There are many forms of entertainment here in San Francisco. And those shows, those theaters sanctioned by officialdom, are not the end of the story.
Much goes on here, in fact, below any level of official recognition.
There are, of course, the above-ground entertainments which the city allows and endorses. Anything advertised on the scrolling signs at a B.A.R.T. station, well moneyed and non-controversial, is an example. Greater Tuna, that sort of thing. Or the apparently immortal, unkillable, Beach Blanket Babylon.
But S.F. is home to numerous artists and performers who go ahead, doggedly putting on shows despite the most rigorous interference from the city government.
Despite the life-or-death struggle even to continue to exist in a place where the Real Estate lobby enforces hyper-inflated rents and controls the one remaining daily newspaper (the Chronicle), and most of the city officials from the Mayor on down, there are still those who risk everything to present shows and entertainments.
I’m not exaggerating the depth of the opposition to spontaneous free expression of that kind.
For years, local authorities, together with agents of California’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) have done what they could to put enough pressure against performers and impressarios to force them to shut down.
Cops have invaded various venues, thrown their weight around, siezed equipment and tossed those who offered even a hint of objection in jail.
To put on a sanctioned show, if you don’t submit a request for a permit two months in advance, pay a $2,000.00 “fee” and other forms of baksheesh (and that’s just the beginning) your goose is cooked. You are a gone gosling.
Either you just throw up your hands and decide to be illegal, or you step into the maze of permits, insurance, rent-a-cops, and even mandated rented parking spaces (at $160 a pop), among other significant hurdles.
For years, those of us who have been entertainers on this level have done our best to push back against what we call the War on Fun (Check out the ongoing web site at //www.stopthewaronfun.org/ for links to the latest developments).
It’s not easy. But the impulse to create popular entertainment is hard to suppress. Creativity still operates, even under repression– because this is part of human nature.
If one knows where to look, one may find the expression of art as performance even in the open, apparently beneath the notice of the gimlet-eyed enforcers.
In S.F.’s Mission District, at the B.A.R.T. station at 16th and Mission, something takes place on certain late Thursday nights that despite the lack of money changing hands, “the Man” has so far not attempted to suppress.
As the latter part of the night opens and the trains begin to stop running, a varied crowd quietly assembles at the plaza above the station.
Homeless people, students, Mission street people, counter-culturists and local artists surreptitiously gather. Somebody has chalk, and begins to draw elaborately on the pavement.
In one spot, a large circle is drawn. Then it begins.
Ranters, rappers, street poets and anyone who comes along take their turn, one by one, within the circle. The sitting crowd is relatively respectful and attentive.
Blowhards and drunks are sometimes seen, but the crowd chants them down if they overstay within the charmed space.
A California poet, a recent co-ordinator of the four-day Marin Poetry Festival, which counted among its performers Robert Haas, Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. Poet Laureate (1995-1997) and winner of the National Book Award for 2007, has recited in the circle. Others have come right off the street. Language and poetry have a living existence there.
At length, the gathering ends, and city workers begin their nightly cleaning of the B.A.R.T. station plaza. With hoses they wet down the bricks, washing away the chalk circle.
The performers go their separate ways– until the next such Thursday night.
There is hope.
Hal Robins is a renowned underground comic artist and his work has appeared in Last Gasp’s Weirdo, Salon Magazine’s Dark Hotel and many other publications. For decades he has been the co-host of KPFA-Pacifica Radio’s “Puzzling Evidence” program. Reverend Hal is the Master of Church Secrets for The Church of the SubGenius. As Dr. Howland Owll, he has served as MC for many unique San Francisco events, and is the principle of The Ask Dr. Hal Show, still currently running both as a live staged event and in-studio on Radio Valencia (radiovalencia.fm) Friday evenings. Hal contributed his unique vocal talents to the award-winning interactive game Half-Life.