Garrison Keillor: We're in San Francisco, a city where they don't expect you to agree with them, not even about restaurants. A city where everybody is in the minority. About 33% Asian, 14% Hispanic, 7% African American. Almost half the people of SF live in a house where a language other than English is spoken at least sometimes, if only by parents to keep children from knowing what they shouldn't know. A city of romance and the romance is from the Twenties and Thirties, before the bridges were built, when 50,000 people came into the city every day on ferryboats, the city of Sam Spade. The Ferry Building went into decline when the ferries stopped but after the earthquake of 1989 the city started redeveloping the waterfront and the ferries came back a little bit and three years ago the restored Ferry Building was reopened with restaurants and shops and food stalls and the farmer's market.
It's dramatic coming here. You fly in and come up the Bay, low over the water, mountains to your left, and you drive in on Interstate 80, a steep climb from Donner Pass and then a long descent through rice paddies and Sacramento and a bridge over a waterway and cargo ships below and then the Bay Bridge, a great steel structure, with a replacement bridge, concrete, alongside, and the famous skyline across the water, the hills, and some pastel buildings that say Mediterranean, and the Golden Gate, a web in the distance, and the notch in the ridge that its set into, and you move in a river of traffic, shoulder to shoulder, and get off at Mission, and drop down into the city, and everybody seems to know where they're going except you don't, and then you see the sign Van Ness, and you're here, at the Opera House.
Opera in San Francisco goes back to the early days. The men who got rich in the Gold Rush wanted to go to the opera, a good place to see and be seen, and it seemed more relevant to them than, say, the music of Bach. The Gold Rush was nothing if not violent and dramatic --sudden wealth and power, fabulous mansions, an early death. They came out for the soprano Anna Bishop who had run away from her husband, the man who composed "Home Sweet Home" and run off with her manager, and for an opera singer embroiled in a scandal, S.F. was a wonderful place to go. Nobody mentioned her interesting marital history, they just loved how she sang Verdi. There was some controversy whether prostitutes should be allowed to come to the opera, but in the end the Metropolitan Theater set aside a special box for them so they couldn't be seen by the customers in the orchestra and balcony, which satisfied the decent people, and also meant that gentlemen would be able to find the ladies more easily.
We're in the War Memorial Opera House, a palace that opened in 1932, a granite and terra cotta beauty, with high windows with keystones with lion's head carved into them, lions with sharp teeth,
Across a courtyard surrounded by a cast iron fence is the San Francisco War Memorial, a courtyard that is medieval looking with trimmed hedges and knobby old trees. The War Memorial Building is where the United Nations charter was signed in 1945, and also the peace treaty with Japan after World War II.
Across Van Ness is City Hall, with its gold trimmed dome, slightly higher than the dome of the United States Capitol in Washington. Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe were married there in 1954, and more recently a lot of men, and a lot of women couples, a matter which is now in the courts, just as Joe and Marilyn's was eventually.
These three monumental buildings were all designed by Arthur Brown Jr, and they're flanked by a State of California office building to the north and the new Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall to the south; both handsome contemporary buildings with curved facades, bold, holding their own with the classic old ones, and the Civic Center Plaza beyond, and a statue of a lawyer named Hall McAllister, "Learned, Able, Eloquent - A Fearless Advocate - A Courteous Foe." The Civic Center Plaza beyond, and the Supreme Court of California and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium; and the old Library, now the Asian Arts Museum, and a number of other government office buildings, all of them pretty good looking, and some homeless people sleeping on the grass under blankets, bikes nearby, and a dog. They may have been homeless, I didn't wake them up to ask. It's not what you think of when you think of San Francisco. Not many old hippies down here, or Victorian houses, or coffeehouses. Good to have solid things in a time of change.
The San Francisco 49ers, wanting to leave the city and move to the Silicon Valley, the Oakland A's wanting to leave Oakland and move to the suburbs, both of them because their stadiums are too old and don't have enough skyboxes and sports bars and WiFi and reclining seats and other amenities, but here sits the opera house and there's City Hall and some things don't change. And there are men and women who are learned, able and eloquent, fearless advocates, courteous foes.