san francisco 1980 by maersk line

Welcome back to the “Retro Date Night” series! We skipped a week, but I’m back to show you a good time out on the town in San Francisco some random Friday night during the 20th century. In previous installments of the series we’ve gone out in the Bay City in February 1937, October 1953 and September 1968. (This series is sort of a “reboot” of last year’s blog series which focused on weekends on the town in New York City). It’s fascinating to see how cities change, how nightlife, food and entertainment evolves over the decades, and how strange they sometimes look from our own modern perspective. In tonight’s installment we’re going to the dawn of the ’80s, in fact to the year 1980. As with everything in this series, the events, weather, addresses, showtimes, prices etc. are all exactly accurate down to the day.

Today is Friday, March 21, 1980. Today in San Francisco there were showers in the morning, but it’ll be clear the rest of the day, highs in the 60s or 70s. It’s an election year, and the primary season is in full swing. President Jimmy Carter’s approval rating is down to 41%, which doesn’t bode well for him considering it seems former California Governor Ronald Reagan (who we encountered obliquely in the last installment of this series) is the Republican front-runner. Another Republican candidate, George H.W. Bush, today called on Carter to cut off all relations with Iran, who has been holding 53 Americans hostage since November 1979. If you notice a lot of yellow ribbons tied around trees as we go around tonight, that’s what it’s about–the hostages. The Soviets stated today that they plan to stay in Afghanistan “indefinitely.” The Cold War seems to be heating up. It’s a good night to find a diversion.

mayes oyster house san francisco

Maye’s Oyster House in San Francisco has existed since 1867. I imagine it must have looked much the same 36 years ago as it does in this 2015 Street View shot.

We’ll start, as usual, with dinner and drinks. If you feel like Italian cuisine, a restaurant called Old Colony, 2239 Clement Street, has great Italian dinners and seafood. Dinner entrees start at $5.95. The seafood in San Francisco is always excellent. Maye’s Oyster House has been a San Francisco tradition since 1867, and is still at the same place, 1233 Polk Street. They advertise charbroiled steaks and chops, reasonable prices and “generous” cocktails–though drinking heavily while eating fish, especially shellfish, is not especially wise in any time. San Francisco is also known for its Chinese food, and Yeh Wah Mandarin Cuisine on Pier 39–one of the big tourist attractions in the city which also has a lot of restaurants–has a full bar and they validate parking. Parking spaces are scarce and expensive in San Francisco, so that’s a big deal. Or, there’s the San Andreas Restaurant, which has a nice bay view, at 406 Clement Street. They have Idaho rainbow trout, rack of lamb, beef ribs and Chicken Cordon Bleu, dinners also from $5.95. That seems to be a magic number.

After dinner we can catch a show or some live music. Dick Van Dyke is the main draw in The Music Man, which is playing at the Golden Gate Theater, Taylor and Market Street, at 8PM. I guess Robert Preston wasn’t available? There is a performance of Tennessee Williams’s classic play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at some place called the Venetian Bakery Theater, 2200 Powell Street. That sounds like a dinner theater. Or maybe we get pastries with the show. Who knows? For very highbrow entertainment, the San Francisco Symphony is performing Wagner’s Ring Overture and various pieces by Saint-Saens. This will be at the Opera House, 8:30 PM, and tickets range between $4.50 and $15. I’m surprised to note that laser light shows are a “thing” in this era. Indeed, a show called Laserium Starship is showing at Morrison Planetarium in Golden Gate Park. I can only assume the “Starship” in that title refers to the band Jefferson Starship. Thank God it’s a couple of years too early for their awful “We Built This City” song, which is about San Francisco.

Though fairly obscure today, The Changeling remains, in my opinion, one of the scariest films ever made. It holds up well after 36 years. (This is a fan-made trailer).

We could always go to a movie. Late winter is a slow season for new releases, so what’s playing is kind of a mixed bag. Coal Miner’s Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek as country singer Loretta Lynn, is playing at the Alexandria Theater, shows at 7 and 9PM. A kung fu chop-socky flick called Kill or Be Killed is at the St. Francis Theater on Market Street downtown. This movie is advertised as “The Greatest Hollywood Martial Arts Movie Ever Made!” Somehow I doubt that. A movie named Simon, staring Alan Arkin as some kind of alien or robot or something, is playing at Cinema 21 on Chestnut and Steiner Streets. For my money the best film playing is a spooky ghost story called The Changeling, starring George C. Scott, which has a special sneak preview at the Alhambra Theater on Polk & Green Streets at 8PM. I definitely remember seeing this film as a kid and it remains one of the spookiest movies I ever saw.

San Francisco in this era also has a number of X-rated and “grindhouse” theaters. If you’re into that sort of thing, All About Gloria Leonard, rated X, is playing at the Presidio Theater. This theater also advertises “X Rated Tapes $29.95! Gay Tapes Too! All Guaranteed!” Exactly what they’re guaranteed to do is not specified. This is the dawn of the VHS home video era, which ended up revolutionizing porn in the 1980s.

The most famous cliffhanger in TV history–Dallas’s “Who Shot J.R.?” season finale–aired on March 21, 1980. Here is the famous final scene.

If you don’t want to go out we could stay in and watch TV, though with everything to do in the Bay City on a Friday night I’m not sure why that would be appealing. If you must, though, the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg will be on Channel 40 at 8PM. Another old classic, The Wild Bunch starring Marlon Brando, is on Channel 2 at 8:30. Just half an hour later is the car-crashing and Confederate-flag-bedecked pseudo-classic The Dukes of Hazzard. I really hope you don’t want to watch that. Of course, this being the ’80s, and a Friday night, the big draw on television is the prime-time sitcom Dallas. In fact, tonight’s episode, “A House Divided,” will go on to become the single most famous episode of the entire show–it’s the season finale in which villain J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) is shot by an unseen assailant. The question of “Who shot J.R.?” will become a cultural sensation during the whole summer, until the return of the show in its next season in September.

Well, that’s all for our date night this time. To be honest I’m not very impressed with 1980, though I suppose it’s better than the Great Depression. Better luck next time. If we’re still going out by the time I get around to doing another one of these articles, we’ll see what San Francisco has to offer in another decade, and it’s anybody’s guess what I’ll end up picking, but hopefully it’s better than this year. I already knew who shot J.R. Maybe you kind of had to be there.

The header image is by Flickr user Maesrk Line and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clips embedded here.