Category Archives: Millbrae

The Rise and Demise of Drive-In Movies

Among the many examples of disappearing Baby Boomer culture, few stand out as obvious as the demise of drive-in movie theaters. Once an important component of the film industry, and a popular choice for family fun and teenage hijinks, drive-ins have almost vanished from our landscape. Unlike hula-hoops or 8-track tape players, drive-ins were neither a short lived fad nor a piece of technology that quickly became outdated…drive-ins were around before most of us were, and lasted well into our adulthood. Although they are practically gone, they did leave all of us with plenty of personal memories, and maybe even with a sense of loss.

The advent of the drive-in movie theater goes back to 1932 when Richard Hollingshead came up with an idea which would combine American’s love of movies with their love of cars. Working out of his backyard, Hollingshead, nailing a white bedsheet to a tree and placing a Kodak film projector on the hood of his car, came up with the prototype from which he would create the first outdoor movie theater. On June 6, 1933 in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, America’s first drive-in theater opened for business. With room for 400 cars, a snack bar and a 30-foot high, 40-foot wide screen, customers paid 25 cents to see “Wives Beware.” That night, an industry was born.

It wasn’t long before a few more drive-ins began popping up around the country, including California, where in Los Angeles, the first drive-in in the state, the Pico, opened its gates in September of 1934. The original appeal of the drive-in theater was the idea of families being able to bring crying babies and noisy children to a film without bothering other patrons, in addition to saving the cost of a babysitter. But it wasn’t long before young adults and teenagers realized that being legally parked at a drive-in provided enough privacy for all kinds of human interaction. Soon, drive-in movie theaters became known as “passion pits,” and were the bane of concerned parents throughout the land.

It was during the late 1940’s, during the first wave of Baby Boomer births, that the concept of drive-in movie theaters really began to catch on. Families started fleeing to the suburbs, where land was cheap and plentiful. Soon, cow pastures, corn fields and apple orchards were being converted into drive-ins, holding anywhere from 500 to 2,000 autos. From 1946 to the end of the decade, the number of drive-ins grew from roughly 100 to 1,000. The first drive-in built in San Mateo County was Palo Alto’s Peninsula Drive-In, which was completed in 1947, followed by Belmont’s Starlite, which opened the following year. Within a few years, the Peninsula was home to about a dozen drive-in theaters, including the El Rancho (Daly City), the Redwood (Redwood City), the Spruce (South San Francisco) and the Mission (Colma).

As a business model, drive-ins had a few inherent problems. First, they could only operate after dark, which meant many hours of daytime downtime. Some locations solved this by using the drive-in lots for swap-meets and flea-markets. Another problem was unpaid admissions, as many young film lovers became proficient at performing the circus clown car routine, and would stuff kids below the backseat and in the trunk in numbers far exceeding the suggested capacity. And, of course, there was the problem of having a screen big enough to be seen well beyond to confines of the theater. My friend John Arnolfo tells me that his dad found a street in Daly City that provided an ample view of the El Rancho Drive-In’s screen, and was able to provide free, if silent, movies for his family. Ken Nichols had a friend whose Belmont house was only a block away from the Starlite, and enjoyed films for years without having to go any further than his backyard. Then there was Scott Anderson who late at night would ride his bike a mile to his local drive-in, hop the fence, and nestle up to a speaker with a sleeping bag…hey, where there’s a will.

drive-inMy first drive-in movie experiences came during the late 1950’s at the El Rancho, which the Daley family considered the “Rolls Royce” of the Peninsula drive-ins. Usually attending a double-feature, our parents would have us dress in our pajamas, in a pathetic act of hope that we would fall asleep at some point…fat chance of that when there was always the possibility of popcorn, candy or soda to be had. Sitting in the back of our station wagon was a big minus for me, not because of the poor movie viewing from there, but because of the infrequency of any treats being passed to that part of the car.

A real game changer occurred in 1965 when the Burlingame Drive-In opened in the area between the 101 freeway and Airport Blvd. Complete with two giant screens, 1500 parking spaces and space-age themed architecture, the Burlingame became the “go to” drive-in for many years. Although I was over the age of 12 by then, my parents still insisted that I wear pajamas in order to convince ticket-takers that I still qualified for the child rate. It was at the Burlingame that I finally was old enough to take a girl to a drive-in, but any chance of romance was short circuited when my date, Mindy Shumway, fell asleep during the film “Airport.” At least I saved money on popcorn.

But by the 1970’s, the drive-in boom started to recede. Drive-ins were now getting competition from home entertainment choices including cable television and VCR’s. Some drive-ins tried to stem the tide by offering specific genres like horror movies or biker films. The Burlingame Drive-In experimented with soft-porn in the late 1970’s, but it became a problem, as the screens could be seen from the freeway, which was an obvious distraction.

Soon, the real estate occupied by drive-ins became too valuable for a dying industry, and during the last decade of the 20th Century, drive-in movie theaters began closing all over the countryside. In more than a few cases, the big screens would stay intact for many months, fittingly resembling giant tombstones scattered across the landscape. In 1959, considered the peak of the drive-in movie craze, there were over 5,000 of them in the United States, representing 25% of the entire movie theater business. By 2013, drive-in movie theaters accounted for about 1% of the country’s movie screens, with less than 400 in operation.

In 2003, the Burlingame Drive-In shut its gates for the last time. Although I had not been there for many years, I had never got over the habit of checking the Burlingame’s billboard as I drove by, to see what was playing, or trying to make out what was on the screen as I went by at night. Would I still attend drive-in movies if they were available? I doesn’t matter, I miss them anyway.

 

Note: The first drive-in theaters relied on outdoor speakers to provide the sound for the assembled automobiles…The individual speakers with volume control knobs were developed by RCA, and became available in 1941.

Preserving Our (Bad) Music

When it comes to the highest levels of mankind’s artistic creativity, it’s a wonderful fact that much of it has, and will continue to survive virtually forever. The plays of Shakespeare, the music of Mozart, the paintings of Rembrandt and the writings of Homer have already been enjoyed for hundreds of years, while 20th Century technology as added great cinema and high quality recording, allowing performances of Charley Chaplin and the Beatles to live on through eternity. With museums, libraries, film collections, and now the internet seemingly preserving everything that happens, I still wonder if parts of our history will fall through the cracks.

I’m not worried about the obvious things…every big rock concert, significant sports moment and important political event will find its way to You Tube moments after it happens. My concern revolves around Baby Boomer street culture, which includes games, catch phrases, jokes, and silly songs that we all learned and passed along to each other, without the benefit of social media…a “knock-knock” joke was considered as gone viral when, after originating with 6th graders, had begun being repeated in the 2nd and 3rd grade section of the schoolyard. My fear is that if many of our experiences that currently reside exclusively in our collective memory are not cataloged soon, much of them will die with us. Yes, there are internet sites that have complied almost every joke we ever told, and games like “Hide and Seek” have their own Wikpedia pages explaining the rules, but what about the music? Who is preserving some of the bad music we grew up with?

