Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 486: 18th Avenue Christmas

One block in the Sunset used to go all out for the holidays. Nicole & Arnold talk with Frank Dunnigan about the 18th Avenue Christmas.
by Nicole Meldahl - Dec 24, 2022

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 486: 18th Avenue Christmas Outside Lands Podcast Episode 486: 18th Avenue Christmas

Podcast Transcription

486 - 18th Avenue Christmas

Nicole: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, Podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm a very merry Nicole Meldahl.

Arnold: And I'm an absolutely delightful Arnold Woods.

Nicole: Boy oh boy, do the kids sound a bit festive this week. This week's podcast is, of course, dropping on Christmas eve. So, we thought we would jump into the holiday fun by talking about a joyous, over 30-year long, Christmas tradition that once made the Outside Landers very merry.

Arnold: And way back in podcast episode number 204, Woody and David told you about a number of Christmas traditions on the west side of the city. And one of the festivities they mentioned was how a one block stretch of 18th Avenue between Vicente and Wawona literally dazzled [00:01:00] every Christmas, with every house in the block lighting up their homes and yards with Christmas decorations. So, this week we are digging deeper into the 18th Avenue Christmas.

Nicole: Yeah, there was a block like this where I grew up too, and it made me wonder about the backstory on that, but I'll just have to do that in my own time. So, this tradition started with the first houses built, built there around 1936. And as more houses were built on the block, everybody joined in. During the holiday season, thousands would make the pilgrimage to 18th, 18th Avenue to see the holiday decorations and lights. So, how did this all happen? To help us bring this traditional alive for you, we have brought in a special guest who actually lived it. Please welcome longtime member, contributor, Streetwise columnist, and the author of numerous books about San Francisco history. Frank Dunnigan.

Frank: [00:02:00] Hey. Hello everybody.

Nicole: Hi Frank. How is it going where you're at?

Frank: It is cold, but I say that with a reservation. I mean, we're, we're still well into the fifties, but that's cold down here. But I keep reading about freezing temps and high winds in the Bay Area, and that's very holiday like, but oh, too cold for me.

Arnold: And for those who don't know, Frank now lives in Arizona, but, and before we get to the Christmas stuff, Frank…

Frank: Okay.

Arnold: Why don't you tell us a little bit about where you grew up and what that neighborhood was like when you were young.

Frank: Well, when I grew up there my parents have been married a couple of years and they bought their one and only house on the 2600 block of 18th Avenue where they each spent the rest of their lives and where I live from birth until probably in my early [00:03:00] twenties. A wonderful place. Everybody knew everybody. I, I thought about it one day and someone asked me, well, how were your neighbors so friendly and outgoing? How did everybody know each other. Well, clearly, most people had kids back in those days. So, when kids know each other, the parents know each other, you know each other's relatives, you know each other's pets. You know everything about your neighbors. And that was a very, very nice thing growing up.

As you guys mentioned the tradition of holiday lights started in the mid-‘30s when the houses were new, and I often wondered about, what prompted people to do that. And several years ago, a friend of mine who was a neighbor and a schoolmate Chris Meagher Keller, another WNP member, shared with me some files that her parents had left behind. They were original homeowners in the ‘30s, and they helped organize the holiday lighting tradition. Part of their reason was the Sunset really had scattered homes at the [00:04:00] time. Not every block was totally built and not everybody drove in those days. It was still the tail end of the Depression. Cars were certainly not a universal form of transport in the Outside Lands. Some families had a car, some didn't. But when it came time for Christmas, people wanted to celebrate with others. And so, this one block decided that they would host an event, and it was always like the second Saturday of December when Santa would arrive. Every home would be decorated with a Christmas tree and outdoor lights. Santa would arrive on a fire engine, courtesy of Station 40 at 18th and Rivera. And the celebration would begin. That prompted lots and lots of people to come and look, whether by car, whether by foot. I had a lot of people tell me over the years that they had a family tradition of getting out and walking in the crisp winter air, and they would come from as far away [00:05:00] as Noriega to walk up and down 18th Avenue and look at trees and lights.

Nicole: As far away as Noriega.

Frank: Right. Over the mountains and through the woods.

Arnold: You're also getting a little ahead of the questions we had for you there, Frank, but that's okay.

Frank: Oh okay, I'll slow down.

