In the early 1960s I bade fairwell to Reno and the University of Nevada and came to roost in a boarding house in San Francisco, known as the “Dair House” on Bush Street between Taylor and Mason – two blocks from Union Square.
Life was easy at Dair House; I paid them $115 a month and they gave me two good meals a day, a big breakfast on Sunday, clean sheets once a week, a sunny south room with a view to Sutter Street and free television (Andy Williams in Living Color!). For another $22 a month my Jeep got a parking spot at the new garage at Mason and O’Farrell Streets.
(Pictured above, Arthur Fiedler in the helmet and some clown named Klem Kadiddlehopper, looks a lot like Red Skelton…)
Early on in my tenure there I met the neighbor, who lived in the house across Bush Street. I’d noticed the house before; I had thought it was a fire station but had also noticed that the doors to the apparatus bays never opened, nor did any engines ever leave it.
It was a private residence, the home of San Francisco’s fire chief. Built to look like firehouse. Wowee.
Its occupants were Fire Chief William Murray and his wife Alida. Murray had been the chief for about ten years, and was one of the most respected and revered men ever to live in The City – by both the fire community and all its other residents. San Francisco loved its fire service, and Murray was the top kick. And he was a nice man besides, funny as a crutch!
Our nexus was my Jeep. The chief loved Jeeps, and our relationship jelled when I lent it to him to take Mrs. Murray around the block one afternoon. They were gone over an hour and I heard later they hit a considerable number of fire stations, showing it off to the boys!
One weekend morning I was washing it and he came out the door. “Karl, do you know who Arthur Fiedler is?”
“DO I KNOW WHO ARTHUR FIEDLER IS?”
Arthur Fiedler was the larger-than-life conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, probably the nation’s finest. Immensely popular in the music world… I had a couple of his albums – my favorite was a classic on RCA Red-Seal called Concert in the Park – the park being the Pop’s home facility in Tanglewood, outside of Boston. Still have it 50 years later – my friend Deidre McCormick recently transferred it onto a CD. Fiedler was a legend…
I responded to the chief in the affirmative, the chief saying “Fiedler’s coming to town for the Pops summer season and staying with us – you want to meet him, be here at 10 a.m. next Saturday.”
Next Saturday I was indeed outside on Bush Street when a SF Fire Department hook-and-ladder came over the crest of the hill across Taylor Street (Bush is a one-way street down a pretty good grade toward the Ferry Building). No siren. In a jumpseat next to the tillerman was seated, Arthur Fiedler.
For the uninitiated, Arthur Fiedler was known as a fire-department junkie, who made friends with the fire service in every town he visited. No less than Herb Caen, writing in the Chronicle, once wrote that “Every time Fiedler comes to town [for the annual Pops concerts], something goes up in smoke!” He was followed by a car with his luggage, and staying with the Murrays for this, the summer concert rehearsal and S. F. Pops Stern Grove Summer Concert, toughest ticket in The City.
Sigmund Stern Grove is a beautiful tree-lined concert venue about a block square, out 19th Avenue on Sloat Boulevard toward the SF Zoo. To that shady grove each summer, the SF Pops orchestra and about 5,000 of their fans would congregate to be seated at tables with red-checkered-tablecloths and mimeographed (remember those?) music lyrics and the program, BYO picnic basket lunch and wine. Fiedler would hold forth for two-and-a-half hours of the greatest music in the world – classics, modern, and even the Beatles.
“You wanna go to the concert, Karl? We’ll leave from here, next Sunday morning.” I jumped at the invitation. And the following Sunday morning, a hook-and-ladder came over the Taylor Street bluff and we hopped in…out 19th Avenue we went and turned into the grove off Sloat Boulevard.
The hour came for the concert – Fiedler, resplendent in a white morning coat with tails, his silver mane tumbling over his collar, strode onto the music pavilion of Stern Grove, as he had done before on half-a-dozen summer days before. The crowd knew they were in for a treat. As is custom, he shook the hand of the first violin – the San Francisco Pops Orchestra’s captain. He raised the baton, and mesmerized the Grove’s denizens for two hours – Aaron Copeland, the Gershwins, Sibelius – their Rhapsody in Blue brought tears to all our peepers. Most of the repertoire was taken from composers still among us.
And then – the moment that all awaited. Five thousand people in Stern Grove knew it was coming, marked by the seven introductory notes of “Ta-ra-ra-boom-dee-yay.” Now I know that younger column readers, if such there be, never heard of Aaron Copeland, Arthur Fiedler or probably Karl Breckenridge and think I must be daft, but all knew that the concert would end with Fiedler’s signature “Song Fest.” One of the greatest thrills I’ve ever known was hearing five thousand voices – the strong, the soft, the young and those older – lifting their voices in unison, almost, to the music they’d waited a year to hear, and many who had played every stunt in the world to gain admission to Stern Grove, where the tickets were free but “sold” out almost a year ago. One could probably hear us to Stonestown.
Some used the lyrics sheets available on each table, but most had grown up with the tunes and averred the sheets, singing from memory – “Sweet Adeline”…”Bicycle Built for Two”… “Tavern in the Town” …. “Mandy” … and a half-hour’s worth of such old barbershop tunes – for some reason, the Cal fight song was quite popular. A couple tunes came from “The Music Man” which was newly on Broadway… a couple more from Rodgers & Hammerstein, then “You’ll never walk alone” and “Sunrise, Sunset” became instant favorites new to the Song Fest perennial collection.
The music ended, but no one moved for a while, content to enjoy the shade and finish their wine. I rejoined the Fiedler party, which was actually about a dozen people. Most boarded large sedans for the trip back to their host hotel – the St. Francis, as I recall. Dr. Fiedler and I roughed it, he again in his white helmet, catching a fire truck, for this trip a “triple,” not the aerial we rode out to Stern Grove.
I was amused to see the firemen on that apparatus snap to at the sight of the white fire helmet, emblematic the world around of a fire chief. Fiedler’s had “SFFD” and “Fiedler” on the crown, proof that he didn’t just find it lying around!
Inbound on 19th Avenue we traveled, with the flow of the heavy traffic – no drama from the siren or red lights – just a few of the guys out for a Sunday ride (in the patois of San Franciscans, “inbound” is travel toward the Ferry Building……).
We arrived at our respective homes on Bush Street, and disembarked the LaFrance. I thanked Fiedler and Chief Murray profusely, and crossed Bush Street to my basement room in Dair House – kicked off my shoes and flopped down on the bed.
“Did all this really happen to me…?”
photo chief residence © Art & Architecture magazine
text © Karl Breckenridge
Fiedler and Skelton – who knows?!