San Francisco Chronicle
The personages who’ve paid visits
Popes, presidents and superstars — the celebrities we’ve gawked at
San Francisco has a rich history of free entertainment, from Luisa Tetrazzini’s open-air opera on Market Street in 1910 to the graffiti-infused performance by U2 at the Vaillancourt Fountain in the 1980s.
But if you’re a cheapskate with access to a time machine, there is no better destination than Nov. 6, 1915, when a shackled Harry Houdini plunged into the San Francisco Bay. In his second of four residencies at the Orpheum Theatre, Houdini got sick of hearing that his escapes were stagecraft trickery. So he marched down among the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition crowds, and performed the same escape in the freezing waters.
”Harry Houdini, billed on the exposition programme as the ‘genius of escape,’ caused a large crowd on the Marina to gasp with astonishment yesterday,” The Chronicle reported. “Manacled hand and foot, he was nailed in a large packing box, and with 500 pounds of pig iron to weight it down was lowered into the bay. Half a minute after the box disappeared beneath the surface Houdini’s head popped above the water and he swam to a lighter and was taken aboard. The crowd cheered the remarkable performance.”
Pick a household name from the past century and a half, and there’s a good chance they paid a visit to San Francisco — with memorable results. The city has hosted almost every president from the past 100 years, sportsmen, artists, a Pope and a queen.
From Amelia Earhart to Albert Einstein to Evel Knievel to the Dalai Lama, dignitaries and legends have taken in San Francisco’s unforgettable beauty and left wanting more. San Franciscans can be a complaining bunch, with questionable driving skills and poor taste in civic projects. (Looking at you, Pier 39 and Hallidie Plaza.) But they cemented a deserved reputation as an excellent host.
The city was practically begging visitors to come in the 1800s. Even after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, a visit from an East Coast dignitary meant a long and unpredictable trip across country. Even fourth-tier government officials and celebrities were met with huge receptions, planned weeks or months in advance. San Franciscans were particularly fond of building a triumphal arch, a grand but hastily erected monument that usually spanned Market Street — often near the ferry or train stop where dignitaries would enter the city.
“A memorial arch should be erected across Market street at the corner of Third,” The Chronicle wrote after a group of Civil War veterans from New England announced their plans to visit. “This should be the only arch, but it was suggested that all the streets traversing the principal part of the city should be canopied and arched over with lines of flags, with large banners in the center of each line, bearing coats of arms.”
San Franciscans took enormous pride in the return of homegrown stars, notably former Chronicle writer Mark Twain, who continued to visit the city — often for Bohemian Grove functions — after his fame spread.
One particularly giant coup for San Francisco was a visit May 12-14, 1903, by President Theodore Roosevelt, during his third year in office. Offered a chauffeur, Roosevelt insisted on riding a borrowed horse during much of the trip — where he was greeted by spirited crowds at every stop.
After Roosevelt paraded down Market Street and turned up Van Ness, he was
saluted by thousands of flag-waving children released from school for the day.
“Hardly had president Roosevelt passed into Van Ness Avenue than he was on his feet and bowing a smiling greeting to young America,” The Chronicle reported. “And such a greeting as was cried back to him and waved at him by those young hopefuls with their beloved Stars and Stripes must have made the fatherly heart of this Chief Executive swell with paternal pride and gratitude to the parents of San Francisco.”
The most dissatisfied dignitary in San Francisco history was surely Enrico Caruso, a very popular opera tenor who was at the St. Francis Hotel (now the Westin St. Francis) when the 1906 earthquake struck the city.
The Chronicle later reported that Caruso was “standing in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel when the city was still quivering, a fur coat over his pajamas, a cigarette between his fingers, repeating over and over ’Ell of a place! ’Ell of a
place! And I never come back here!’ ”
He never did return, but Caruso was mostly alone in his post-quake fears. The rebuilt city after the 1906 earthquake made hospitality and tourism an even greater civic priority, to prove to the world that San Francisco was coming back better than ever. Tetrazzini’s legendary 1910 open-air concert, to which previous Our San Francisco chapters have paid tribute, easily made up for any negative energy Caruso had projected upon the city.
Houdini, who visited for an extended period four times between 1899 and 1923, was beloved by a city that had embraced good entertainment. He was the third billing at the Orpheum during his first visit. By the end of the second trip to San Francisco, critics were taking pity on whoever showed up on stage after him.
“I extend my condolences to Chris Richards, the eccentric English dancer and comic singer,” a Chronicle critic wrote in 1907. “It was his sad fate to follow the great Houdini and perform to a stunned audience. … It was quite melancholy to see all his cleverness wasted upon an audience who could think of nothing but Houdini.”
The Pan-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915 gave outsiders the best reason yet to visit San Francisco. The 1914 opening of the Panama Canal and later commercial air travel made access to the city for dignitaries easier than ever.
And as San Francisco’s reputation as a glorious city expanded after the exhibition, the frequency and eclectic messages of guests started to increase. Here’s The Chronicle coverage of a visit by Guglielmo Marconi, who used his platform to defend the dictator Benito Mussolini.
