san francisco 1968 market street by smith

This is our third “date” out in San Francisco in various moments of the 20th century. The first “date night” showed you what it would have been like to go out on the town in the Bay City in February 1937, in the midst of the Depression, and the second took us forward a bit in time to the bucolic Fifties, October 1953. You knew the Sixties were coming. There was a certain vibe about San Francisco in the 1960s, as if it was made for that decade or vice-versa. I seriously considered setting this installment of Date Night in the Summer of Love (1967), for which San Francisco was especially famous; the hippie culture was really at its height there. But that was a brief moment in time limited to a particular subculture which didn’t necessarily intersect with the lives of ordinary people. Thus I bring you to San Francisco more than a year later, the fall of 1968, to see what’s doing. As with all articles in the Date Night (or Throwback Thursday) series, everything–the shows playing, addresses, dinner prices, weather, headlines, etc.–are exactly accurate to the day. Now, put on your mod purple vertically-striped bell bottoms and let’s go out!

Today is Friday, September 20, 1968. The weather is fair and sunny, high in the low 70s. The country has been through a lot this year, and it’s election season; right now Nixon is gaining in the polls, and the Democrats, torn apart by the war in Vietnam, don’t seem to like their candidate, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, very much. Yesterday Teddy Kennedy, brother of Robert Kennedy who was assassinated in June, reluctantly endorsed Humphrey. At UC Berkeley, across the bay, the Board of Regents is meeting to determine whether an invitation to Eldridge Cleaver, leader of the Black Panthers, to speak on campus should be rescinded. Governor Ronald Reagan, who is one of the regents, is at the meeting. Whatever we do tonight we should be careful. San Francisco is a violent place in 1968. Last night an ordinary man, Harry Hawkins, was gunned down by a gang of teenage hooligans while walking home from the opera. This is the 4th such random murder by a gang in the last three weeks.

union square 1968 by roger wallstadt

Union Square has long been regarded as the center of San Francisco. This is what it looked like, from a window of the St. Francis Hotel across the street, in 1968.

There’s plenty to eat in San Francisco! Starting our date with dinner, we could go to Alfred’s, “Home of the Steak King,” at 888 Broadway. They’re famous for steak dinners and Italian food. There is also the Tudor Room at the Sheraton-Palace Hotel, 639 Market Street. We can get a complete dinner beginning at $5.50. The advertisement includes a picture of Henry VIII, which leads me to believe we can gnaw chicken noisily and throw the bones over our shoulders, as they do in every movie made about Henry VIII. Or maybe not. At Café El Portal, Fulton and 8th Avenue by Golden Gate Park, we can get a deluxe chicken dinner for $3.75, Veal Scallopini for $5.00, a 12-ounce New York steak for $5.75, or Lobster Thermidor for $6.00. And dancing nightly! At Yolanda’s, in the Golden Gate Peace Terminal, we can have a family-style Italian dinner for $3.00, which includes a bottle of wine. Hey, that’s not bad. Cocktails are only 60 cents during happy hour. Or a place called Off Broadway, 1024 Kearney Street, advertises “topless waitresses.” Really! They do! Topless waitresses!

After dinner we can take in a show or some live music. The Fantasticks, a musical comedy written partially by singer Tom Jones, is in its off-Broadway run, playing at Ghirardelli Square at 8:30 PM. That’s competing with The Homecoming by Harold Pinter, a dramatic play, at the Playhouse, 422 Mason Street. This was judged the Best Broadway Play of 1967 by New York critics. Perhaps a bit lighter, a play called Your Own Thing is being performed at the American Conservatory Theater, two shows, 7:00 and 10:00 PM. Orchestra seats are $5.00, balcony $4.00. We can’t go to that one, though, because I couldn’t get the address. This is the ’60s, and how can we pass up a chance to see the Grateful Dead actually in the ’60s? Even more amazingly, the Steve Miller Band is opening for them! This show is across the bay, in Berkeley at the Berkeley Community Theater, at 8PM. I don’t think we can miss that one.

One of the great motion pictures of all time, 2001: A Space Odyssey, was still playing in many theaters in September 1968. Cinerama was the way to see it. Here is the original trailer from 1968.

If you want to kill two birds with one stone–dinner and a show–Bill Medley, formerly one of the Righteous Brothers, is appearing at a club called Bimbo’s 365 Theater and Restaurant, Columbus and Chestnut Streets. Dinners are $5.00. The ad promises “continuous dancing,” but more interestingly says we can “See, talk to the Newde Girl in the Fishbowl.” Yes, that’s what it says–the “Newde Girl.” Between this and the topless waitresses at Off Broadway, I’m getting the impression San Francisco in the 1960s is a pretty bawdy and ribald town, at least by 2010s standards.

There are, of course, some great movies to see. Mel Brooks’s classic comedy The Producers is playing at the Alexandria Theater, Geary at 18th, at 8:20. One of the most popular movies in America this fall is Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby, which shows at Cinema 21, Chestnut & Steiner, at 6 and 10PM. The Odd Couple, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, based on the hit Neil Simon play, is at the New Alhambra Theater, Polk at Green Street, 6:30 and 10:15 PM. Of course the great cinematic masterpiece of 1968–and one of the best-ever–is Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although it premiered in April, it’s still running, now in September, and it’s available in Cinerama, a super-wide screen process that requires special theaters to show it. That’s at the Golden Gate Theater, Market at Taylor Street, and tickets for the 8:30 PM show are $3.45. Rumor has it that hippies love to take LSD and watch this film, especially the “Star Gate” scene, while laying down just beneath the screen. That must be trippy.

The single dumbest episode of Star Trek ever, the execrable “Spock’s Brain,” first premiered on network TV on September 20, 1968. Here is the trailer.

The last resort is to stay home and watch TV, and maybe have a quiet drink. Booze is plentiful and cheap; we can get a fifth of Sunny Brook whiskey for $3.99, or B&L Scotch for $5.59. The sci-fi western show Wild Wild West is on Channel 5 at 7:30 PM. At 9PM, same channel, is Hawaii Five-0 with Jack Lord, which us up against (channel 20) a movie from last year called The Sinister Monk with Karin Dor. At 10:00 PM on NBC, Channel 4, is an episode of the original Star Trek. Seeing a classic Star Trek episode premiere on network TV for the first time is certainly an experience to have–but the bad news is the episode showing tonight is “Spock’s Brain,” which is generally regarded as the worst Star Trek episode of all time. Oh, well. Those are the breaks!

Well, that’s it for date night in San Francisco in the ’60s. Come back next week and we’ll drop into the Bay City somewhere else in time. Until then, put your Nehru jacket and makaha beads back in the closet. I’m sure they’ll be back in style eventually.

The header image was taken in 1968 by the parents of Wikimedia Commons user Gordon F. Smith and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The photo of Union Square is by Flickr user Roger Wallstadt and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution). I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.