Now, when I say music, I’m not talking about popular music, rock & roll, classical, or even TV show themes, commercial jingles, or anything that has actually been recorded. I’m referring to the song parodies that we learned as kids, whose origins and authorship were almost always unknown. Most of these ditties would be adaptations of well-known American songs, with new lyrics that could be clever, naughty, subversive, and sometimes even funny. Although song parodies have been composed for centuries by many different cultures, it’s my biased belief that the 1950’s and ‘60’s represented a golden age for the genre.

meadows-0

My first introduction to the phenomenon came at age six when an older neighbor of mine, after humming the “Marines Hymn,” started singing out lyrics that went something like this:

“From the Halls of Millbrae Meadows School

To the shores of Frisco Bay

We will fight our teacher battles

With spitballs, mud and clay

We will fight for the right and freedom

To keep our desks a mess

I will gladly claim the title

Of the teacher’s biggest pest”

I was very impressed by this obvious masterpiece, especially when assuming that the young man had written the song himself, an assumption that he was not exactly eager to disclaim. When I later tried to recite the tune to my older sisters, they seemed to already be familiar with it, and, in fact had heard it years before. It also became clear that the song included interchangeable locales, as Kathy and Elaine’s version mentioned Green Hills School, which was where they attended grammar school prior to Meadows being built. As to not make the moment a total waste, Elaine taught me the song which, during my early years, served as the logical companion piece to the reworked “Marines Hymn,” the now classic “Burning of the school,” inspired by the classic “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

“My eyes have seen the glory of the burning of the school

We have tortured every teacher

We have broken every rule

We have thrown Mr. Cowen (Meadows principal) out the back door

There is no school no more

Glory, glory hallelujah

Teacher hit me with a ruler

I hit her on the butt

With a rotten coconut

There is no school no more”

As you can see, the first two schoolyard songs I learned had identical themes, that being the childhood pipedream of a grammar school student revolt, a fantasy we all knew would never happen, and, in fact, probably never really wished  would. As time moved on, I began to notice that many of the song parodies I was taught fell into a handful of categories. Along with tunes that ridiculed school were those that lampooned holidays (mostly Christmas), poked fun at TV show themes and totally disrespected any product that happened to be advertised on television. I have to conclude that learning and singing these songs were some kind of rite of passage, demonstrating to others that we had not completely bought in to the culture that being delivered to us on a regular basis…or we just thought they were funny.

Television show themes were a frequent target for mischief, and since the melody of the music was usually already familiar to most of us, learning a parody became simple. The first such song I recall hearing was a direct insult to the first TV show I remember watching…

“It’s Howdy Doody Time

It’s not worth a dime

So turn on Channel 9

And watch Frankenstein”

I’m guessing that song was composed when “Howdy Doody” was still in production, but when I first heard it, watching it was no longer an option, and besides, Channel 9 in my HowdyDoody4area was a PBS station, which was not likely to air “Frankenstein” or any of its sequels. But even though the song didn’t make complete sense to me, I enjoyed it anyway, and would sing it constantly. As time went on, other TV themes received similar treatment, as evidenced by this send up of the “Addams Family” song…

“The Addams Family started

When Uncle Fester farted

They all became retarded

The Addams Family”

As you can see, some genius somewhere along the way realized that “farted” and “retarded” rhymed, and couldn’t wait to include his discovery in a song.  How lucky we are he did. But while most of us 61WDYnIstKLprobably still remember the “Addams Family” tune 50 years after it originally aired, not all TV programs have stood the test of time.  Almost 50 years ago, Chuck Connors, of “Rifleman” fame, starred in another western, titled “Branded,” which told the story of Jason McCord, a cavalry officer unjustly accused of being a coward during the 19th Century Indian wars. Although “Branded” was short-lived, one of its contributions to Baby Boomer culture was this clever version of its theme, which I reprint here as a public service…

“Stranded

Sitting on the toilet bowl

What do you do when you’re stranded?

And you don’t have a roll

To prove you’re a man

You must use your hand

Stranded”

Since the parody’s lyrics have nothing to do with the premise of “Branded,” and with the melody of the song no longer in the mainstream, I’m afraid “Stranded” has lost much of its impact, although some might say it stands on its own merit. (I don’t know who those “some” might be, but you might want to stay away from those people.)

The first Christmas song I ever learned was “Jingle Bells.”  The second one was also “Jingle Bells,” only with a slightly different words…

“Jingle Bells

Santa smells

Easter’s on its way

Oh what fun it is to ride

In a beat-up Chevrolet…hey”

After that, I heard many other holiday offerings based on “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the 29403_XXX_v1Snowman,” and a few with a slightly more religious bent, guaranteed to offend the more serious among us. But while making fun of Christmas might push the levels of decency, I don’t anyone who ever objected to making Madison Avenue the subject of musical satire. Possibly the first commercial jingle I remember hearing was for Bosco, the syrup used to make a chocolate drink when added to milk. Although I’ve long forgotten the Bosco song sung on television, I have no problem reciting the alternative version…

“I love Bosco

It’s made with TNT

Mommy put some in my milk

To try to poison me

But I fooled Mommy

I put some in her tea

And now I have no Mommy

To try to poison me”

There were also songs about Ajax and Comet, both sang to the tune of the “Colonel Bogey March” (Which was the whistled theme heard in “Bridge on the River Kwai”), songs based on the Oscar Meyer jingle and a brilliant ditty based on McDonald’s former campaign slogan/song, “Your kind of Place”…

“McDonald’s is your kind of place

They serve you rattlesnakes

They throw then in your face

And there is no parking space

Next time you go in there

They’ll serve you underwear

McDonald’s is your kind of place”

It’s interesting that some classic Baby Boomer parodies ended up more famous than the songs they were based on. How many of us actually know the words to “The Old Gray Mare,” a 150 year old American folk classic? Probably only a fraction of those that know of the song it inspired, possibly the granddaddy of all Baby Boomer tunes….

“Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts

Mutilated monkey meat

Little dirty birdy feet

Great green gobs of greasy, grimy gopher guts

And me without a spoon”

Besides being composed by anonymous songwriters, all of these Baby Boomer favorites have one other thing in common. I’ve never heard any of them performed in any way that could be called a professional manner. Instead of acapella versions of these songs sung by no-talent neighbors and school mates, I would love to have the chance to hear some of these tunes performed and recorded utilizing full instrumental accompaniment, complex arrangements, complete with the best background singers in the industry. With the help of government subsidies, I’m thinking people like Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, the Las Vegas cast of “Jersey Boys,” and the Mormon Tabernacles Choir could be hired to finally do what should have been a long time ago….Save our music.

Remembering the Brick ‘o Gold

At some point during our formative years, we learn the unsettling truth that nothing is going to last forever, and some things won’t even make it through a decent portion of our own lives. The best athletes get old, our favorite TV shows go off the air, and even the world’s most successful rock and roll band can split up. For me, the harsh revelation that all of my surroundings were temporary came 49 years ago when I found out that the Brick ‘o Gold, my most vital downtown Millbrae business, was shutting its doors forever. The news of the Brick’s closing came as a shock not only to me, but to almost anyone who had grown up in Millbrae during the 1950’s or ‘60’s. The Brick ‘o Gold was more than just small convenience store…for kids like me, unlike Safeway, the Ritz Shop, Hillcrest Pharmacy or Belvini Shoes, the Brick was ours.

Established sometime in the late 1940’s, the Brick ‘o Gold was what we would now call a hybrid…part small grocery store, part coffee shop, part soda fountain. Located at 441 Broadway, the Brick was crammed between Millbrae Stationery and Highland Liquors. Overseeing the enterprise was a man named Howard Cobb, a middle-aged fellow with thinning hair, always dressed in a white apron. One of Howard’s most distinguishing physical features was his pale skin color, likely a result of him rarely leaving the place during its 7am to 10pm daily hours. Howard’s devotion to his position as the Brick’s proprietor was legendary, as his consecutive days behind the counter was probably longer than the combined streaks of Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken. When a 1961 rainstorm knocked out Millbrae’s electricity, Howard Cobb stayed at his familiar post, operating the Brick by candlelight.

Although the Brick ‘o Gold sold milk, butter, eggs and most of the other basic food items, in addition to offering a small lunch menu, the real magnet for kids was the Brick’s impressive candy selection. A 10 foot by 6 foot shelf with six layers was home to the largest assortment of gum, chocolate bars, licorice sticks and all-day suckers ever assembled in Millbrae, before or since. Alongside the big name candy novelties produced by Hershey, Mars and Nestle were some of the more exotic items like “Atomic Fireballs,” “Jawbreakers,” “Red Hots,” and “Boston Baked Beans.” Most selections were available for a nickel, but there was also plenty of penny candy that could be had even cheaper. Since the Millbrae Theater sold much of the same merchandise at double the cost, no kid in his right mind would go to a Kiddie Matinee without stopping at the Brick ‘o Gold first. If Howard had also sold popcorn, the Millbrae Theater’s profit margin would have crumbled.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that if I were sent 50 years back in time, I could still easily navigate my way around the Brick ‘o Gold…blindfolded. When entering the Brick, there was a 40 foot long aisle, between two shelves of groceries that led to the epicenter of the store. There, on your left would be the counter that held two cash registers, on the right would be the candy shelf, behind which stood the ice cream freezer. Continuing a bit further, on the left was the lunch counter, which held five stools. Additional seating could be found in the right-hand corner of the Brick, as past the candy counter were a couple of booths, usually the territory of older boys, off limits to the younger lads. The space behind the cash register and lunch counter functioned as one big work station for Howard, as he effortlessly bounced between preparing and serving foot-long hot dogs and ringing up candy and grocery purchases. Howard was not a one man band, as he did have help in the person of a gal named Nell, who, much to our continuous annoyance, would charge us sales tax on every transaction, something Howard never did. While sitting at the counter, one could see various fountain drink dispensers lined up against the wall. In addition to Coke and 7up was something called a “Millbrae Bomb” and another labeled “Dragon-Fly.” I never tried either one, but I did ask for cherry syrup in my Coke, and felt pretty cool in doing so. Throughout the Brick were handmade signs, assumingly written by Howard himself, which would advise us to any specials available that day. I remember seeing a tray of day old donuts, that were accompanied by a sign, “Today’s Bargain…Donuts 2 for 5 Cents.” The next day, the sign was updated, “Yesterday’s bargain, today’s special…Donuts 2 for 5 cents.” That sign, along with the donuts, stayed there for years (hopefully not the same donuts).

Unfortunately, there was a bit of a dark side to the Brick ‘o Gold experience. For some youngsters, the Brick was the setting for their first, and hopefully only foray into the world of crime. As reasonably priced the Brick’s candy was, there were those among us that couldn’t resist taking advantage of the lax security standards of the store, and would slip a Milky Way into their pockets while Howard was busy slicing a tomato. Copping merchandise from the Brick was considered a rite of passage in Millbrae, often done on a dare. It pains me to confess that I’m not exactly approaching this issue with clean hands, although my one offense was not premeditated. One afternoon, I was at the Brick’s candy counter, in the middle of making that day’s selections when Howard complained that my bicycle was blocking the front door, and ordered me outside to move it. When I got to my bike, I realized I was holding a Look Bar, a Big Hunk and box of Milk Duds. I jumped on my bicycle, and just kept riding…Jesse James never made an easier escape. But that ended my life as a shoplifter…unlike Butch Cassidy, I quit while I was ahead.

Like most other kids, my visits to the Brick ‘o Gold came during summer days, weekends or after school. One day, in a flash of out of the box thinking, I decided to ride my bike downtown before school, and bring back a bag of Brick candy prior to the first period bell. Arriving at the Brick minutes after its 7am opening, I witnessed a side of the Brick that I never knew existed. The place was full of policemen, postal workers, firemen and cab drivers all enjoying a hearty breakfast, while Howard Cobb, obviously in his element, was joyfully “slinging hash” behind the counter. It was the only time I felt out of place at the Brick.

In early 1965, Millbrae went through a construction boom that included a brand new complex of commercial enterprises on the 500 block of Broadway. Suddenly, most of the businesses in the older downtown area had freshly minted counterparts to contend with. But despite the appearance of Britts, Walgreens, Millbrae Square Delicatessen and Baskin Robins, it was generally felt that the Brick ‘o Gold’s business model was still unique enough to withstand the competition. So it came as an unpleasant surprise in September of 1965 when the word spread the Brick would be shutting down at the end of the month. Not wanting to believe it, I immediately ran downtown to find out for myself, only to have the news confirmed in the Brick’s front window, courtesy of one of Howard’s handwritten signs. The next couple of weeks were almost surreal, as Howard simply opened his doors each day, and allowed his inventory to dwindle down to almost nothing. Seeing the empty shelves and the bare walls was almost too much for me to take, but I still went there every day, almost like I was attending a never ending funeral. I wasn’t alone in my grief. One of my best friends made a huge score, buying an entire cardboard box of Double Bubble for pennies on the dollar, only to find himself unwilling to chew up any of the gum…he realized he had purchased a priceless souvenir, and instead kept the entire box intact for many years. As the month came to an end, the Brick ‘o Gold’s lights were shut off, and an era quietly came to a close.

