Retro Date Night: On the town in San Francisco…in 1953!

san francisco 1953 1 by charles w cushman

It’s almost the weekend, which means once again it’s date night in San Francisco through time! This is the second entry in this series, where I take you back in time to some random weekend during the 20th century and figure out what’s going on in the City by the Bay on a night like this. Last week was our first official “date,” and we found ourselves in San Francisco in February 1937. (By the way, this series is itself a “reboot” of a similar “night on the town” series I did last year, except set in New York). We’re now going to fast-forward a bit more than a decade. I’m always a little wary of the 1950s, but who knows, they may surprise you. Everything in this article: the titles of the shows and movies playing, venues, addresses, prices, etc. is exactly accurate to the actual date.

So imagine it’s Friday, October 9, 1953. The weather in San Francisco today is pretty typical for the place. There was coastal fog in the morning which burned off to a nice clear day, high 65°, low tonight will be around 49°. In the news, the police caught up with Harold Miller, the mad-dog killer who murdered a San Francisco cop, Denis Bradley, on Wednesday; they nabbed Miller coming out of a theater in L.A. The new President, Dwight Eisenhower, admitted today that the Soviets have the capability to launch a nuclear attack against the United States. (We are in the Cold War, so keep that in mind). The military released figures on the total number of Americans still missing in action from the Korean War, which ended in July: 7,955. They didn’t express a lot of hope for getting them back.

san francisco 1953 2 by charles w cushman

This view of the Nob Hill section of San Francisco, seen from Coit Tower atop Telegraph Hill, shows what the city looked like in 1953.

Shall we, as usual, start our date with a drink? Before dinner we should drop in to the Westlake Lounge, 307 South Mayfair Avenue. Somebody named Henry La Chelt is playing the organ there. The real draw is the drinks, though; highballs are only 40 cents! At that price it won’t take long to drink, my guess. For dinner we have many options. If you like seafood, Fisherman’s Grotto (9 Fisherman’s Wharf) has two dining rooms, the “Venetian Dining Room” and the “Florentine Dining Room.” This is a good time to go, as lobster, clams, sole, and halibut are all in season, freshest available. San Francisco is famous for its Chinese cuisine. The Golden Gong, 453 Grant Avenue, advertises “authentic Chinese food” and has dancing on weekends. Authentic Chinese dancers too? The Domino Club, 25 Trinity Place, is famous for their charcoal broiled steaks. If it’s exotic you want, Omar Khayyam’s, which I believe is quite famous–O’Farell & Powell Street–has a signature dish called “Tehakhukbelli Duck.” I have no idea what that is, but if you name a restaurant after a Persian poet my guess is it’s Middle Eastern food.

How about a show after dinner? At Finocchio’s, 506 Broadway, they have a continuous show from 9PM to 2AM, and they advertise the “World’s Greatest Female Impersonators.” Why am I thinking of the Julie Andrews role in Victor/Victoria? (Never mind, that was supposed to be 1930s). Mary Astor, most famous in the movies for her role in The Maltese Falcon, is doing a play called The Time of the Cuckoo at the Alcazar Theater, O’Farrell Street between Mason & Powell. The show is at 8:30 and tonight is the second to last performance. Or, Tyrone Power is starring in John Brown’s Body at the famous Geary Theater at 8:30. For super-highbrow, we could see The Barber of Seville at the San Francisco Opera House. Some chap named Cesare Valletti is singing the lead. Show’s at 8PM. If that’s too cultured for you, my guess is it’s much more earthy to see Kid Ory & his Creole Jazz Band, with J.D. “Fingers” Foster–I presume he’s a piano player, and with a nickname like that, if he’s not I don’t want to know how he got it–at the Club Hangover, Bush Street & Powell. No cover charge. Yes, you read that right, the Club Hangover. I’m tempted to check it out just to see what kind of dive would choose that as a name.

The British WWII drama The Cruel Sea is the kind of film that was very popular in the 1950s, when the world was still only a few years removed from the war itself.

If you’d rather see a movie than a live show, we have options there too. The new epic film The Robe, starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, is very popular right now. It’s playing at the Fox Theater, but I guess we can’t go there because I couldn’t find an address for it. Too bad. Jack Hawkins and Denholm Elliott star in The Cruel Sea, which I guess is a British film; it’s at the Bridge Theater, 3010 Geary Boulevard. A movie that’s got huge ads in the papers is East of Sumatra, starring Jeff Chandler. The tag line is, “Virgin isle of the South Pacific, ruled by primitive passions, destroyed by a white man’s love for a tawny native beauty!” Well, that sounds racy! That’s at the Orpheum, Market Street at 8th, a late show tonight. Then there’s a film called Teen-Age Menace, whose poster boasts “Censored and banned in New York!” It’s an “explosive documentary drama” which is probably intended to warn us of the horrors of juvenile delinquency. This is playing at the Telenews Theater, Market at 5th, with some shlocky-sounding second feature and a bunch of newsreels.

Don’t like any of these options? We could stay home and watch television, which is the new big thing. Down at Sears you can get a 17″ “Table TV” for $219.95 (the equivalent of more than $1,900 in 2015 dollars), or a 21″ combination TV, radio and phonograph for $359.95 (equivalent of $3,200 in 2015 dollars). That’s pretty spendy. But tonight on KPIX, 9PM, is “Playhouse of the Stars,” featuring a TV play called The Long Shot. The write-up is, “Death rides a plane with a valuable cargo–while a time bomb ticks the way to disaster!” It’s sponsored by Schlitz Beer. I hate Schlitz. This program is up against KRON’s “TV Soundstage,” which has a show called Believe with Joseph Anthony. The write-up makes it sound like some kind of inspirational story. I think I’d rather see Teen-Age Menace.

Because of the competition with television, Hollywood films in the early 1950s tried to give audiences “spectacle” they couldn’t get on TV. The Robe is a perfect example.

Well, all things considered, I have to say that San Francisco in the ’50s sounds quite a bit more happening than I expected, what with “Fingers” Foster, Teen-Age Menace and the world’s greatest female impersonators down at Finocchio’s. And I bet you heard the ’50s were boring! Check back next week for another Date Night post when we’ll go out on the town some other night in history. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go take an antacid. The Tehakhukhbelli Duck didn’t seem to agree with me.

The header image and the image of Nob Hill are both by Charles Weever Cushman and are attributed to the IMLS Digital Collection under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.
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