All grown up, a thirty-something Matt Roper revisits the San Francisco of childhood dreams, first inspired by the screwball comedy What’s Up Doc?
The great playwright Tennessee Williams once said of America that she had only three cities: “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland”.
New York is what it is and I think my life expectancy would be considerably reduced should I decide to settle in New Orleans, and yes San Francisco is absolutely the bomb – but anybody who knows anything about San Francisco will tell you that it’s the most expensive city in the United States these days, far surpassing New York City in terms of the costs of living. It’s a city with the heart ripped straight out of it by a booming tech economy and a rising homeless epidemic.
But San Francisco is still hanging on in there, as great places always do.
As a kid, and I’m talking as an eight year old or so, I obsessed over San Francisco as captured on celluloid in the 70s motion picture What’s Up Doc? – a sort of throwback to the Screwball comedies that soared to popularity among American cinema-goers in the Thirties, offering respite from the doldrum realities of the Great Depression. Screwball comedies are fast paced with farcical scenarios, ridiculously executed themes of escape and most importantly, with love winning the day during the final scenes.
What’s Up Doc? is the story of several identical bags showing up on the luggage carousel in the arrivals hall of San Francisco airport. One contains top secret documents, another a collection of priceless jewels, with another bag containing rocks belonging to a scientist. They’re all picked up bythe wrong people and so the chase to get them into the correct hands begins. You get the idea.
I’m not sure I understood everything that was going on in What’s Up Doc? as a kid but I remember enjoying all the stuff that goes haywire – a young, cocky Barbra Streisand leaving a trail of carnage behind her in every scene; Ryan O’Neal‘s life slowly falling apart while his tightly wound fiancée – played magnificently by Madeline Kahn – eventually loses the plot.
But my eight-year-old self was always waiting for the final sequence: a car chase that begins at the San Francisco Hilton hotel, where so much of the film takes place. It involves a Volkswagen Beetle, a chinese dragon, a taxicab, a limousine, an ice-cream cart, a chase around the hairpin-bends of Lombard Street and almost the entire cast bobbing up and down in the waters of San Francisco Bay for the glorious finish.
And so began my childlike idea of what San Francisco is, seen through the lens of director Peter Bogdanovich: a lovable, cartoonish, chaotic city built on endless hills beneath clear blue skies where Barbra Streisand – she’s the big sister who’d take you under her arm while she causes havoc and destruction at each turn with a knowing twinkle in her eye – possesses an ability to get away with murder.
San Francisco in What’s Up Doc? is not just the location of the film. It’s the total star of it.
I first visited San Francisco about five years ago, driving into the city in a rented RV and totally drunk with happiness on America itself. The Golden Gate Bridge didn’t let me down and Haight Ashbury was still there. Over in North Beach, City Lights Bookshop – best known for fearlessly publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems preceding a notorious obscenity trial – was still in operation, while just up the street Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, the Beat Museum and Caffè Trieste (said to be the first espresso coffeehouse on the West Coast) kept the neighbourhood in good business. Dive bars, needle hotels and Chinatown. The soft hum of the trams; the sound of the buskers; the smell of the Mission – a neighbourhood where rising middle-class gentrification literally alternates block-by-block with knife crime and street poverty.
Tennessee Williams is right. There are three cities in America, but there’s really only one of my childhood.
So I couldn’t help myself but head over to Mason Street to take a peek at the lobby of the San Francisco Hilton Hotel – on the same street the young Barbra Streisand causes a collision on, simply by crossing it.
No sign of her, Ryan O'Neal, or any missing identical bags. My eight-year-old self was sorely disappointed, while my thirty-six-year old self considered stealing a VW Beetle, driving it down the street, through a Chinese dragon, straight down some steps and right into the Bay.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings - a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
Follow Matt on social media: