at Loew’s Warfield Theater. Tickets are also 40 cents. Finally Jackie Cooper is starring in The Devil is a Sissy at the Empire Theater, 9100 West Portal Avenue.

I was thinking, after the play (or movie) we need a drink. The best place to go, I’m told, is the Royal Hawaiian, 960 Bush Street. Hey, that’s the same block as the Federal Theater with the lifelike donkey puppet! Anyway, this is billed as “San Francisco’s Most Exotic Club!” where it’s “New Year’s Eve Every Night!” Oh, and free parking. Guess that’s always a plus.

Count Basie! Here’s a recording from later in 1937 (July), but surely any radio performance of the Count from that era would have sounded a lot like this.

Or, if you just don’t want to go out, we could stay in, drink some booze and listen to the radio. The Philadelphia Orchestra will be on radio station KSFO at 7PM, but at that same time is a program called “Tales of Buried Treasure” which frankly sounds more interesting. Amos & Andy, a popular 1930s favorite serial–despite being a bit racist–is on KPO at 8PM. At 9PM is a show called “Universal Rhythm,” with tonight’s guest Olga Albani, a singer of some sort. And since we can’t get out of the late 1930s without hearing some awesome big band jazz, Count Basie and his orchestra will be on KFRC at 10PM. But perhaps we’ll be celebrating New Year’s Eve down at the Royal Hawaiian, so we may miss it.

Well, hopefully you enjoyed our “date night” out in 1937. This feature will likely return, when we set down in San Francisco in some other moment of the 20th century. So keep your Fridays free!

The header image is attributed to the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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