I never learned why the Brick closed, although I heard plenty of rumors. Some said that the Board of Health shut Howard Cobb down due to unsanitary conditions, while others said his appliances and electrical systems were not up to code, and Howard could not afford the mandatory upgrades. There was speculation of rental increases and decreasing revenue, and even talk of some embezzlement on the part of Nell…but whatever the reason, it really didn’t matter. The Brick was gone, and so was Howard Cobb. Where Howard went, I never knew for sure. I was told he went on to become a milkman, which would have been just his luck to latch on to another dying occupation. The last known sighting of him was at Belivini Shoes, where Howard was seen buying a pair of cowboy boots, which at least suggests that he was finally spending some time outdoors.

For me personally, the timing of the Brick’s demise was somewhat symbolic. I had just entered Taylor Junior High, marking the official end to my childhood. Like Little League and Cub Scouts, the Brick ‘o Gold was a boyhood touchstone, and it’s almost fitting that I could no longer return there.

A few weeks after the Brick vacated the premises, Round Table Pizza took over the location, and to its everlasting credit, is still there. But during its early days, I wonder if anyone ever went in there and tried to order a “Millbrae Bomb”?

The Legend of Millbrae’s Ice Cream Lady

As one who spent his formative years in Millbrae, I have fond recall of many places that, since my childhood, have either undergone much change, or have disappeared completely. In the case of defunct shops and businesses, the street numbers and buildings still remain, occupied by someone or something that has no relation to what it once was. But there is one enterprise that left without a trace about a half-century ago. Although no physical evidence remains of her existence, Millbrae’s Ice Cream Lady was, for a few years, as much a part of our landscape as any standing structure in town. Between roughly 1958 and 1963, her familiar truck along with its accompanying music roamed up and down our city’s streets peddling frozen ice cream treats for a dime. Combine the fact that she was selling items that were crucial to any kid’s diet with what was an unforgettable persona, you definitely have the makings of a legend, or at least someone with a cult following.

Between the mid1950’s and the end of the 1960’s, Millbrae ran through several ice cream men and women, and during the height of the Baby Boom, we often were visited more than once during the same day. The idea of ice cream being sold directly by way of a truck was a holdover from an earlier time when our city streets were full of vendors selling anything from fish to fruit. Food being sold directly from a cart or truck was necessary 100 years ago, as most households did not have available transportation to drive to a store. Another factor was that in pre-World War II America, many homes did not yet have refrigeration units, and many items could only be purchased if they were going to be used immediately.

The concept of the ice cream truck is generally credited to the Good Humor Corporation of America, who first took to the streets in 1920 selling chocolate ice bars on a stick in Youngstown, Ohio. What started as one truck selling one item grew to over 2,000 trucks throughout the country, offering as many as 85 assorted ice cream novelty flavors or combinations. The Good Humor Corporation and its competitors followed the population flow to the suburbs, directing most of their sales energy toward the growing Baby Boomer demographic, as 55% of the customer base was 12 years old or younger.

Millbrae’s Ice Cream Lady first appeared around 1958. She was somewhat stocky, wore sunglasses and had frizzy hair, but her most memorable characteristics were the hole in her throat, no doubt the result of a tracheotomy, along with the frog-like voice that came from the same procedure. One would like to think that her health situation and her attempt to work through it would evoke sympathy and admiration, but kids are kids, and usually her appearance inspired fear from younger children, and sick humor from the older ones. Normally, she would arrive on my block after lunch usually between 1pm and 3pm. Pinehurst Court consists of 21 homes and, in its heyday, housed over 60 kids, so we must have been considered profitable territory. Since we were also visited by an evening ice cream truck, many of us had developed a two-a-day ice cream bar habit. Unfortunately, I came from a large family, and my mother was seldom willing to shell out seven dimes every time an ice cream truck came rolling up. As luck would have it, my best friend Dougie was an only child, and his generous mom would always buy the both of us ice cream bars whenever I happened to be there, which, coincidentally, was everyday. It was just as well that Doug’s mother was happy to fetch us our treats, as I was afraid of the Ice Cream Lady anyway, as my first dealing with her did not go well…at the age of four, I attempted to purchase a popsicle with four shiny pennies, only to be publicly humiliated when informed that I was quite a bit short. Other children were also weary of her, as she had little tolerance for kids who had trouble making up their minds over which flavor to choose, and the words “hurry up kid, my ice cream is melting” were quite intimidating when delivered with that unforgettable croak.

As you no doubt can tell, I never did learn the Ice Cream Lady’s actual name, or anything else about her for that matter. Nature abhors a vacuum, and my sister Patrice took it upon herself to create a back story for the woman, and thus the saga of “Myrtle Krinkle” was born. According to Patrice, “Myrtle,” in addition to being our ice cream lady, was also the sweetheart of Howard Cobb, the well known proprietor of the “Brick of Gold,” Millbrae’s legendary convenience store, although in Patrice’s fictional world, “Myrtle” also had relationships with “Jack” of Jack’s Hobby Shop, and “Kilpatrick” of Kilpatrick’s Grocery. None of this was even remotely true, but my sister’s stories found an eager audience, and eventually, scores of children from my neighborhood began to believe that Patrice’s version of the Ice Cream Lady was true, at least as far as her name being “Myrtle Krinkle.” As the saying goes, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

As mentioned, for a while, my block was frequented by two ice cream trucks, as in addition to the Ice Cream Lady, we also had an ice cream man who had an evening route, generally motoring up Pinehurst between 6 and 7pm. As I recall, he was a dark haired man with a mustache, and spoke with a heavy Italian accent. One memorable day, the inevitable finally happened…the Ice Cream Man came too early, and the Ice Cream Lady came too late, resulting in both of them showing up at 4:30. The shouting match that ensued, featuring the woman’s frog voice and the man’s excited Italian, could be heard for blocks. Despite having two ice cream trucks on our block at the same time, very few sales were made, as most of us didn’t want to be seen as taking sides… almost like when our parents fight.

I honestly can’t tell you exactly when the Ice Cream Lady stopped coming. Between friends, school, sports and television, even the disappearance of the daily ice cream truck can go unnoticed for several weeks. Although I tend to think that her final days in my neighborhood occurred in early 1963, others assumed she was still selling ice cream in Millbrae years after last curbside stop…kind of a local version of the “Mel Allen Syndrome” (I’ll explain later). Other ice cream sellers took her place, but they too faded away, as the combination of Baby Boomers growing up and the price of insurance and gas caused the eventual demise of the daily ice cream person. In later years, the ice cream truck would make an occasional comeback, including during my daughter’s childhood. Watching my little girl waiting on the curb holding her dollar (yeah, a dollar) almost brought a tear to my eye.

I’m guessing Millbrae’s Ice Cream Lady as long since passed away. I’m hoping that, somewhere in the great beyond, she’s at a place where it’s always sunny, and the sidewalks are filled with children holding dimes…she deserves nothing less.

Note: Mel Allen was the longtime voice of the New York Yankees, who was unexpectedly fired after the 1964 season. Allen was so closely identified with the Yankees that even years after his departure, baseball fans outside of New York still believed he was the Yankees announcer. Hence the “Mel Allen Syndrome,” which I kind of made up.

 

When Worlds Collide

Early in life, I think we all become aware that we live in a universe that is comprised of two worlds…our own and a larger, outside one. Our own world is comprised of friends, family, school, and takes place in the immediate area that surrounds our home. The other world is the one that we read about in the newspaper, or observe while watching television…the world that is populated by famous people, and is the setting for important events in the fields of politics, sports and entertainment. Usually, except in cases of nationwide disasters or war, the two worlds remain separate, allowing most of us to live a normal life, regardless of what is happening in the outside world. But occasionally, the two can briefly intersect, sometimes by accident, a phenomenon I experienced for myself 45 years ago.

History will tell you that 1968 was one of the most traumatic years of our lifetime. Assassinations, anti-war demonstrations, and major social unrest all contributed to what seemed like general chaos in the U.S., while Europe was busy dealing with the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. But my world was remarkably unaffected by any of this, as I was much more preoccupied with the day to day drama of my first year of high school. Yes, I paid attention to all of the major events happening in and around our nation in 1968, but frankly, I was more concerned with my algebra class than anything Walter Cronkite was talking about. And when school let out in June, my attention was directed at hanging out with friends and playing softball, and not to the riots taking place in Detroit and Chicago. It was the daily search for fun that led me and three of my friends directly into a brush with the outside world.

One of our favorite sources for amusement was the San Francisco International Airport. In 1968, SFO was much smaller than it is now, with fewer terminals, free parking (if you knew the layout) and a lot less security. On a hot summer night, I, along with my buddies Bill, John and Larry, hopped into Larry’s Chevy, and made the short drive over to the airport. Usually, our nights at SFO consisted of “goofing” on people, paging fake names on the white courtesy telephones, and playing catch in the hallways with the football that Bill always brought along. But this night would be different, as shortly after hearing “Dr Zachary Smith…white courtesy telephone…” over the intercom (good one John), we were handed a flyer informing us that Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Democratic candidate for president, was scheduled to arrive by plane in San Francisco at one of the outside gates within the hour. With little warning, our paths had crossed with the 1968 Presidential Campaign.

For those of you who aren’t old enough to remember, or are old enough but have just forgotten, the 1968 race for the presidency was a wild ride that took several unexpected turns. Early in the campaign, President Lyndon Johnson, struggling with the Vietnam War, and facing strong primary challenges within his own party from Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, announced he would not be a candidate for reelection in November. Now pitted against each other, Kennedy and McCarthy squared off in the crucial California primary, with the winner having a clear path to the nomination, and the loser facing elimination. Tragically, minutes after winning a decisive victory, RFK was murdered by an assassin’s bullet. McCarthy’s loss and Kennedy’s death almost immediately elevated Hubert Humphrey’s candidacy, much to the chagrin of the many young people who were attracted to McCarthy’s anti-war message, and had devoted many months working on his behalf.

When the four of us arrived at the gate, there were already hundreds of people gathered behind the barricade that had hastily been set up to separate Humphrey’s plane from the throng. As we quickly noticed, the crowd was split evenly between supporters of the Vice-President and sore loser remnants of the McCarthy campaign, who were there to heckle Humphrey (unless you counted Larry and Bill, who were solidly behind Humphrey’s Republican opponent, Richard Nixon). Clutching Bill’s football, I could see Humphrey’s plane taxi toward the gate. Just as the Vice-President disembarked and started to make his way over to the crowd for some campaign handshaking, I felt a firm tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and saw that I was confronted by two large men in dark suits…Secret Service agents who were very curious about me and the football I was holding.

One has to remember that we were still living in the wake of the Martin Luther King and RFK assassinations, and our government was understandably a bit jumpy when it came to the lives of presidential candidates. While one agent held me in a hammerlock, the other carefully inspected the football. To be honest, I found the situation quite thrilling. Moments earlier, I was merely a dorky lad of 15, but now I was a suspected terrorist. But it didn’t take long for the agents to realize that the football was harmless, and that I was as unimportant as I appeared. With little emotion, they gave me back the football, and disappeared into the darkness. Before long, Humphrey too was gone, whisked away by limo, no doubt to meet with some of his top Northern California donors. Soon, the entire crowd had dispersed, and the four of us were heading home in Larry’s car. As we were leaving the airport’s grounds, we spotted a McCarthy supporter hitch-hiking in front of the 101 on-ramp. At this point, Bill requested that Larry slow down enough for Bill to address the young man. As we pulled alongside the long-haired chap, Bill shouted, “**** you, and **** McCarthy.” His point eloquently made, Bill rolled his window back up, and Larry returned us to the safety and tranquility of our own world.

 

Millbrae’s Great Garage Band Era

Without any hesitation, I’ll always consider 1966 as my favorite year in rock and roll. It isn’t just the music that drives this feeling, or the fact that bands like the Beatles, Beach Boys and Rolling Stones were at the top of their game at that particular time. No, my fondest memory is that of the widespread participation in the rock and roll “garage band era.” This was a special period in popular music, in my hometown of Millbrae, as well as all around the country as untold numbers of rock groups sprung up all over the nation formed by thousands of young men hoping to make their mark in the music industry, and achieve fame, fortune and girls. Although one can’t put exact dates on the when the garage band era began or ended, I’ve always felt the period roughly coincided with my two years at Taylor Junior High School, 1965-1967.

There is little doubt that Beatlemania played a major role in inspiring the garage band movement. In becoming the most successful rock group in the world, the Beatles provided, at least on the surface, a very simple formula. A few guys holding guitars in front of a drummer appeared to be the easiest path to stardom, and this theory seemed to have a lot of credence, as throughout 1964 and ’65, a week never went by without a previously unknown band scoring a hit record. Groups like “The Turtles,” “The Lovin’ Spoonful” and “The Byrds” became household names, while many more were able to grace the Top 30 at least once.

