Heart of the City Archives

Lotta's Fountain
Here's What's Shaking in Fog City
by Hank Donat

Celebrants at this year's early morning observance marking the anniversary of the April 18, 1906 Earthquake and Fire breathed a collective sigh of relief when survivors showed up to take their places on stage next to Lotta's Fountain. So few remain that survivors of the 1989 Loma Prieta quake are volunteering to serve as stand-ins.

Members of the Neighborhood Emergency Response Team (NERT) wearing bright orange reflective vests and hard hats served as ushers for those who survived the event that destroyed Old San Francisco, lovingly transporting them as if through time, from yesterday's calamity to today's world, where rescuers are heroes once again. For San Franciscans, the quake survivors are heroes, too, and a breed apart for their strength and character.

Janie Lee Chu, representing her mother, a 99-year old quake survivor also named Janie Lee Chu, was on hand to receive a proclamation read by Supervisor Leland Yee. The elder Chu watched the ceremony on television from a hospital where she's recovering from hip surgery. Chu's appearance was gutsy for a lot of reasons. Until quake survivor Bessie Shum (who died just weeks ago) came forward in 2001, the Chinese community didn't want anything to do with a service for the Earthquake. Memories are long, and many San Franciscans of Chinese descent have not forgotten that they were brought here to build railroads and when that was finished whites would have been happy to get rid of them. After the Earthquake, San Franciscans razed what was left of Chinatown and allowed the Chinese to return only after building them the Euro-American Chinatown we have now. Yes, Chinatown was Disney before Disney.

It's now known that while thousands of Chinese died during the Earthquake, they were not officially counted among the casualties. Many survived, but it wasn't until Shum's participation that the Chinese community was represented at the public ceremony and at attendant events such as the bay cruise and luncheon at John's Grill. While no men and only six women appeared at the 5 a.m. downtown ceremony, there were 23 survivors, including a number of men, at the John's Grill event. Don't make the mistake of assuming the sunrise no-shows were too frail to make it - most of them simply aren't morning people!

If you read the Examiner you already know about the moment of silence, that Mayor Willie Brown hung the ceremonial wreath, and so on. Here's the skinny on the mayor's kazoo performance of "San Francisco" with See's Candy honcho Chuck Huggins: At John's the night before, the crowd played the song on kazoos in sympathy with Merle Saunders, one of San Francisco's great musicians. Saunders was present but couldn't yet sing while recovering from an illness. The mayor and former top cop Richard Hongisto really got into the kazoo act. Later, at the Compass Rose, media man Lee Houskeeper bet Huggins he could get the mayor to reprise the kazoo playing in public. Houskeeper is due a case of wine, but I theorize that since Huggins and the mayor inexplicably blew - and I mean blew - the tune twice during the a.m. ceremony, Houskeeper might be entitled to two cases. Either way, if Brown and Huggins promise no further encores, we'll all win.

Organizer Taren Sapienza, a San Francisco institution in her own right, is once again congratulated for making the whole show happen. This important event is under-attended and under-appreciated, but it's likely that the whole world will turn out for the 100th anniversary celebration in 2006. Hang in there, Taren - only four more years.

Most years, local designer Kelly Niland and I make a morning of the quake observance by taking in the view from the roof of the Sutter-Stockton garage following the ceremony at Lotta's. The rooftop is a favorite spot among some San Franciscans who appreciate a unique cityscape in the middle of everything yet one with plenty of elbow room. Check it out sometime.

For the quintessential version of the anthem "San Francisco," rent the 1936 Clark Gable-Jeanette MacDonald movie of the same title. I will discuss the City in cinema on KRON-4's Saturday morning Daybreak program on May 11 with local film critic Jan Wahl.

Wahl loves San Francisco and she loves the movies, as we all know. It may surprise you, however, that the smart, self-made media personality is a lot tougher than she reveals in her bubbly TV segments. She's steadfast in the face of powerful Hollywood producers who grant access to their films' stars only to reporters who agree to softball interviews. Wahl asked Oscar-winner Gwenyth Paltrow if she felt any responsibility for making people feel crummy about themselves after Paltrow appeared in Shallow Hal, a movie that's a 113-minute fat joke. Paltrow said, "Well, it was a great part." That is not the kind of question that ingratiates today's entertainment journalists to Hollywood. Wahl, in true San Francisco fashion, likes to shake things up. Stay tuned. 

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