Arnold: So, you already told us about when it got started and about this book that was created. Do you know who created that book, and can you give us a little bit of info about what was in it?

Frank: Well, it was not so much a book as a file. Cal and Doris Meagher were my friend Chris's parents, and they were young marrieds. They were probably no more than 22 or 23 when all this got started. And they simply saved things. You know, we love historians who save things.

Nicole: Oh, yeah.

Frank: And so, they had letters that were sent out each year, you know, outlining the, the night [00:06:00] lighting ceremony, names and phone numbers. If you need help putting up your light frame, call us. We'll send somebody around to help you if you're gonna be away on a particular night. Remember, this is the ‘30s, we didn't have lamp timers. Call us and leave us a key, we'll go in your garage and plug in your lights. And different things that different families could do. And it was just a treasure trove of history.

Nicole: And that’s…

Frank: That’s, when I finished using it for one of my books, I sent the entire file to WNP. So somewhere buried in the archives, you guys should have that.

Nicole: Huzzah!

Frank: It had to find a good home.

Nicole: That's why we love you, Frank. You always keep adding to our archives and our online stories. So those books remained with the house when they got sold, right?

Arnold: Files.

Nicole: Files.

Frank: The, the light frames stayed with the house, and a lot of [00:07:00] people when they bought the house were asking, what is that thing hanging from the garage ceiling. And it was the light frames. Rather than just hanging a string of lights from hooks, the neighbors back in the ‘30s were really industrious and they built custom made frames that would fit around each house's front window. And so, the lights had a very uniform look. They weren't just dangling; they were mounted on a frame. People added to that over the years. A lot of homeowners built additional frames to outline their garage door, the entrance to the front steps. If they had a balcony, they would make a strip of lights that would conform to the outline of the balcony. So, it became more and more festive as time went on.

Nicole: People were industrious around that time. I, I think about, cause I own a 1930s Sunset home, and everything you can tell the homeowners before me, they just built things when they needed it. They [00:08:00] didn't go to Home Depot to buy stuff. They utilized what was around the house. I've got a door that was on my garage downstairs. They got repurposed for shelving in the garage like, it just like I, I love that bespoke handmade quality to things in San Francisco of yester year.

Frank: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean people, many of the houses had built in ironing boards mm-hmm, and as time went on, those became passe. Well, virtually everybody turned them into a spice rack, a knickknack shelf in the kitchen. You know, if it was large enough additional storage for canned goods. So, nothing went to waste. There was no, no vacant space. Every, everything was used.

Nicole: It's true. And listeners, if you're into where this line of questioning has gone, you'll love Frank's columns.

Frank: Well, I was just thinking the other day. I started the column in January of ‘09 [00:09:00] and it ran for 10 years. And then I took a couple of years off thinking I was gonna do some travel. Well, I took off just at the start, just before Covid began. So, my travel plans went by the wayside, and so I restarted the column two years later and now there's an additional Streetwise column on our, are we still calling it our sister site? OpenSFHistory.

Nicole: Yes.

Arnold: Yeah.

Frank: Okay. So, you, you get to read two Streetwise columns per month. One for Outsidelands, dealing with the Richmond, Sunset and basically the western half of the city. And then two weeks later you get another column talking about similar topics on all the rest of the neighborhoods of San Francisco.

Nicole: It's Frank Dunnigan 2.0. All the Frank you loved before, but more of it now.

Frank: Well, and I, I was telling these guys earlier that I always rely on the 60,000 photos that have been uploaded [00:10:00] to the archives for both OpenSFHistory and Western Neighborhoods and, there's some spectacular photos in there. Even now, after all these years of column writing, I still start with just browsing through the photos until something hits me and all of a sudden, I've got a dozen great photos that I'm building a topic around. So, it's a good chance to see some really, really good images that are buried deep within the archive.

Arnold: Yeah. Frank.

Nicole: Well.

Arnold: You, you've been a great help in terms of getting some of those images out to the world for us. You mentioned the light frames that people would build for their houses, and I know that was just a part of it. Could you tell us like, were there certain requirements that people on the block were supposed to do and could homeowners kind of ad lib and add other things to what they were doing?

Frank: Oh yeah. Originally the idea was to build a light frame that would match the shape of your [00:11:00] living room window. Well, each house was slightly different. Some windows were taller, some were wider, some were divided into sections. So, people built a perfect match for their window. Then as time went on, as I said earlier, a lot of people started adding additional frames around the garage door, around the entrance to the stairway. So, it kept growing. Most people put up Christmas trees, but some didn't. But if Christmas was not a thing for them, a lot of substitutes were even more spectacular than the trees. Lighted pine cone wreaths and large pillar candles in the window. Santa and snowmen and snowflakes. It, it was a dazzling site.

Nicole: I'm getting jealous that I didn't get to experience it.

Frank: It, it's funny because, you know, I still remember it even now, that, the idea was Santa would arrive at the stroke of 6:00 PM as I say, by fire engine. [00:12:00] And the minute we heard the sirens and saw the lights several blocks up the hill from the firehouse, everybody would plug in their lights at once and it really was a spectacular site to see. Oh gosh, around 50 homes all blazing into light at the same time. And it was funny, everybody had certain preferences. Some people just automatically went with red and green alternating lights on the frame. My parents for years had a peppermint theme of red, white, red, white, red, white. Other people had multicolor. Other people had clear. Some people had lights that would blink. A lot of our Jewish neighbors would put up a star of David with alternating blue and white blinking lights. It, it was just a wonderful variety. You didn't see a lot of similarity from one house to the next. Each one was unique.

Nicole: And was there a specific start date when the decorations had to be up? Was it like the day after Thanksgiving, [00:13:00] Christmas has begun on 18th Avenue?

Frank: No. In fact, it was funny. If, if kids had their way, we would've started probably three weeks before Thanksgiving. But since the adults were in charge, it was always right around the second Saturday. of December. You know, back in the days when most people had real trees, the adults pretty much determined trees get really sad looking after about three weeks. So, we don't wanna start this too early. So, it was generally that second Saturday night in December, always 6:00 PM. The nice thing was that after the lights went on and Santa arrived somebody would've been designated as the mayor and the first lady of the block. My parents did it two years in a row. The year before I was born and the year I was born, which we won't talk about. I'm not giving away any secrets.

Nicole: But that's a historic year.

Frank: It was generally the, the newer people who got tapped to have this, excuse me, honor. [00:14:00] It really wasn't a lot of work, but it was a little bit of work. You basically turned your house into Santa's workshop and Santa would come and sit in your garage near the entrance and receive literally hundreds of kids in the course of that night. Including a few moms who like to climb up on Santa's lap. And it was, was very, very interesting to be taking photos of, of some of those.

We had several times where we literally ran out of candy canes. My father and I would drive down to a place near the Embarcadero called the Hromada, H-R-O-M-A-D-A, Candy Factory. And buy, oh, what seemed like hundreds, I mean, I know there were, I know one year there were at least 500 peppermint candy canes that we bought and brought back with us. And Santa would hand one to every single person who came up to his lap. And many years we [00:15:00] ran out and the message was always, okay, next year we order an extra hundred. But that was a beginning of the evening. And then literally every family held an open house. You know, door, front door is open, come see us, have a drink, have a snack. Kids got to play. See everybody else's tree up close. Mingle with everybody else's relatives and, and it, it was just a wonderful time to, you know, get to know your fellow neighbors.

Nicole: Did I miss it or did you say how you selected Santa Claus?

Frank: It was basically the newest couple on the block. Everybody was a couple in those days. We really didn't have any singles. But the newest couple would be the mayor and the first lady. And Santa was basically recruited from either the neighbors. One year, mom's brother played Santa Claus and he was quite good. He was a very handsome guy and a lot of, a lot of the moms wanted to climb [00:16:00] up in his lap and tell him a couple of things. But it was always interesting to see who it was. We never knew, as kids we never knew who Santa was going to be, but it was generally a neighbor or a neighbor's relative.

Nicole: I'm here for a hunky Santa Claus coming to town.

Frank: Well, that's what some of the moms were after with my Uncle John. But some of those moms were pretty hefty girls and uncle John went home with some very sore knees that night.

Nicole: These were different times. Don't write us emails, you guys, okay.

Frank: Right.

Nicole: Different times. Different times.

Arnold: So, Frank, you, you mentioned this mayor and first lady, and in the stuff you wrote about this before, you provided a list of some of these people who did it. And I'm not sure if any of them are actually still with us today, but certainly, their children or other relatives are. So, we figured we'd shout them out here. And so, here's the list that you had.

Frank: [00:17:00] Okay.

