San Francisco angle

Just received an email from an old contact — and though I’ve not been actively updating Sparkletack, this project is just too fantastic not to mention.

I’ve pillaged the San Francisco History Center’s online photo archive myself many, many times … and often dreamed of a resource exactly like this one. in Dan’s own words:

“A long time ago you blogged about a map I made of photographs from the Cushman collection.

After much work and many rocky starts, I’ve put together the next incarnation of this:

It’s a map of the San Francisco Public Library’s Historical Photograph Collection, which contains 40,000 digitized images from San Francisco’s past. We’ve located about 13,000 of them on a map and built an interactive site to help you explore the photographs. It’s a bit like historypin, but it’s focused exclusively on San Francisco and has far more images of SF than historypin does.

There are countless finds in the collection, but here are a few that we enjoyed:

Also worth mentioning: while this is not an SFPL project, it is done with their blessing.

Hope all is well. And many thanks for Sparkletack. Listening to your podcast when I first moved up to the city really sparked my interest in SF History.”

You’re welcome, Dan — and thank YOU!

It’s not because Herb Caen got hot under the collar about it.

And yeah, I know it was practically the official name of the City in the decades following the Gold Rush — a moniker beloved by locals and visitors alike.

In fact, here’s Exhibit A on the pro-Frisco side, a song sung by thousands of ’49ers to the tune of Oh Susanna:

“I soon shall be in Frisco and there I’ll look around,
And when I find the gold lumps there I’ll pick them off the ground.
Oh, California, that’s the life for me … “


I don’t care. I’m not going there.

My own aversion to the undignified moniker of “Frisco” comes straight from the regal lips of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico.

In 1872, the good Emperor issued the following edict:

“Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco”, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”

As far as I’m concerned, thus endeth the discussion.

But not in Hollywood! In fact, this little rant was inspired by Paul Potocky’s post over at SF Bay Timeless (or whatever the heck it’s called): Hollywood calls us Frisco!, a very entertaining list of the films which have helped to perpetuate the irritating misnomer.

By my calculations, Hollywood owes about eleventy bazillion dollars to Norton’s Imperial Treasury.

Pay up!

For years I’ve said that the enshrinement of San Francisco’s favourite son Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul at Cooperstown is overdue.

LONG overdue.

Sure, we in San Francisco named a drawbridge after him — but Lefty is due some recognition at a national level.

I’ll resist the urge to restate my entire podcast about Lefty’s colorful life here, but a couple of lines from the thrilling conclusion make the case pretty well:

“For one thing, Lefty finished up with a career Major League batting average of .349. If you’re not a connoisseur of baseball numerology, that number is almost unbelievably good.

In the history of major league baseball only three other players have ended with higher lifetime averages, each a legendary figure: Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. And of the 66 batters already in the Hall of Fame, Lefty’s number is better than 64 of them.

But numbers have an almost fetishistic value in baseball, and had he gotten just two more hits in his peak 1929 season, his average of that year would have jumped from .398 to the magical .400 — and the whole baseball world would remember his name.

But numbers aside, Lefty could be honored for his work promoting the international game alone.

In 1964 the San Francisco Giants signed Masanori Murakami as the first Japanese player in the American big leagues. There are many more playing here today — Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Daisuke Matsuzaka to name just a few — and frankly, without Lefty’s contribution none of that would have happened.

The “Father of Japanese Baseball” was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002. The least we can do is induct him into ours.”

Convinced? Now’s your chance to cast a vote!

Did I say “cast” a vote? What I meant was “lean on the folks who actually get to”.

Tom O’Doul (the last name’s no coincidence, he’s Lefty’s cousin) is spearheading a letter-writing campaign to get the slugger into the Hall — as a recipient of the Buck O’Neil “Lifetime Achievement Award”.

An email from Tom showed up this afternoon, and he’s enthusiastically granted me permission to reprint it on Sparkletack.

Without further ado ….

Fans and friends of “Lefty” O’Doul,

The time has come to start a letter writing campaign to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum and put “Lefty” into the hall.

