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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Watch This Video of 1955 San Francisco (Including the Cliff House Sky Tram)

Posted By on Wed, Jul 29, 2015 at 10:30 AM

click to enlarge screen_shot_2015-07-29_at_10.14.37_am.png

Here’s a fun, 21-minute-long, 1955 Cinemascope presentation that explains San Francisco to people who’ve never heard of it — and without showing the Tenderloin, the Mission, or a single moment of fog. Beautifully oversaturated and overwritten in that ‘50s style (“it is from the east that the city reveals its famous profile, framed by the silver towers of the Bay Bridge”), this excursion down the Embarcadero Freeway and all over town yields glimpses of architectural icons in different visual contexts, along with things that are now long-gone. And there’s so little traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge, even in broad daylight!

The narrator has a very faint Mexican accent, but it’s hard to tell if his curious pronunciations can be attributed to that or to his effortless, mid-century transatlanticism. (Yes, “Valencia” is really “vuh-LEN-shuh” and “Quintara” is “kwin-TER-uh,” but he pronounces “Van Ness” as if it were one word: “VAN-ness.”)

Alioto’s is here, as is Playland at the Beach (demolished in the early-‘70s), and the giant SP sign that stood atop the Southern Pacific headquarters at 1 Market. There are lots of Studebakers on the Great Highway and plenty of nostalgia for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition of 40 years earlier. 100 McAllister, the Gothic Revival-Art Deco building that’s now UC Hastings dorms, looms over the Civic Center as a counterpoint to City Hall’s dome in a way you might never have imagined.

Were this made today, some things would almost certainly be left out. Weirdly, this film crew hit the zoo before, you know, the Powell Street Cable Car or Chinatown — which is described as a “narrow pagoda’ed street” full of “jade, silk, and rare antiques.” (Also peek at children playing at the monkey bars at the zoo comes with a narrator intoning, “Could Darwin have been right?”)

click to enlarge Chinatown
  • Chinatown

They do drive up Twin Peaks Blvd., from which a massive gas tank in the Dogpatch is visible, and then down Lombard Street’s crooked block, which, with the screech of the brakes amped up in the days before widespread power steering, feels as vertiginous as Cary Grant’s trip behind the wheel after he’s been deliberately over-intoxicated in Charade.

But the best part is that Cliff House had a Sky Tram, an air gondola that gave passengers views of Seal Rock! A close runner-up is the trip down Market Street, a virtually unrecognizable electric strip of enormous ads and theater marquees. A shot of the Odd Fellows Hall on Seventh and Market shows that it used to be near an Embassy Theater, which was showing Chief Crazy Horse at the time. (The Strand is presumably just out of the frame, on the right.) A middling picture directed by the forgotten George Sherman, who cranked out three or four Westerns a year at his peak, Chief Crazy Horse faded into obscurity right along with Market Street’s grandeur, but this 

Here's another short video of the Cliff House Sky Tram, in case you can't get enough of that. (Warning: awful music.)

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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