Heart of the City Archives

Conservatory of Flowers.



Imagination: Your Key to the City
by Hank Donat

With the right attitude it's possible to manifest your own personal Golden Age. Your era of carefree times, adult ease, and sophistication might last only a few days. But with a plethora of extraordinary goings on, the San Franciscan may forget about the madness in Washington, the coup attempt in Sacramento, and the poverty in our streets long enough to hand himself a "Key to the City."

Over the past few weeks, the Dalai Lama, Howard Dean, Bill Clinton, and Lance Armstrong have all visited city. The Conservatory of Flowers rose from the rubble of a 1995 storm while billionaires Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli graced the bay with their America's Cup yachts. As if that weren't enough excitement, the Giants made the playoffs.

A reader emailed me with a memory of Dianne Feinstein presenting the Dalai Lama with the Key to the City on a previous visit by the Buddhist spiritual leader.

A review of records at the Main Library shows the key has been presented to hundreds of V.I.Ps over the decades. Recipients include Jack Benny, Gertrude Lawrence, Princess Ingrid of Denmark, Fannie Brice, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Ferdinand Marcos, Anwar Sadat, Tony Bennett, Sir Lionel Denny, H.R.H Princess Margaret, Lady Bird Johnson, Avery Brundage, and a long list of consul generals and visiting foreign ministers.

In 1933, Mayor Angelo Rossi presented a Key to the City to Guglielmelo Marconi, inventor of the wireless telegraph.

Silent film star Rudolph Valentino was given a spaniel named Filmo, but no key, by mayor Sunny Jim Rolph.

Bill Roddy, the former broadcaster who handled public affairs for Mayor Joe Alioto also keeps in touch via email.

Roddy writes, "It was one of my jobs to order the keys from Schlage in South San Francisco and to engrave them. Each key would be locked into the engraving machine. We inserted individual brass letters spelling the recipient's name into a slot above the key. Above the slot was a tracing stylus. We etched each letter back and forth. The engraving tool followed our movements on the key."

Roddy says Alioto welcomed so many visiting dignitaries that Roddy and his assistants were often rushing to grind a key while the guest was already in the mayor's office.

An interesting discovery in the Main Library's History Room is a collection of letters from people with enough cheek to ask for a Key to the City. Copies of polite refusals from the mayor's office are also among the letters. Though most of the requests came from students, tourists, and collectors, one stands out. That denied request came from a rock group you may have heard of - the Beatles.

Love on the line: The sweet smile of Belen Arbaiza has unlocked the heart of four-time cable car bell ringing champ Byron Cobb.

Arbaiza and Cobb, who were married last week in Seville, Spain, met while Cobb was operating the grip on a west-bound California Street cable car late one afternoon in December, 2000.

Their meeting was brisk, if not brusque. Cobb says, "She had headphones on and when I asked her what she was listening to she says, 'music,' and that was it - at first." But it was music of Spain, Arbaiza's native country, and that was enough to warm even the chill that whips up over California and Jones.

As Arbaiza commuted between home and music classes, the courtship continued over the click-clack of the cable, in the scent of the burning grip.

Arbaiza learned the nicknames that conductors have given the many homeless people familiar along the line. She knows when one of them stops appearing in a usual corner or doorway.

Arbaiza also absorbed the excited energy of the tourists on the car and the love locals have for the whims of the city street that unfurled before them each day.

Cobb and Arbaiza enjoyed romantic dinners at Firenze by Night and Michelangelo Cafe in North Beach. Cobb was enchanted by Arbaiza and by stories of Spain, a country he had always wanted to visit and where he would one day marry.

So goes the story of the beautiful Spanish music student and the handsome grip, San Francisco style.

In other great happenings, KQED celebrated Martin Scorsese's seven-part film series "The Blues," with an evening of panel discussion and performances by Bay Area blues greats at Civic Center's Herbst Theatre.

The Scorsese series is part of PBS's "Year of the Blues" programming and includes films by Scorsese, Wim Wenders, Mike Figgis, Clint Eastwood and others. The series debuts October 4 on KQED Sunday, September 28.

Panelists and performers at the Herbst event were vocalist Zakiya Hooker, slide guitarist Roy Rogers, San Francisco Blues Festival founder Tom Mazzolini, harmonica great Charlie Musselwhite, Arhooie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, KPOO favorite Big Bones, and legendary drummer Francis Clay.

Two teenagers from the Jazzschool in Berkeley, bassist Noah Garabedian, and drummer Hamir Atwal, held their own in a show-stopping set with Big Bones, Musslewhite and Rogers.

The Sept. 29 ground-breaking on a new campus for the San Francisco Conservatory of Music at 50 Oak Street will further the status of Civic Center as one of the world's great urban cultural centers.

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