The Buck O’Neil Award is to be awarded to persons who were ambassadors to the game and have promoted the game over their lifetime.

Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul was one of those pioneers and a true ambassador to the game.

What he did for baseball in Japan, qualified him for induction into the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 2002.

What he did for baseball on the West Coast, qualified him for induction into both the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame and the Pacific Coast League Hall of Fame.

No one is more deserving to be recognized as an ambassador to baseball than Francis Joseph “Lefty” O’Doul. He deserves to receive the Buck O’Neil Award.

The award will be announced in 2011. But, now is the time to start writing letters.

Send your letters only — no e-mail or fax — to:

    Buck O’Neil Award
    National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
    25 Main Street
    Cooperstown, NY 13326-1330

Thank you for your support.

All the best,

Tom O’Doul

I’ve been meaning to post about these amazing T-shirts forever. Because they’re — I kid you not — unbearably cool.

It’s an idea so good that I’ve been kicking myself constantly (though ever so gently) for not having thought of it first!

What we have here is a series of San Francisco historical T-shirts, each one inspired by a historical neighborhood icon or institution. Locally made, totally cool … and they’re beautifully designed, too.

Just a couple of examples, some more gangster than others:

  • Devil’s Acre — From the most nefarious district of North Beach’s already infamous Barbary Coast
  • Beertown Brawlers — inspired by the 1870s–90s-era saloon-saturated stretch of Fulton Street, north of Golden Gate Park
  • Dog Patch — From the extinct east-side working-class neighborhood below Irish Hill
  • Carville FalconsCarville you remember, right? One of those cars was the headquarters of the Falcons — an all-girl cycling club.
  • Hunter’s Point Butchers — a little confusing, since Butchertown was a neighborhood distinct from Hunter’s Point, but what the hell … even though it’s currently out of print, this one’s totally my favourite.

And all this is just the tip of the iceberg. Take a peek… and flash some vintage neighborhood pride. Tell ’em Sparkletack sent you!

Ork Posters has created something guaranteed to delight typophiles (that’s me) and San Francisco neighborhood geeks (check) alike.

It’s a typographic neighborhood map of Our Fair City.


Oh sure, they do it for a bunch of their other favourite cities too. But this is so cool that I forgive them for that.

Screen-printed. Multiple color options. Totally cool.

On the other hand, partial (dis)credit for using “San Fran” in the URL. They’ll be hearing from Emperor Norton about that …

In honor of that most noble of American pastimes, a lovely painting inspired by a favourite photo of the great San Francisco character, Lefty O’Doul … otherwise known as Mr. Lefty not-yet-in-the-damn-Hall-of-Fame O’Doul.

But I digress.

If you’ve heard my podcast about Lefty, you’ll have guessed that this photo was taken on one of Lefty’s famous tours of Japan — a preoccupation which would eventually earn him a second nickname, “the Father of Japanese Baseball”.

As to the source of nickname number three, well — take a look at the painting! Thanks to his signature garment, Lefty was known throughout San Francisco as “the Man in the Green Suit”. chris_felix_lefty_odoul___the_man_in_the_green_suit_1486_64
Chris Felix, 2009 — “Baseball’s Ambassador – The Man in the Green Suit” Lefty O'Doul in Japan
San Francisco Public Library Historical Photograph Collection – 1935

I was tipped off about this painting by an inquiry (on behalf of Chris Felix) about the precise shade of Lefty’s infamous green suit, and the source of the photo on the Sparkletack website. Since I was only about three years old when Lefty passed, I wasn’t much help with the sartorial question — but the photo was found in the amazing online collection at the San Francisco Public Library.

A few weeks later, Lefty’s cousin Tom O’Doul dropped me a line letting me know that the painting was actually here in San Francisco. Thanks Tom!

It will be on display at the George Krevsky Gallery in Union Square until June 20th, 2009, as part of their 12th annual baseball exhibition.

Lana Turner

Yet another one for the “there’s always a San Francisco angle” files …

Years before the discovery of the platinum haired Lana Turner at a Hollywood cafe propelled her into a life of glamour and super-stardom, her lifeline intersected San Francisco — and with tragedy.

I suppose we could begin the tale in Oklahoma, 1920.

Lana’s parents meet cute

Well … sort of.

“… my father was just out of the army. He was heading westward, working in the mines and I guess that’s how he got to Pitcher (Oklahoma). After a night of dancing, he and my mother fell in love.

He was twenty-four, but she was only fifteen. When he began to court her, my grandfather put his foot down. So, what could they do? They eloped.”

Right — eloped to the romantic environs of Wallace, a small mining town in Idaho. Not long afterwards (February 8, 1921), “Julia Jean Mildred Frances Turner ” was born to child-bride Mildred and John “Virgil” Turner. (They called her Judy, and though she wouldn’t become “Lana” until hitting the silver screen, let’s keep it simple.)

Though Lana would later reminisce nostalgically about the good ol’ days — mom and pop dancing to the Victrola by candlelight — all was not well in the Turner household.

Virgil worked a series of rough and low-paying jobs in the silver mines. And though making barely enough to support his tiny family, he soon began to squander those meagre earnings on the dancing, gambling and hooch that are part and parcel of mining town life.

His debts mounted, so Virgil turned to bootlegging his own corn liquor — but when the Feds started sniffing around, the Turners packed up the household overnight and high-tailed it for — where else? — San Francisco.

Noir city

young Lana Turner

They pulled into the City at the Edge of the World sometime in 1927, when Lana was just six years old. Something about life in San Francisco, who knows, perhaps something in the city’s inherently unstable nature, provoked a separation between the parents.

Mildred found suitably noiresque work as a nightclub entertainer, and after a murky period in which the young girl was shuttled off to live in a series of abusive foster homes, moved her into a cramped apartment at 760 Geary Street.

Papa Virgil moved into a rough hotel at 4th and Mission, finding work as a stevedore at the Pacific Coast Steamship Company. The job suited him, and as for his taste for drinking and gambling? San Francisco nights were the perfect fit.

And this is where the tale takes a darker turn.

“Taken for a ride”

Virgil spends the early morning hours of December 10th, 1930, in an all-night downtown poker game. The cards are turning his way, and as his diamond stickpin sparkles in the electric lights, he brags loudly that he’s going to buy his little girl a bicycle with his winnings.

He leaves the basement game close to dawn, but his big talk had not gone unnoticed, and he was followed. As the San Francisco Chronicle later put it, Virgil was picked up and “taken for a ride” out to the Potrero District. It was the gambler’s last deal.

When the sun came up, Virgil’s corpse was discovered slumped in an alley at Mariposa and Minnesota, out behind the Southern Pacific roundhouse. He’d been bludgeoned to death. The diamond stickpin was gone, as was his watch — but most importantly, so was his left sock, in which he’d kept his bankroll.

The police figured out that gambling was involved, and there was some speculation about gangsters … but the papers were full of such things in the ’30s — I mean, c’mon, Dashiell Hammett himself was probably up writing the Maltese Falcon over at 891 Post Street as the murder took place — and Virgil Turner’s killer was never caught.

A vision

Lana was profoundly shaken by her father’s death. And somehow, the nine-year-old girl had known what had happened before the body was discovered:

“…How long I had been asleep I don’t know, but suddenly I was sitting up straight in the darkness. Before me was a vision so intense that it seemed to be alive. I saw a huge medallion of shining gold, and on it was embossed the face of God, a shimmering countenance, comforting, benign. A voice said, “Your father is dead.” I was filled with awe but also with a strange sense of peace as I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

When I awoke in the morning, my mother and Julia Hislop (a family friend) were whispering in a corner. They didn’t have to tell me why. I already knew that my father was dead. And when the feeling of peace wore off, the surprise at having known intensified my sense of loss and sorrow. Although I was only nine, I could imagine what death meant. I knew he was gone forever.”

In 1935, Mildred Turner, on her doctors’ advice, moved with her daughter to the drier climate of Los Angeles. Six weeks later the now mostly-grown-up Lana was discovered, and the rest is, as they say, history.