Although the term “garage band” is usually defined as a group that never found fame beyond a five mile radius of its own town, there were several different categories that comprised the garage band phenomenon. The highest level were those groups that actually found lucrative work, whether it was playing at large dance venues, or even performing as an opening act for a visiting big name act at the Cow Palace. “The Leaves,” “Music Machine,” “Syndicate of Sound,” and “Count Five” were just four California garage bands that graduated to record contracts and radio airplay, while acts like “Peter Wheat and the Breadmen” gained a decent Bay Area following without benefit of a hit record. The lower echelon garage bands would be found playing at high school hops, “battle of the bands” talent shows or Kiwanis Club sponsored teen dances. Then there were the bottom rung members of the garage band fraternity, made up of kids performing at backyard birthday gigs, or junior high basement parties for money that even the local paperboy would laugh at. If you ever witnessed any of these groups, the chances were that you were seeing their one and only public performance. Of course I’m not even including those unfortunate souls who never made it past the actual garage stage, a situation my friend Bill found himself in back in ‘66, as he and three or four other guys spent weeks together rehearsing “Play With Fire,” the only song they knew. Bill was hoping to follow in his brother Don’s footsteps, as legend had it that Don once played saxophone for a South San Francisco band, although Bill confided to me that Don just blew the same note over and over during his one and only gig. But for every garage band that actually existed, there were several more that only reached the planning stage, and were merely the pipedream of many an overly optimistic lad…this was the level that I once reached, but more on that later.

The best aspect of Millbrae’s garage band era was that the sheer number of groups meant that no dance, sock-hop, talent show, high school or junior high school party would ever be without a group providing live music. My first experience with this came in September of 1965 when I attended my first Taylor Junior High School sock-hop. Playing in front of the 800 kids crowded into the gym was a group of 8th graders, a few of which I knew. I was totally impressed, not so much by their performance, but just by the fact that they were there, belting out “Louie Louie,” “Jolly Green Giant” and “Louie Louie” again. If I was amazed that a group of 13 year olds could form a band in my home town, imagine how I felt at the next sock-hop when the featured group was comprised of 7th graders, one of which had played on my Little League team. Listening to them murder “Hang on Sloopy”, “Eve of Destruction,” and, of course, “Louie Louie,” I began to wonder if there was room at the bottom of the music business for someone like myself. My friend Dean, from around the corner, was thinking the same thing, and in early 1966, was nice enough to include me in a band that, at this point, only existed on paper.

As excited as I was about being in a rock group, I was aware of two obstacles…first off, I did not own a guitar, or any other instrument, and second, I had had zero talent. Dean had both problems covered. We could buy our equipment on some kind of installment plan, and take a short series of lessons which would teach us enough about music to play at least as well as most of the groups we’d become used to seeing at Taylor dances. Dean also claimed to know a guy who could book us all over the area, and figured by June, we’d be playing at local high schools. Dean and I decided to seek the advice of an 8th grader named Jack, who was considered the unofficial king of Millbrae garage bands. Only 13, Jack already fronted several groups, including one called “Gary Grape and the Bunch,” and was currently in rehearsal for an upcoming Taylor Friday night dance with his latest band. Watching Jack and his boys trying to learn “Day Tripper” made me realize that a couple of guitar lessons might not be enough to become a local rock star…I’d probably need at least five.

At the epicenter of Millbrae garage band craze was a music store called “Piano World. Located on the 200 block on Broadway, “Piano World” had an elaborate showroom at the front of the store, which featured grand pianos, harps and clarinets, while in the back room lie all the cool instruments, including electric guitars, drum sets, amplifiers and Hammond organs. “Piano World” was the official hangout for every aspiring rock and roller, and for a short time, that included me. The place was run by a man named Chuck, who went about his job much like that as a used car salesman. When Chuck noticed me gazing at all of the gorgeous instruments, he immediately sprung into action, trying to find out my price range, and expressing his willingness to cut me a great deal. At age 12, I had never even bought a pair of shoes without my mom being there, but suddenly I found myself haggling over a couple of hundred dollars of merchandise, although I have to admit I did very little talking as the combined price of the guitar and amp that Chuck felt was right for me dropped by 20% within a few minutes. I was thrilled that Chuck was so eager to do business with me, and I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mother the great news about the fantastic deal that waited for us back at “Piano World.”

Unfortunately, my mom was a much tougher negotiator for me than Chuck was. She was quick to point out that I had never shown any interest in music before, and certainly no aptitude. Although she made it perfectly clear that there was no chance that we’d be shelling out a few hundred dollars for an electric guitar, my mom was willing to get me an acoustic one…if I was willing to learn with that, then maybe we could talk electric guitars and amps down the road. Of course, I wasn’t hearing any of it…I had a schedule to meet, and starting out with a simple acoustic guitar would delay my career by weeks. As my mother was gently letting me down, my sister Elaine was laughing the whole time…and to think I was going to dedicate a song to her when I played at her high school. Although my career as a performer was now over, I wasn’t yet through with the business. Another friend of mine, John, was putting together a group, and wanted me to manage them, probably because he figured my two newspaper working parents would help them get publicity. I asked how far along his band was in the process, and although none of members currently owned any instruments, he proudly presented me with a photograph his girlfriend had taken of him along with his mates. “What’s this?” I asked.

“Our album cover” was his reply.

But by early 1967, the whole garage band craze started to fade. “Piano World” closed sometime in late 1966, and the number of local groups began to diminish. Even the music began to change, and none of the remaining groups were bothering to play “Louie Louie” anymore. One of the last venues I can remember that was available for Millbrae garage bands was at the Meadows Swim Club, where a series of Friday night dances were held during the summer of 1967. Instead of playing “Paul Revere and the Raider” covers, the featured bands seemed more concentrated on “psychedelic” music, which was very much in vogue at that time. At the final dance of the summer, I stood next to the pool, and listened to some hippie chick completely butcher “White Rabbit.” For me, weeks away from starting high school, it seemed like a fitting end to a wonderful era.

 

50 years Ago: The Great Snowfall of ‘62

Throughout our lifetimes there have been several local events that we all shared, and will always remember. Many of these “where were you when it happened?” moments took place over a matter of seconds, like the 49er’s Dwight Clark’s 1982 catch against Dallas, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, or Brian Wilson’s strikeout of Nelson Cruz to give the San Francisco Giants their first ever World Series Championship. But for me, one of the first of these memories actually lasted for several hours, that is, until it melted away. Of course, I’m referring to the great Bay Area snowfall that happened 50 years ago this week.

