Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Steve Martin is a Cheap Date

By my very early twenties I had managed to make my way from the suburbs of San Francisco's East Bay, where I attended junior high and high school, to the city itself. I took up lodgings with a high school friend of mine in an apartment on Nob Hill. Nob Hill, at this point, had lost some of the gloss of it's glory days. Our building dated from the twenties. An old cage elevator transported residents from floor to floor. Our unit was on the first floor, up five or so feet above street level due to the buildings basement. Our front windows faced Bush Street. The clang of the cable car bells, located a half block away, gave a distinctively San Francisco air to this first of my San Francisco apartments. We had a decent sized living room, two decent sized bedrooms and a kitchen so tiny that were it not for the sink, small stove and mini refrigerator could have been mistaken for a closet.

We soon discovered we also had a large infestation of mice. Eventually the building management addressed this problem. We were grateful despite the inconvenience of finding their smelly, decaying bodies laying about. Even more unsettling was entering a room to find one splayed out in the middle of the floor taking it's last, pitiful gasps of air prior to it's demise. We spent quite a bit of time in those days sweeping them into a dustpan and throwing them away.

Union Square, with it's pigeons, world class stores and world class people watching was located nearby. Off of Union Square, on Geary Street, two of San Francisco's main theatres stood side by side. One, The Geary Theater, was owned by the American Conservatory Theatre. Known by the acronym A.C.T.  They presented their seasons of plays in repertory. A different play was performed each night. The house was large, with two balconies. Upper balcony seats were priced modestly enough that we could stroll down the street and decide to see that evening's performance on a whim. When the theatre company purchased that building they made several innovative changes to it's stage area. Following Elizabethan traditions the stage was thrust, built out beyond the proscenium arch. Orchestra seats were sacrificed to accomplish this. The stage was also raked, build on a slant so that the back of the stage was higher than the front to create better sight lines. All sets and props had to take the stages angle of elevation into account when being designed and built. In addition, the stage curtain was removed. The company decided that all set changes would become part of the action of the play, performed in full view of the audience. Set pieces flew up and down, platforms slid on and off from the wings. Due to the huge warehouses full of season after seasons worth of sets, props, wigs and costumes, these productions were often sumptuous visual experiences. The company also ran a theatre school. This allowed them to create crowd scenes onstage by using the students as unpaid extras. Their seasons consisted of Shakespeare, theatrical classics, rarely performed or obscure plays and on occasion new works in their initial stages of development. In short, soup to nuts. Early on, their use of full and partial nudity onstage, long before it became commonplace, was also controversial.

The Curran Theatre, located next door, played host to national tours. It was also a large house with both upper and lower balconies, albeit ticket prices somewhat steeper than it's neighbors. In those days touring shows would sit down in cities for four weeks or more allowing them to bring with them sets and casts similar in size and scope to their original Broadway productions. Also, a name star or two almost always appeared in the cast allowing me the opportunity to see several theatre legends perform over the years.

If you traveled down Bush Street from our apartment you would come across "The Boarding House", a tiny club, near iconic in it's day. PBS taped a series of concerts there called, appropriately, "Live From the Boarding House". One evening, having nothing in particular to do, I recalled seeing that Steve Martin was appearing there. I once heard him remark on a talk show that he considered "The Boarding House" the best nightclub in America. He was not the mega star he was to become soon thereafter. In that era, he could be seen on the occasional talk show or perhaps making a cameo appearance on Cher's Variety Show. His introduction that evening was "Now, direct from a rerun of the Tonight Show, Steve Martin. This absence of fame probably accounts for the cover charge of $3.50 we paid at the door, an amount he thanked us for several times over the course of his performance.

It was a weeknight and the crowd was small, less than 50 people. He began by doing his usual, now familiar routines from those early years. The arrow through his head, his divinely funny parody of a Las Vegas lounge performer and much silliness involving his beloved banjo. He eventually came off the stage. Moving to the rear of thee club he put a foot up on the seat of a chair and holding one of the large votive candles from one of the tables like a brandy snifter, began an insanely hilarious stream of consciousness rant. One of the employees of the club came up to him and informed him that the club was about to close. At this point he lead us to the sidewalk outside.

He hailed a cab, threw open the back door, looked at the crowd on the sidewalk and asked "How many people do you think we could fit in the back seat?" He dug through a garbage can muttering "I'm sure if I look hard enough I'll find money in here." This outdoor theatre of the absurd continued for 20 minutes until, thanking us once again for the $3.50 he ascended the steps to the doors of the club only to find them locked. He began to pound on the doors screaming "Let me in! All my stuff is in there!" An employee eventually opened the door for him and he disappeared inside.

We walked back to our apartment realizing that we had experienced something special. Years later, watching him host Saturday Night Live or the Oscars, I was thankful that, on that evening, I had nothing particular to do.



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  2. I enjoy reading your pieces because they communicate such a clear fondness for the times and places you describe.

    I saw SM when I was in college, probably not too distant in time from the experience you describe but by then he was filling concert halls and so the material and the resulting experience would have been far different than the intimacy of a club.

    Plagiarism warning. I often use the phrase; "She's an icon to our people" when discussing some fading diva or another who has a large gay following. I think I will be coopting the phrase "...near iconic 'her' in day."

  3. glad to read you! enjoyed the story of your early san francisco experience. i am moving up there next year and will begin my first san francisco experience, though i am sure it is a very different city now. nevertheless...

  4. Thank you for following. Happy to hear that you enjoy my posts regarding my early experiences in San Francisco. No doubt I will relate other tales from those days in this space in the future giving you an opportuninty to compare and contrast when you move. Best wishes!