San Francisco history, that is

Though Lana Turner passes out of San Francisco’s story and into Hollywood legend, her private life — seven marriages, a gazillion affairs, alcoholism, a gangster lover murdered by her own daughter — seems to somehow have been claimed by our city. In an undoubtedly way-too-romantic way, I’ll think of Lana Turner now as forever marked by San Francisco noir

Thanks to Ron Filion at for the tip — someone had asked him to “confirm” that Lana Turner was a Bay Area high school graduate. Turned out that she wasn’t, of course, but as he poked around, discovered the inevitable San Francisco angle. He thought I might be interested … and I was.

Rice-A-Roni - the San Francisco Treat

1940s San Francisco. A young Canadian immigrant and her Italian pasta family husband move into the spare room of an old Armenian woman.

The result of this temporary arrangement? The boxed rice and pasta side dish which — for good or ill — would come to be as strongly associated with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge:

“Rice-A-Roni – the San Francisco Treat”

If you’re of a certain age, just reading that phrase will plant the jingle in your head for the rest of the day. Oops.

Since this is a culinary story, it seems fitting that the Kitchen Sisters, intrepid explorers of the nation’s Hidden Kitchens, should be the ones to tell it. They’ve put together a wonderful short feature which aired earlier this week on Morning Edition.

If you missed the clip, you can hear the audio, absorb an entertaining history and enjoy photos of the entire cast of characters at the NPR website: “Birth of Rice-a-Roni: the Armenian-Italian Treat”.

The (appropriately) condensed version:

Here are the bones of this typically San Francisco story of convergence, with quotes borrowed from the Kitchen Sisters’ story.

In the early ’40s Lois DeDomenico moved from Edmonton to San Francisco. It wasn’t long before she met and fell for Tom DeDomenico, employed with his brothers at the family pasta works — and the two quickly got hitched. Housing was tight in the post-war city, though, so Lois answered a classified ad for a spare room posted by one Mrs. Pailadzo Captanian.

“Mrs. Captanian, I had a liking for her right away. So we moved in. Tommy would work until about 7 o’clock at the pasta factory and I was alone a lot,” Lois said. “I was only 18 and I was pregnant. And I had kitchen privileges. Well, I really wasn’t much of a cook. And here was this Armenian lady, probably about 70 years [old], making yogurt on the back of the stove, all day, every day. I didn’t even know what the word ‘yogurt’ meant.”

The older woman, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, took the young Canadian under her wing and taught her to cook. Among the recipes included in this cross-cultural transmission was her specialty, a simple, traditional side dish of pasta and rice called Armenian pilaf.

Mmmm, pilaf! Of course, pilaf is no mystery to our modern and ever-so-cosmopolitan palates now, but in that pre-rice era, it must have seemed to Lois like an exotic taste of the Orient.

It was certainly a hit with the DeDomenicos, and even Tom contributed with pasta brought home from the Golden Grains factory. Lois learned well at Mrs. Captanian’s side, and continued to prepare the dish long after the couple had moved into their own home.

As the story goes, Tom’s brother Vince frowned down at his pilaf one night at a family dinner and spoke the fateful 1950’s phrase, “this would be GREAT in a box!”

And so it came to pass. Following four years of experimentation in the pasta factory’s test kitchens, “Rice-A-Roni – the San Francisco Treat” took its place on supermarket shelves right next to the Jell-O, Miracle Whip, and Velveeta cheese product. It was the ’50s, after all, and now — thanks to the Armenian diaspora, to an Italian immigrant family cranking out pasta, to a Canadian girl who couldn’t cook — San Francisco’s contribution to the age of convenience was official.

Try it yourself

Well, though I’ve never been a fan of the stuff (is that heresy?), I am intrigued by Mrs. Captanian’s original recipe (scroll down to the bottom of the page). If you feel moved to try it too, head into the kitchen and let me know how your experiments turn out.

The Secret San Francisco

I love this blog, if for no other reason than the jawdropping diversity of the email that slips over the digital transom.