Arnold: There was Cal and Doris Meagher.

Frank: Right.

Arnold: John and Ellen Bernie. Roy and Ruth Kispert. Vince and Helen Kelly. Lou and May Deubler. Bill and Dorothy Kays. Jack and Judy Cronin. Warren and Genevieve O’Callaghan. Frank and Helen Norman. Owen and Mary Brady. John and Chris Barrett. Bob and Dolores Vidmar. Michael and Kathleen Baker. Walter and Carmella Sanford. And, of course, Frank's parents. And we apologize if anybody's names are missing from this list, but we wanna thank them and their families for participating in that tradition over the years.

Frank: Oh, absolutely. Sadly, every single one of them is gone. But I'm still in touch with a lot of their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. It's, you have to remember a lot of these folks were, you know, in their twenties back in the 1930s. So, you know, the average age would be 90 to a 100+ right now. So, sadly they have all left [00:18:00] us. But definitely have left behind some marvelous memories. And, even among their children, you know, all the people I grew up with have a real love for Christmas. And I think we all tend to be a little over the top when it comes to decorations and entertaining. And we picked it all up from 18th Avenue in our youth.

Nicole: Oh, I hear that, Frank. I, I'm the same way. I love Christmas. I inherited all my family's Christmas things. I even make a green jello salad for Christmas that has a very gross mid-century vibe.

Frank: Oh one, one of the people you mentioned, Genevieve O’Callaghan, whose daughter was in my class in grammar school, had a wonderful salad that mom made for years at Christmas called ribbon salad. A layer of red jello with fruit cocktail, a layer of lemon jello plus cream cheese, and then a layer of green jello and pears. [00:19:00] And it sounds absolutely horrible, but it was delicious. It was one of those Christmas traditions, just like Christmas cookies. The Herrerias family was from Mexico, so we always had tamales and hot chocolate and literally everybody in the block was a baker. I, I'm surprised that local grocery stores had any butter, flour, sugar, brown sugar left by the time our neighbors went shopping, because everybody had Christmas cookies. Everybody was exchanging paper plates of Christmas cookies. To this day I still love Christmas cookies, but I, I cheat a little and I rely on Trader Joe.

Nicole: He's great. He does great work.

Frank: That's right.

Arnold: Along those lines, Frank was there a, a favorite food that got prepared on the block that you had and any particular Christmas decorations that were a favorite of yours that were [00:20:00] on that block?

Frank: Well, there, there was a time, and I, I, my parents succumbed to it one year, the dreaded aluminum Christmas tree. We had several of them in like 1959, ‘60, ’61, often with the revolving color wheel that would go from orange to blue to red to green. My parents wouldn't do a color wheel, but they had clear spotlights on it. I never liked that tree. That was my least favorite tree. But everybody had similar things from one year to the next within the same family. Some people had very tall, skinny trees. Others had very short, wide trees. Most people, as I said, had real trees though. You know, by the time we got to the mid to late ‘60s, you were seeing more artificial trees. So, there was a variety. In terms of food, places like Herb's Delicatessen on Taraval did a tremendous business on that day. People stocking up on potato salad and cold cuts. As I say. the Herrerias [00:21:00] family preparing tamales, hot chocolate, Christmas cookies. You know, it was just a wonderful variety.

Nicole: I can tell you that, because this is airing on Christmas Eve, tomorrow I will be enjoying a roast beast from Guerra's Italian market, along with all kinds of other things that they cooked for me.

Frank: Oh, they, you actually had them cook it for you. That's wonderful. No guessing.

Nicole: They do my mashed potatoes cause I don't enjoy the process of making mashed potatoes and gravy.

Frank: Oh.

Arnold: I make a very good garlic mashed potatoes.

Nicole: Yeah, they're delicious.

Frank: Oh God, you're making me hungry. My dinner tonight, because I've been doing a lot of baking and things, my dinner tonight was a can of Diet Coke.

Nicole: Aw, I ate, I ate a bunch of cheese.

Frank: It was also funny that, you know, because every household was preparing an open house [00:22:00] for the neighbors, and you'd literally be in and out of everybody's house the whole night long. It's like I, I remember being probably 10 or 11 years old and, you know, just going from house to house with my friends and oh, you know, there's my parents in so-and-so's dining room. Well, I could see them when I get home. I don't have to talk to them now. Oh, there's Mr. And Mrs. So-and-so next door. You know, I'll talk to them now because I won't see them when I get home. So, you saw everybody in the neighborhood.

