Memories of San Francisco 1924: Bootleg Whiskey, the Jazz Era and Vaudeville

 

Author’s note: The following is taken from my grandmother’s memoirs.  She wrote these words when she was 79 years old and lived to be 105.  Her memories are reflective of  the eyes of a young woman leaving home for the first time. 

This is the second of 3 guest posts from “Letters to My Kids“. Check back soon for Post 3.

We found an apartment in a new building on Ellis Street, near Hyde.  Later we learned we were living in the heart of the then ‘red light’ district of the city and we took a lot of kidding about it.  However, we were never bothered and it was a very good location – close to downtown theaters, shopping and not far from the financial district.  I found a position with the North British Insurance Company.  And made some friends, one of whom I still see now and then, Pearl Pickering.  It was a good fun-loving group in that office and I soon became initiated into the life of the jazz era.  If I had known then it was an ‘era,’ I might have paid more attention. Prohibition was the law but not greatly observed by San Franciscans.  I was never much of a drinker and was wary of anything except wine, but we thought it smart to drink and I usually indulged moderately at parties and dinners at the North Beach cafes.  The wine was always hidden under the table and served in coffee cups.

We loved to go to the French and Italian restaurants where we could get a full five-course meal for 50 cents, 75 cents on Sundays when half a chicken was the main course.  We continued our love affair with the movies.  All the downtown movie houses had live entertainment besides first-run pictures.  The Warfield, the Granada and others on Market Street vied with one another each week to produce the grandest extravaganzas so the public got its 50 cents worth and more.  The California Theater was famous for the organ concerts by Max Dolin and the Warfield for the shows produced by Fanchon and Marco, a San Francisco dance company.  We often went to the Orpheum Theater on O’Farrell Street to see the latest vaudeville shows.  Across the street from the Orpheum was the famous down-stairs after-theater club, Coffee Dan’s, where everyone pounded on the tables with wooden mallets whenever new guests arrived.  Next door to the Orpheum was Morrison’s Restaurant where we loved to eat before the performance – it was considered sheik to sit at the counter!  A short distance away was Marquard’s where there was tea dancing on Saturday afternoons.  On Powell Street was Tait’s famous coffee shop where one could get a good meal for a reasonable price amid a cosmopolitan atmosphere.

The city abounded in cafeterias that served excellent food amid tasteful surroundings.  Another gustatory delight, especially for women, were the numerous tearooms, mostly in downtown alleys and upstairs in buildings, that served better than home cooked food.  There was almost no limit to the number of restaurants in S.F. where one could get delicious food.  These restaurants were concentrated in the downtown and North Beach areas until the 60’s when a few began to appear in the outer reaches of the city.  One exception at that time as a cafeteria called Noah’s in Burlingame that was famous for its ham.  We would take a streetcar from down town and ride all the way to Burlingame just to go to Noah’s.  Yes, there was a streetcar from S.F. to Burlingame for many years after I came to S.F. in 1924.  The right-of-way is still there and should have been utilized for a rapid transit system long ago.

There were many nightclubs where there was dancing, good food and entertainment.  Our dates would bring a bottle of bootleg liquor, which was kept, discreetly under the table.  The club usually charged one dollar for a ginger ale “set-up”.  Our favorite nightclubs were the Lido on Columbus Avenue, Bimbo’s 365 Club on Market Street and Shorty Robert’s at the beach.

Altogether it was a fun time for a young single woman to be living in San Francisco.  We were “flappers” and followed all the styles of the time – daring short dresses, high heals, lots of makeup, short hair, cigarettes and dancing the Charleston.  Until the First World War, no nice woman would have dreamed of cutting her hair or smoking and drinking in public. We thought we were sophisticated but we were really very innocent, at least I was.  No one I knew lived with the opposite sex out of marriage, and most young women had high moral standards.