Snow was one of the last things Peninsula residents were expecting as we headed for bed on Saturday night, January 20th, 1962. The first month of the year had not only been quite dry, but it had, up that point, been the warmest January in recorded Bay Area history. The National Weather Service predicted Sunday the 21st to be a bit windy with overnight lows somewhere in the low ‘40s. But during the wee hours of the morning, the temperature fell below freezing, and dipped as low as 21 degrees in Woodside. By 5am, snow started falling from San Francisco to Hollister, and continued for more than an hour. By 5:30 am, most of San Francisco and San Mateo Counties were completely covered in white. In Millbrae, residents of Pinehurst Court who were awake early enough to see the initial flurries, busied themselves by waking up everyone else on the block. Although it was still dark 5:45 am, street lamps and porch lights revealed to all of us what had happened during the night. Every kid in the neighborhood could not wait to experience what was for many, their first contact with actual snow. My family was not into skiing or any other Winter Olympic sports, and therefore none of us owned anything that could be described as snow clothes .My mother outfitted us as best she could, and my sisters and I “hit the slopes” in a wide variety of apparel that ranged from old housecoats and ancient sweaters to worn out football jerseys and raincoats.

Even though the snowfall caught us by surprise, most kids instinctively knew what to do. Snowmen and snow forts began to appear throughout the neighborhood, while snowball fights erupted just about everywhere. One Pinehurst Court resident broke out his skis, and attempted to glide down the block, but quickly learned that two inches of powder over asphalt does not exactly add up to Squaw Valley. One helpful group of kids stationed themselves at the top of Larkspur Drive with a handheld sign warning drivers that chains were advised for anyone thinking of motoring down that very steep street. Some other children made an identical sign at the bottom of Larkspur, but it probably was not widely read, as the Millbrae Police Department reported at about 7 am that their vehicles were unable to make it to the top of Larkspur Drive, Hillcrest Blvd, or Lomita Ave.

Pacific Telephone would later report that their switchboards became overloaded by mid-morning, as over 14,000 callers were simultaneously trying to contact everyone they knew on that memorable Sunday. Millbrae’s Hillcrest Pharmacy was overrun by customers wanting to buy film, as thousands of photos were taken that day, almost as if we knew this a once in a lifetime event. Alas, Sunday the 21st turned out to be a fairly sunny day, and the snow began to disappear by the hour. By late afternoon, much of our great snowfall was gone. As if to make up for their missed call from the day before, the weather bureau reported that the cold existing cold front could easily produce another snowfall in the near future. We’re still waiting.

The “blizzard” of 1962 turned out to be no more than two to four inches, and which made it the first significant snowfall since 1932, and the heaviest amount since 1887. Although there have occasional dustings up above Highway 280 over the last 50 years, there has not been anything close the amount of the white stuff that fell on us back in 1962. I’m sure all of everyone who lived on the Peninsula back then had their own personal stories to tell, but my favorite antidote concerns a group of cultural leaders from the Soviet Union, who were visiting the area, and were the houseguests of a local politician. Upon witnessing the “blizzard,” they laughed, claiming that the idea of “sunny California” was surely an example of Western propaganda. One of the Soviets stated that he would be sure not to send any photos back to Kruschev, as he might not think they ever left their country.

Note: The “Great Snowfall of 1962” was estimated to have been responsible for ten injuries and one death due to car crashes caused by the weather.

Photos: The faded black and white picture is of me and my sister Diane, taken at about 5:30 am on that memorable Sunday morning. Notice the snow is still falling. The color photo, taken later that same day, shows Mrs. Daley Planet throwing a snowball with what was left of the “blizzard” by the afternoon of January 21st.

Leave it to…Bud?

One of the many reasons “Leave it to Beaver” is one of my all-time favorite TV programs is that the show had a realistic flavor to it. Unlike most sitcoms, the storylines were plausible, the characters seemed normal, and the young people on the show talked like real kids. The idea that the plots were often true to life became very apparent to me when an incident, involving my lifelong friend Bud Harrington, was so similar to a “Leave it to Beaver” episode, that one would have guessed that the “Beaver” version was based on Bud’s situation, if not for the fact that the “Leave it to Beaver” version happened first.

The “Leave it to Beaver” story in question, “In the Soup,” is undoubtedly one of the best remembered episodes of the “Beaver” series. Originally telecast on May 6, 1961, “In the Soup” revolves around Beaver (Jerry Mathers) and Whitey (Stanley Fafara) coming upon an outdoor advertising display which features an image of a lady holding up a steaming bowl of soup. The billboard is three dimensional, and Whitey insists that the bowl, which is suspended 30 feet from the ground and is the size of a hot-tub, contains real soup, while Beaver is certain that it doesn’t. Predictably, Beaver is compelled to climb the billboard to prove he’s right, and, just as predictably, falls into the oversized bowl (which contained no soup) and is unable to make his way out of this predicament. Eventually the Mayfield fire department is called to the scene, but not before a sizeable crowd has gathered on the sidewalk, including Beaver’s brother Wally (Tony Dow), as well as several of Wally’s friends who were on their way to the Cleaver house to attend Wally’s party when they were alerted to Beaver’s unfolding drama. Fortunately, Beaver is rescued, and is completely unharmed, except for the embarrassment he suffers, not to mention the forthcoming lecture he’ll have to endure at the hands of his father. One would think that young boys all across America might have learned a valuable lesson while viewing this on television.

In Millbrae, behind the Meadows school, stands a hill which featured, on one of its sides, a cliff which had about a 40 foot drop. About ten feet from the top of the cliff was a small ledge, about 30 feet wide, protruding about four or five feet from the side of the hill. Although the area above the cliff was accessible from several directions, no one had ever tried to reach the ledge, as climbing from the bottom seemed too difficult, and any attempt from the top appeared too dangerous. All of this was about to change in October, 1962.

Bud Harrington and his pal Allen Phillips were a pair of fifth graders who were very much like the Hardy Boys, except that they weren’t brothers, and they never did solve any mysteries (ok, they weren’t anything like the Hardy Boys). Like almost every other kid who lived in the Meadows, both boys were intrigued by the thought of reaching the ledge, and together, came up with a plan. Armed with shovels, Bud and Allen would lower themselves by rope from the top of the cliff onto the ledge, then dig a series of holes into the side of the cliff, creating a natural stairway, allowing them to climb up and off the ledge, as well as assuring them permanent access to the ledge, the value of which was never explained. The two ten year olds began their expedition shortly after school, and, remarkably, the first part of the plan went well, as Bud and Allen easily shimmied down a rope, and had become the first boys to reach the infamous ledge, or at least the first two that anyone knew about.

One of the most striking characteristics of the Millbrae Meadows area in the early 1960’s was the number of kids that populated the area in those days, and how anything even slightly out of the ordinary could draw a crowd. I can remember standing in front of my house, when word reached my street that a couple of fifth graders had made it to the ledge on the cliff behind Meadows School. By the time I reached the scene, dozens of kids were already there, all eyes transfixed to the cliff, as Bud Harrington and Allen Phillips furiously dug their manmade stairway. Before too long, many of the young boys and girls started to leave, figuring that they had seen all there was to see, but I stayed, as I had a hunch things would get more interesting.