“To the thunderous acclaim of San Francisco’s Italian colony and thousands of other citizens, Senator Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of the wireless, and the Marchesa Marconi last night arrived for a three-day visit — the first they have ever made to this city,” The Chronicle reported. “The distinguished visitors walked to waiting automobiles down a lane almost canopied by arms outstretched in the Fascist salute.”
Later, Marconi told Mayor Angelo Rossi, “Mussolini may surprise some people yet and get the Nobel peace prize.”
History has been much kinder to the 1927 San Francisco visit by Charles Lindbergh, one of the greatest celebrities of his time, on a tour promoting the benefits of commercial air travel. The Chronicle reported that 15 young women fainted at the sight of the hero (their names, ages and addresses were printed in the paper) and one builder on Alameda’s Bay Farm Island fell off his scaffolding and broke his back when craning to see the pilot fly overhead.
“Charles A. Lindbergh came to San Francisco yesterday amid the tumult and the shouting of half a million frenzied hero worshipers,” The Chronicle reported, not feigning objectivity when a celebrity dropped by. “They lifted him to as high a pinnacle of honor as this proud city has ever accorded mortal man.”
The sweetest story came across the San Francisco Bay in Oakland, where that city’s chief of police had first told his 71960s year-old son he could meet Lindbergh, then changed his mind. When he woke and found out that his devastated son had gone missing, the chief was convinced the boy had run away. He ran for his automobile.
“There in the back crouched the boy, a carriage robe over him to conceal him from his father’s eyes until after he had started the journey,” The Chronicle reported. “After that,” the chief told the newspaper, “I didn’t have the heart to leave him at home, and so he saw Colonel Lindbergh.”
Albert Einstein and Shirley Temple (a future Bay Area resident) both visited in the 1930s, and President Warren G. Harding famously died at the Palace Hotel (now the Sheraton Palace) in 1923.
Amelia Earhart received a similar reception in Oakland and San Francisco a few years later in the 1930s. She took off from Oakland on May 21, 1937, to begin her attempt to circumnavigate the world by plane, only to disappear in July 1937 after taking off from Lae, New Guinea.
San Francisco saw even more visits after World War II, when Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both received tickertape parades on Market Street. Southern California native Richard Nixon was particularly enamored with the city — visiting many times during and after his presidency, riding cable cars, the ferry and BART, while visiting seemingly every tourist trap in the city.
San Francisco residents’ excitement about these visits continued through the and 1970s, when a diverse group dropped by, including Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Princess Grace Kelly, Elvis Presley, Alfred Hitchcock, Japanese Emperor Hirohito and Ethiopian Emperor (and Rastafari movement messiah) Haile Selassie.
There was still pomp in the 1980s, when San Francisco received two of its most impressive visitors yet — Queen Elizabeth II in 1983 and Pope John Paul II in 1987.
The queen’s visit, highlighted by a dinner with President Ronald Reagan at the de Young Museum, was so high-profile that even Chronicle columnist Herb Caen failed in his attempts to crash the party. (He got a good column out of the embarrassment.) San Francisco received rave reviews for its elegance, and Queen Elizabeth showed a sense of humor.
“I knew before we came that we have exported many of our traditions to the United States. I had not realized before that weather was one of them,” she quipped to Reagan.
The pope’s visit was memorable for a huge mass at Candlestick Park, and his encounter at Mission Dolores Basilica with 4-year-old AIDS sufferer Brendan O’Rourke.
“Hi. Viva Papa,” the youngster said to the pope, touching the pontiff’s ear as he passed by.
“The pope reacted to Brendan’s gesture with one hug, then another,” The Chronicle reported. “The boy, wearing a navy blue blazer, tie and striped pants, smiled, wiggled and turned shyly toward his father.”
It was another unforgettable moment. But there were grumblings behind the scenes indicating that San Francisco’s time as an enthusiastic host to dignitaries might be coming to an end.
More than 7,000 protesters arrived in Golden Gate Park for the queen’s visit in 1983. A crowd many times that size protested the pope in 1987. Presidents started visiting the city not in convertibles during the day, but only for private fundraisers under the cover of night. The city’s new progressive spirit, which has made it a leader in social causes, has made it less hospitable to the types of dignitaries who once would have been met with uninterrupted cheers.
San Francisco has developed a knack for growing its own heroes as well, or limiting celebrations to the highest-paying customers.
As exciting as a visit from the Dalai Lama is in 2015, no one is likely to notice it if Madison Bumgarner or Buster Posey happens to be marching in a World Championship parade that day. If Harry Houdini came to San Francisco in 2015, no doubt he would be playing exclusively for some nonplussed conventioneers under the Oracle Open World tent.
And can you imagine the most popular entertainers of our time — Taylor Swift or Brad Pitt or even the cast of “Dancing with the Stars” — going to a random pier in San Francisco and performing for free?
But it’s still a great city, and we have our memories. We also have articles like this, from Lindbergh’s 1927 visit:
“The Civic Center was a pin cushion of people. Here and there a shriek of a woman or cry of a child rose above the conglomerate sea of noises. How many scores of thousands were there may never be estimated. There never were that many there before.
“There may never be that many there again.”
Chronicle librarian Bill Van Niekerken contributed to the research of this chapter.