The other thing was that a lot of people made it a point to go out to dinner that night because, as mom would say, I'm only messing up my kitchen once for the party, not to fix dinner for the family. So, we had a tradition of going to one of my favorite places, the Hot House at Playland. You know, so to this day I think of Mexican food as being very festive, very Christmasy. You know, get out of the car, smell that salt air, hear the screams and the music of Playland, and [00:23:00] then go into that hot steamy interior of the Hot House for enchiladas. Oh, I love that.

Nicole: I wish we could bring back the Hot House and the Pie Shop. Those are my two requests.

Frank: Yes. Oh, good old Pie Shop. So many good thoughts out there. The owners, I, I know I've written about this a couple of times. The owner's son does a pop-up restaurant with the Hot House recipes. Though I haven't seen any dates posted on his Facebook page recently. But he'll do a pop-up, he generally takes over a commercial kitchen out on Balboa for one day, like a Saturday. And cranks out hundreds of meals for pickup or, I don't know that they ever did delivery, but you can go by and pick them up. And that that was a great reminiscence from the past, and, you know, it's authentic because it's the owner's son.

Nicole: Yeah. I think this is Eric, right?

Frank: [00:24:00] Right. Eric Faranda.

Nicole: Come on, Eric. Our Christmas wish is that you bring the Hot House back permanently.

Frank: Oh, I keep wishing. Even if it were only a takeout place. There, there were a couple of times where I was visiting San Francisco over the years when, on a weekend that he was doing it, and I always made it a point to, you know, call and order six meals and, you know, pick them up and go and have dinner with friends in the city. And everybody, it was funny, it was just that constant, ooh, ah, ooh, ah, I remember this. I remember this. So, yes, Eric, if you're listening, please have another popup weekend.

Nicole: I don't think he's a podcast listener, but you never know.

Frank: Oh, I'll drop him an email.

Nicole: Perfect.

Arnold: So back to 18th Avenue.

Nicole: Sorry.

Arnold: You mentioned the lights, I think, went on at six. How long were they on each night?

Frank: I believe it was [00:25:00] generally till 10. You know, not a, not an all-night thing, but, you know, a lot of people came out after dinner, out for a family walk or a family drive. And they really would go up and down both sides of the street, sometimes more than once. So, I want to go look at that house at the corner again. I wanna see that one halfway up on the left. People would remember, this is the house that always decorates its bushes. This is the one that has lights in the tunnel entranceway. This has this and this has that. Over a while there, especially in the, probably the late ‘50s, a lot of real trees, but they were flocked, covered with a snow like substance that literally would drop off every single day until your vacuum cleaner was ready to explode. I think my parents had a flock tree once and mom just said, well, we're not doing that again. They were very pretty, but very messy.

Nicole: Yes. That's true for a lot of Christmas [00:26:00] things. Glitter everywhere all the time.

Frank: Oh yeah. And, of course, people who had cats suddenly discovered cats are explorers. Dogs will leave the tree alone. Not so much cats. They wanna explore.

Nicole: I can confirm.

Arnold: So, I, I gotta imagine that there was Christmas music being played during, on the block. How, how was that handled?

Frank: Oh, in the early days it, it took a lot of technology in the early days. By the time I came along in the ‘50s, you, you just had to have a hi-fi in your garage and plug it in and crank it up. So, especially that first night, the music was blaring from 6:00 until 10:00. Other nights you'd have it maybe for an hour or so, from 6 to 7. But yes, a constant variety of Christmas carols being played. And, you know, it just, it, it's the kind of thing [00:27:00] people used to do. And hanging out with the neighbors even on the subsequent nights, you'd just be out there chatting with your neighbors talking to them, as I say, exchanging those plates of Christmas cookies all through the month of December.

Nicole: I'm trying to imagine my very docile block on 32nd and Kirkham all agreeing to stay up till 10:00 every night with a bunch of lights and blare coordinated music. I just, I, I have a hard time imagining, my neighbors are very friendly, like I have a hard time imagining all of us getting on board for this.

Frank: Well, you know, that's the funny thing. It really was different in those days. You know, I lived for, oh, 20 plus years at, after I moved outta my parents' house, at 22nd and Pacheco. And, you know, out of 50 houses there, maybe we'd have 10 houses with Christmas trees.

