Heart of the City Archives

The shining golden dome of St. Michael's Ukrainian Orthodox Church is a peek-a-boo attraction in SoMA.

An only-in-San Francisco ode to Tattoo
by Hank Donat

The Convention and Visitors Bureau has decided to cloak the City in the old chestnut "Only in San Francisco" for its latest marketing campaign. The CVB and its advertising agency are not concerned that the phrase is often used to describe something so strange or abnormal that it could only happen here. Mayor Gavin Newsom says it's a chance to tout optimism and the cultural diversity of San Franciscans.

For my money, the slogan is best applied to things so enchanting or unique or coincidental that they reaffirm the knowledge among San Franciscans that we're all here in the right place, together, and at the right time. In that spirit, here are some beats from the heart of the City.

A newsman I know phoned me to say that workers had just cut Hervé Villechaize in half. Only in San Francisco could I know exactly what he meant by this.

The remains of a Grauman's Chinese Theatre-style walk of fame is an after thought on broken, cracked, and paved-over cement in front of 375 7th Street near Brannan. Workers are building the new Bessie Carmichael School there so the walk of fame is going the way of all flesh. On this particular day my colleague noticed that half of the square signed by Villechaize had been removed.

Villechaize had a modicum of acclaim as a photographer and painter, but he is remembered as the four-foot servant Tattoo from Fantasy Island on TV. He committed suicide by gunshot in 1993.

I had to leave the prominent publicist Lee Houskeeper at John's Grill to make a visit to the walk of fame before it disappears entirely. It was my chance to honor one more vanishing San Francisco quirk and Villechaize, who I once joked about when I was doing stand up. I said he committed suicide by sticking his head in the toaster oven.

Only where? On a 45-Union bus heading into SoMA, a boy around seven years old wants to stand in front of my seat so he can pull the cord above to call for the next stop. I choose to be charmed instead of feeling crowded. Some other passengers watch the boy, sharing in his excited anticipation over pulling the cord at just the right time. After he signals the stop to smiles of approval from his mom and us bystanders - and bysitters - the boy releases a robust, full-bodied sneeze into his hands then wipes them on the rail in front of me. That would be the official end of that charming moment.

As I disembark, a teenage girl tears the headphones off her head and announces, "This bus is so slow, the 30 Stockton is catching up!"

The area near 7th and Folsom is not likely to end up in one of the CVB's new ads, which are aimed squarely at tourists. Most of the buildings in this sunny and flat area look like they were warehouses or garages in past lives. Many were.

However, there is plenty of San Francisco lore and history here to make the grade. Julie's Supper Club is where Patty Hearst was held in the basement for a short time before being moved to safer safe houses by her captors in the 1970s. Across the street, Brainwash is the social epicenter of SoMA.

The shining golden dome of St. Michael's Ukrainian Orthodox Church on 7th is one of those peek-a-boo attractions that can turn the most industrial neighborhood into an exhilarating discovery only in San Francisco.

Arriving at the Carmichael School construction site, I find that the partial handprints and signatures of Whoopi Goldberg, George Takei, Bobcat Goldthwait, Amy Wright, and Severn Darden are all that remain of the walk of fame. Indeed, Hervé Villechaize has been lopped off and paved over. Only the top half of his brass star is intact. (Choose the link to see the 7th St. Walk of Fame.)

Next, I head to the Main Library to find out more. Running into Sir Lunchalot Harry DeWildt not far from the entrance is a nice surprise. Harry of Nob Hill tells me it had been about five years since the last time he visited the area near the library and United Nations Plaza. His apt description is catchy but don't expect to see it in any visitors' campaign: "Still Calcutta."

Inside the library, I find a directory indicating that in 1987, the time of the Whoopi Goldberg signature, 375 7th Street was the home of Golden Gate Casting, San Francisco Studios - and Lee Houskeeper!

Back to John's Grill for the lowdown on this nearly bygone sidewalk landmark.

As Houskeeper explains it, San Francisco Studios was "an ill-fated but adventurous" enterprise founded in 1983 by "Streets of San Francisco" location manager Roberta Reilly. Reilly convinced then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein that the City needed new soundstages and offices for Hollywood types in order to make us a more cinema friendly place. The films "Star Trek IV," "Innerspace," and the documentary "Berkeley in the Sixties" were made at San Francisco Studios, as were the TV series "Midnight Caller" and many commercials.

Houskeeper himself invited the stars to put their hands in cement in front of the studios until Reilly closed up shop in the late '80s. "It's not an easy process," says Houskeeper, who received training in the art of concrete consistency from a representative of Grauman's. Houskeeper says at its peak the walk boasted as many as 30 signatures including those of Phyllis Diller, Harry Nilsson, James Doohan, William Shatner, Wolfman Jack, and Cliff Robertson.

More recently, the city's towing company rented the studio's huge soundstages to store towed cars. "A woman came into John's Grill in a dither a few years ago because her car was towed and she had just been to 7th and Brannan to get it out of impound," says Houskeeper, "She said to me and the bartender, Louie, that the only thing that made her feel better about the experience was seeing how many famous people had also been towed there."

All together now, "Only in San Francisco."

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Copyright 2004 Hank Donat
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