This note from a few weeks ago just about takes the biscuit. In breathless terms it tells the story of a decades-long treasure hunt, a project just brimming with danger, doggedness and derring-do!

Okay, fine … perhaps there isn’t so much going on in the danger and derring-do department, but as to doggedness, well … that we have here in spades, along with a tip of the cap to yours truly. But I’ll let my correspondent Matthew Sparks fill you in himself:

Buried Treasure in San Francisco?

“Did I get your attention with the subject line? I’m serious, It’s not a huge priceless treasure, but treasure none the less.

“In 1982 author Byron Priess (1953-2005) published a book called The Secret, A Treasure Hunt. I bought a copy the day it came out and have been working on solving it ever since…

“Preiss buried 12 casques. These were small little porcelain boxes each containing a symbolic key — no metal so they can’t be metal detected. Each casque was buried 2-3 feet down in a plexiglas box in 12 cities around North America. If you found the box, you got turn in the key to Byron Preiss and he rewarded you with 1 of 12 jewels. Officially and sadly the hunt ended when Byron Preiss died in an auto accident in 2005. But while the chance to get one of the jewels is probably over, the hunt for the casques continues.

The Secret Book

“The book contains 12 images and 12 verses, which verse goes with which picture is unknown, But if you can put a picture together with a verse you can resolve the location of a casque. Right after the book came out, a group of 3 friends were able to find the casque hidden in Chicago, using Image 5 and verse 12. Then there was a long long pauses of about 20 years, and most readers gave up.. From 1983-2000 I only looked at the book in frustration, but one day I realized there were people on the internet still working on the hunt, an entire online community. With some great success, a large group has banded together, pooling resources to finish the hunt.

A Jitney Elopement
A Jitney Elopement

File this — again — under “there’s ALWAYS a San Francisco connection”.

A reader recently alerted me to the fact that Charlie Chaplin, America’s favourite clown (and perhaps the most influential performer in motion picture history), shot one of his bazillion-odd silent movies on location in and around Golden Gate Park.

A Jitney Elopement” is classic slapstick, featuring a case of mistaken identity, a jitney (think “flivver“), a mustachioed scoundrel and — inevitably — madcap hilarity. This milestone 1915 production has been described as the first “Chaplinesque” Chaplin film, but is that what we’re here for?

Nope … we want to look past the action with San Francisco-tinted glasses and see our city in all its vivid … okay, in all its grainy black and white early-century glory. The first half of the film takes place indoors, but take a look at clip from the second reel, featuring the crucial final ten minutes:

0:0 minutes: We begin somewhere on location in Golden Gate Park; Charlie is about to rescue the Girl from the amorous clutches of the mustachioed Count.

4:53 minutes: The action slowly picks up — over a half century before Steve McQueen will set the standard — with a car chase: high speed Tin-Lizzy!

5:02 minutes: This may be the high point of the film, a rare sight indeed: Golden Gate Park’s fabulous Murphy Windmill, complete with turning vanes! This windmill, the second of the Park’s famous pair, was built in 1905, but the vanes fell off sometime in the ’40s. The magnificent tower is still there, though, slowly rotting away — still unrestored.

6:00 minutes: tearing north past Ocean Beach along the Great Highway, not yet paved (!).

7:46 minutes: In a cinematic maneuver San Franciscans will see countless times over the years to come (hello “Bullitt‘), time and geography are defied with a leap across town into the Mission District. Note the fence advertising “Joe Holle Bicycles” — this handy clue allows us to place the scene precisely at 2336 Folsom Street, right across the street from today’s John O’Connell High School of Technology.

8:30 minutes: A pair of paved roads lead up a hillside … anyone want to take a crack at identifying this spot? Sutro Heights? The Presidio?

9:16 minutes: A major intersection that could be in the Mission, the Richmond or the Sunset districts … anyone recognize the buildings in the background?

9:46 minutes: The car chase finally ends with a splash as Chaplin bumps the villains’ car off a pier and into the bay. Our copy of the film is a little blurry, but our best guess is that this is somewhere around Fort Mason.

But wait, there’s more!