Nicole: Yeah,

Frank: Maybe one or two people would put lights on a [00:28:00] bush, but it was different. And I think that was the sad thing. When the tradition began to fade in the late ‘60s and it was gone by, say 1970 or so, several things came together. Far fewer kids. So, a lot of parents didn't get as excited as they once did. And a lot of those who had been very active for years were suddenly much older and, you know, less inclined to climb ladders and, you know, put up light frames and put up large 6, 7, 8-foot Christmas trees. So, things began to fade a little bit, and certainly by ‘70, ’71, it was over.

Arnold: You, you described how people would go house to house in the neighborhood there, but this wasn't just your neighborhood that took part in this. People came from all over the city, really. Can you talk [00:29:00] about what this scene was like while this was going on?

Frank: There's one photo I, I know it's been posted at a couple of my Christmas columns, including this year's. It was one of the first years after World War II. The, the tradition was quite literally suspended during the war years, ‘42, ‘43, ‘44. The lights were already up and on in ‘41 when the U.S. became involved. But certainly by ’46, there was such a huge resurgence in celebration that you literally had people coming from all over the city.

It was also interesting that, in the notes that Chris gave me, her parents kept a lot of just handwritten notes. In 1948, they had a call from some people who lived on the first block of Sylvan Drive, right off Sloat Boulevard from that first block between Sloat and Ocean. And they wanted to know how [00:30:00] did your celebration start? How do you organize it? What do you say? How do you encourage people? What do you say to people who might be too old to climb ladders and put up light frames? And so, Chris's parents and a lot of others sat down with these folks who lived a couple of blocks away on Sylvan and said, this is how we did it. These were the challenges we had. Here's how you get around it. And it was wonderful because that was another block that had a very organized lighting ceremony. There were other blocks in the Sunset that were very, very active. I wanna say 28th and Quintara was one. Certainly 40th Avenue and Lawton was one of the most popular blocks in terms of people getting together and doing things. I mean, they had neighborhood picnics in the summer, they had Christmas parties. They were just a wonderful block and still are.

Nicole: I love this idea of [00:31:00] Christmas light consultancy going from 18th Avenue and citywide.

Frank: Well, you know, you, you realize that, you know, it really is a wonderful feeling. I remember Herb Caen writing the year of Loma Prieta that, for the first time in many years, this was 1989 for those listeners who are too young to remember, in 1989, there seemed to be more Christmas lights than ever that year. People really got into the festive spirit and they had gotten to know their neighbors at the time of the earthquake in October, and that carried over through Thanksgiving and Christmas, to the point that people were socializing much more than they had in many years. And I can remember Herb Caen writing several columns about that.

Arnold: I think, what you've described here is what 18th Avenue was doing is, and in today's terms, you'd call that being an [00:32:00] influencer.

Frank: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And it, it carried over the rest of the year. I mean, if somebody was ill and in the hospital, or a family member passed away, there would always be a collection taken up for flowers or signing a get-well card. I mean, people really were very concerned about their neighbors and everybody looked out for one another. As neighbors got older, people just decided, I'm gonna call Mrs. So-and-so every couple of days and just make sure she's okay because I haven't seen her. She doesn't get out to walk the way she used to. I'm just gonna make sure. And it, it was a wonderful thing.

I mean, my mother lived there until she passed away at almost 90, and there was always somebody calling to check on her because, oh, we didn't see you and just want to be sure you're all right and how are you doing? And this was a very common thing as all of those longtime neighbors became older. [00:33:00] Very few people moved away from that block. They generally stuck it out until the very end, and that was wonderful because everybody knew everybody else. You know, if you needed anything, just pick up the phone or pop your head out the door and there was somebody there to keep an eye on you or to give you a hand that, whatever you needed.

Nicole: Yeah, and what you said about Herb Caen talking about the response after the ‘89 earthquake really resonates with me as well. I mean, we're coming out of this pandemic, although cases are rising again, so maybe we're not fully outta the pandemic, but, but I feel that all around, like folks are excited about family gatherings and I see a lot more activity downtown this year, and there's more Christmas lights up. I personally, too, was able to decorate and do the whole thing, and we're doing a full misfit Christmas at my house with everyone who has no place else to go. So…

Frank: Ooh that, those are the most fun. You know, sometimes your own [00:34:00] family could be a little boring. But you, you spice it up with a mix of people who might not know each other and, all of a sudden, you have lots and lots of new traditions being talked about and being celebrated.

