June 16, 2010
Yesterday afternoon, I spent a wonderful hour or so at Frankie's (aka 21 Club). Frankie's is a dive bar in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco at the corner of Turk and Taylor Streets. Few tourists venture there. I was at Frankie's at the invitation of Elvin Padilla, Executive Director of the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, who encouraged me to pop in and meet some of the old-timers who work (or once worked) on the local arts and entertainment scene and have been coming to the bar for decades. Frankie's is considered to be home from home for many veteran stage hands, supper club owners, jazz musicians and the like. It's a great place with a vibe as warm as the beer.
While I was in the bar, Elvin introduced me to many people, whose names I can't all remember, though their characterful faces are clear in my mind.
I chatted with the owner of the currently-boarded-up Original Joe's restaurant, where I used to spend many an evening watching plays in the backroom theatre, eating plates of cheap and tasty spaghetti and drinking whiskey. She recalled the neighborhood in its pre-crack den days, when she would wander around as a girl and spend hours sitting on the floor of the local bookstore reading copies of the National Geographic.
I also spoke to a wonderful and slightly hard of hearing jazz saxophone player, named Bobby, and a lovely lady, Lou, who owned a club where Bobby played - until it too shut down. I met a union stage hand who told me about all the long-since-departed theatres in the neighborhood. Apparently many of them have been turned into Walgreens drugstores, though no one in the bar could really explain why Walgreens would be especially interested in old theatre buildings. ("Perhaps it's because they have a lot of space," my stage hand acquaintance suggested.)
Christina and Richard, who run the Exit Theatreplex were there -- the only two people I already knew. I also made the acquaintance of a man, Peter, who leads tours of the Tenderloin neighborhood. I hope to join Peter on one of his adventures someday soon.
And then there was Frankie himself, as amiable a barkeep as anyone could hope to be served a beer by. A courteous gentleman in a flat cap, Frankie has been pouring libations at his spot on the corner of Taylor and Turk for 38 years. Frankie looks very youthful for his age. He doesn't know why so many arts veterans gravitate to his bar. Carmela Gold, Exeutive Director of the Central YMCA and one of Elvin's board members at the Tenderloin Economic Development Project, whom I met while sipping Sierra Nevada ale at the bar, thinks that the amazing old jukebox is what keeps people coming back time and time again. I didn't hear any music coming from the machine and didn't get the chance to take a closer look at it, so who knows.
As Elvin and I walked over to the American Conservatory Theater so I could get there in time for a 7pm curtain (very sweet of him to be my chaperone) we chatted about the folks at Frankie's and the potential impact that a burgeoning arts scene might have on the currently disenfranchised neighborhood. Elvin is currently in talks with ACT and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre among other arts organizations about the possibility of opening facilities in the area. The idea is that if more arts organizations have a presence in the Tenderloin, the neighborhood will rejuvenate.
But plans seem to be moving at a snail's pace. Some of the folks I chatted with at Frankie's are planning on opening or re-opening their restaurants and music clubs in the coming months in the area. But will they actually be able to move ahead with their dreams or is this wishful thinking? Elvin is not sure. "They are hopeful and very optimistic," he said with a sigh as he dropped me off at the theatre and returned to the bar.
P.S. I've written so many negative articles and blog posts about ACT productions over the past five years or so that I can't quite muster up the strength to give the company another bashing for its colossal failure of a collaboration with the San Francisco Ballet, The Tosca Project. So I'll leave it at that.