In putting together their plan, there were two occurrences the boys had not figured into the equation. First, daylight saving time was now in affect, and darkness began to hamper the efforts of the two young men. And as the sun began to set, so did what was left of Allen’s enthusiasm for the project, and he suddenly decided he was too scared to climb up the cliff, even if the stairs were finished. Bud actually worked his way off the ledge, but returned when Allen, too scared to attempt the climb, started to cry, although he later claimed the source of his tears was the prospect of missing “Chillers From Science Fiction,” the KGO TV series which featured horror films. Now officially stranded, Bud’s father was called to the scene, who realized it was a job for the Millbrae Fire Department. Soon, sirens and bells were heard all across the neighborhood, as I congratulated myself for my patience. The number of onlookers at the bottom of the hill had now grown past its earlier size, as Millbrae’s finest began their rescue efforts. I’ll never forget the giant spotlight on the side of the hill, and I’m still surprised the usually hammy Harrington boy didn’t use it as an opportunity to break into song. Both boys were removed from the ledge with the aid of a swing-like basket attached at the end of a pole. The fireman completed their task in about 30 minutes, roughly the same length of a “Leave it to Beaver” episode.

Bud had hoped the incident would blow over, but unfortunately everyone within five miles was familiar with the story, and one of his classmates reported the event during an installment of “show and tell.” In the weeks that followed, Bud Harrington tried to put his own spin on what had happened, and was quick to point out that, in the final analysis, he and Allen did reach the ledge, making him the current day version of Sir Edmund Hillary. The comparison is fair, except that Hillary, after reaching the top of Mt Everest, did not require the help of the Millbrae Fire Department to get back down, and, to my knowledge, was not grounded by his parents after completing the climb.

Notes: The “In the Soup” Beaver episode was filmed outdoors on the Universal Studios back lot, with the soup billboard display being erected especially for that one show. A duplicate soup display was built inside one of the soundstages, which was used for the episode’s nighttime scenes.

60 Years Ago- The 49ers Come to Local Television

Although pro-football and television are presently joined at the hip, this week marks the 60th anniversary of an event that reminds us that this was not always the case. On Sunday, November 4th, 1951, the San Francisco 49ers made their Northern California television debut when they faced the Los Angeles Rams in L.A.’s Memorial Coliseum. One would think that such a significant step in the history of the 49ers would have been met with unanimous approval at the time, but careful research reveals that not everyone was on board with the Niner’s decision to appear on the small screen.

The pairing of TV and sports dates back to before the advent of network television. On October 22, 1939, NBC’s experimental station W2XBS became the first entity to televise an NFL game when it carried a contest between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Eagles live from Ebbets Field. The game, won by the Dodgers 23-14, was attended by only 13,050 fans, but seen by many others who happened upon the RCA Pavilion at New York’s World’s Fair, where several monitors tuned into the game were set up for visitors. How many of the 500 people who actually owned sets in New York at that time witnessed the broadcast is unknown. While clearly a groundbreaking moment, the Dodger-Eagles telecast was merely a vehicle to promote innovations in the still new invention known as television. The idea that television could be a major source of revenue for the NFL was still many years away.

The NFL received no network coverage in the early days of commercial television, but a few teams did negotiate local deals. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams sold the TV rights for their entire schedule for $50,000, apparently unaware of how home television could effect their live gate. The Rams had averaged over 50,000 fans per home game in 1949, but drew less than half of that in 1950, as Southern Californians preferred watching the games at home for free, or seeing the games at their favorite taverns than venturing out to the L.A. Coliseum. Having learned a valuable and expensive lesson, the Rams limited their TV coverage to road games beginning the following season.

Appearing on television was not an option when the San Francisco 49ers began play in 1946, as there were no TV stations in the Bay Area until KPIX signed on in December of 1948. After four seasons in the All-American Football Conference, San Francisco joined the NFL in 1950, debuting with a disappointing 3-9 record. Thanks to players like Frankie Albert, Gordy Soltau, and future Hall of Famers Y.A. Tittle, Leo Nomolini and Joe Perry, the 49ers were vastly improved in 1951, running their record to 3-2 on October 28, by beating the Rams for the first time, 44-17 at Kezar Stadium. With a rematch with the Rams scheduled for the following week in Los Angeles, the San Francisco 49ers announced that the November 4th game would be televised on KRON (channel 4), marking the first time the Niners would appear on local television. The decision to air the game was clearly to use the telecast as a promotional vehicle, as the $4200 the team collected from KRON did not exactly represent a financial windfall. By the Fall of 1951, there were approximately 300,000 TV sets in the Bay Area, with 1 million potential viewers.

No sooner was the 49ers telecast announced that opposition to the broadcast was expressed by two local colleges. The unbeaten USF Dons were scheduled to meet the Santa Clara Broncos at Kezar Stadium on the same afternoon as the 49ers-Rams game, and officials at both schools were convinced that KRON’s showing of the game would dramatically reduce the size of the crowd at Kezar. Santa Clara Head Coach Dick Gallagher predicted the attendance at the USF-Santa Clara game would fall 10,000 short of the previously anticipated 35,000, while USF Head Coach Joe Kuharich saw the 49ers appearance on home television as “another spike in the coffin which may seal the doom of college football on the Pacific Coast.” As it turned out, over 32,000 witnessed the Dons beating the Broncos 26-7, as the San Mateo Times estimated the crowd’s size was lowered by the 49ers telecast to the tune of about “2,000…tops.” But Coach Kuharich wasn’t wrong about the future of college football, at least as far as his school was concerned. Despite an undefeated year, USF dropped football after 1951 season.

Football fans tuned to KRON at 2 pm on that November 4th Sunday had a much different viewing experience than what we enjoy 60 years later. Announcer Bud Foster described the action without the help of instant replay, slow motion, isolated cameras or even a color analyst. Those lucky enough to have access to the black and white telecast saw the 49ers take a 16-13 4th quarter lead courtesy of a Gordy Soltau field goal, only to see the Rams counter with a 76 yard touchdown pass from Bob Waterfield to Elroy Hirsch and a 38 yard field goal by Waterfield. The 23-16 victory by the Rams was significant as Los Angeles, on their way to their only NFL championship, won the division with an 8-4 record, followed by San Francisco at 7-4-1. But more important than the game’s outcome was the fact that the San Francisco 49ers and their fans were given a one day peek into the future. Within a few years, the NFL would sign a contract with CBS, and soon every contest would receive television coverage. The $4200 the 49ers received from KRON for one game in 1951 represented the team’s entire revenue from television for that entire year. Today, the San Francisco 49ers annual take from TV stands at $120 million.

Trivia: Both the San Francisco 49ers and the San Francisco Giants made their local television debuts at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Giants first televised game took place in April of 1961 against the Dodgers, who played their home games at the Coliseum from 1958 to 1961.