Sunday, July 19, 2009

Stern Grove, Golden Gate Park, and their like

So long as I lived at home, during my last two years in high school, we might take the car and a picnic and go to Fleischacker Zoo (now simply San Francisco Zoo), or to Golden Gate Park, where the Japanese Tea Garden (never drastically altered, only called Oriental, if I recall correctly) was once again called by its real name, where there were seals in the pools, where the De Young Museum had not yet been damaged by an earthquake or so well endowed that it couldn't exhibit its holdings. In either case, we could hope to ride the merry-go-round, a carrousel with good animals and, as I recall, a large mechanical organ (not a phonograph with a loudspeaker). There was plenty of space to sit on the grass for a picnic. I loved the museums, perhaps most of all the Palace of the Legion of Honor overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, with its Rodins and, newly acquired, paintings from the Kress Collection. But I went back to them alone later, too, when there were not younger members of the family to take into account.
Best of all, I loved it when there was San Francisco Ballet, or Symphony, or Opera at Stern Grove. By writing ahead you might get places at the ring of picnic tables halfway up the natural cavea. Sometimes there was operetta, too. We went to Stern Grove on Sunday at least once a month in the summer. The performances were really good, and everyone there enjoyed them. And they were free, utterly free. It was such a lovely place, such a beautiful tradition. The time that Gaetano Merola, the conductor of the San Francisco Opera, collapsed during a performance, we saw him carried out but only in the next day's papers learned that he had died. Once when we had picnic table places, sharing the same table was a very nice man who proved to be the father of one of the young solo dancers. I was doing quick watercolor sketches from life, which he noticed and, to my delight, asked whether I'd send it to them. The dancer cannot have liked it; I knew nothing about dance except that I loved to watch it, and I must surely have gotten it wrong. She performed the Bluebird pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. But her father's friendliness was very San Franciscan. My love of The Merry Widow dates from a Stern Grove performance. The opera was usually scenes or acts from the coming season's repertory.
During the 1960s, especially, I was sure that with out-of-town hippies and drugs all over the Park everything I loved must have been discontinued or damaged. The great thing always had been the perfect safety and tranquillity of the Park, and no one ever told us not to toss peanuts to the brown bears who sat and rocked to get attention. In the late 1960s the flower children were wilted or even rotten and some thought it funny to do things that really aren't funny at all but certainly take all the joy out of fun. No, I really didn't object to what anyone did in private, but it made me sad when they took over a great public park so that the general public could not enjoy it in peace. Gunfire was rare, but it had been non-existent.
So I never have been back to Stern Grove. This evening, with some dread, I googled it. Did it even exist? It not only exists, but the season of programs is almost the same, and it looks just the same, and you can still enter the lottery for places at picnic tables. So I thought that, not yet having decided what to write up next, I'd write this tribute to my favorite city, which has maintained Stern Grove and its tradition and its being free and nice for a full century. Everyone talks of California as a place where the new happens, but it is my experience that in the whole Bay Area, and especially in San Francisco, continuity is as reliable as donkey rides and puppet theatre in the Luxembourg Gardens.
And that made me think: Which Bay Area park had donkey rides of its own? I think it is the Children's Park that had a miniature train ride: has it one still? Perhaps it was Tilden Park above Berkeley that had donkeys. I don't know. Tilden Park does have a beautiful 'period' merry-go-round. I chose to celebrate my 21st birthday by riding it. Not only was it an inexpensive excursion, but we could cloak the necessity of economizing in the guise of my artistic eccentricity.
The other discovery I made googling this evening, to check up on the well-being of Stern Grove, is that it is not, as I thought, part of Golden Gate Park; it doesn't even adjoin it. This is another instance of memory combining what one does know, as in the case of the beaches of San Luis Obispo county, which all alike were reached in a short car ride on a county road.