Nicole: It's true. I look forward to a spicy Christmas tomorrow.

Arnold: But I think this is…

Frank: I love that idea of getting Guerra's to roast that prime rib.

Nicole: Cool. It's the best. Major shout out to Guerra's. You guys are the best.

Frank: Oh, absolutely. No, no guessing on timing or, you know, how rare is too rare. How well done is too well done. They're the experts. Let them make the call.

Nicole: Totally, and Christmas Eve lasagna to boot. So, you know.

Frank: Aah God. Our, our family, for years when we were little, we always celebrated Christmas on Christmas morning because that's what you do when you have kids. As we got into high school, things shifted. Nobody wanted to be up at the crack of dawn. [00:35:00] Nobody wanted to be bleary-eyed in their bathrobes. So, we shifted to open presents on Christmas Eve. And we just got into the best celebration in the world. Somebody would stop in North Beach at Liguria Bakery and buy focaccia.

Nicole: Yeah.

Frank: And mom would cut that in little pieces and serve that with prosecco, and we'd munch for a while until all the aunts and uncles got there. Then we'd stop and open presents, and then we'd have dessert and coffee. It was wonderful. That was my favorite meal of the year after Thanksgiving. And then people could do what they wanted. They could go to other parties. A lot of people would get together and go to midnight mass at St. Ignatius. I had a high school classmate whose grandparents lived on 24th Avenue and, since at least pre-1906, his grandparents and before them, his great-grandparents, held a Christmas day brunch [00:36:00] whenever mass ended at St. Ignatius. Come on over. It's 1 or 1:30 in the morning and literally the party there would last until dawn. So, all sorts of holiday celebrations get mingled when you, you know, bring in friends to mix with your family members.

Nicole: I love it. I'm gonna steal the prosecco and focaccia, Christmas.

Frank: Yes, never any leftovers. And you know, from mom's perspective, well that's a pretty easy dinner.

Nicole: Absolutely,

Frank: Focaccia, prosecco. And we would also stop, since we were in North Beach anyway, after getting the focaccia at Liguria, stop at Victoria Pastry and buy zuccotto. Zuccotto is a sponge cake, pressed into a mold, and then filled with whipped cream and chocolate pudding.

Nicole: Oh my God.

Frank: Aah. Delicious, delicious. You know, probably not the healthiest in the world, but one night a year, you can go off [00:37:00] your vegetables and proteins and just have heavy duty stuff.

Nicole: Oh well, you can't gain weight during Christmas. That's science.

Frank: You're immune. Immunity sets in around the 15th of the month, so.

Arnold: I'm now very hungry.

Nicole: I know.

Arnold: And I would really like some block in San Francisco to revive the 18th Avenue Christmas tradition. Frank, have we covered everything about it? Is there any last words you have about the 18th Avenue Christmas.

Frank: Oh, I, I feel the same way. I wish it could come back. Where I live down here is a community of 10,000 homes. And I'd say maybe a thousand of them decorate extensively. Lots of outdoor lights, but you know, it's literally 1 in 10. A couple of streets are well known [00:38:00] for, you know, small cul-de-sacs where every single house has outdoor lights in the month of December, and those are wonderful. I, I have to download a map of those this week and go out after dinner some night and check out some of them.

Nicole: Well, that sounds delightful. We might not have 18th Avenue anymore, but Golden Gate Park these days has tons of lights, including Entwined, which is back again for another year. And I've, I've shamefully never actually been. So, I think I'm gonna try to go see that to sort of revive the spirit, if not the actual physical location, of 18th Avenue.

Frank: Oh, exactly. I was pleased to see that the tree outside McLaren Lodge was lighted and…

Nicole: Yeah.

Frank: They, they have an actual lighting ceremony. That poor tree. It, it takes a lot to get it decorated now because it's lost quite a few branches over the years. But they look like they've definitely had some of the Park's better gardeners working on it, trying to encourage [00:39:00] growth to, you know, get it filled out again. But it looked very nice in the images that I saw online.

Nicole: It's true. Maybe next year our Christmas podcast will be all of the west side Christmas trees.

Frank: Perhaps something on the roof of the Western Neighborhoods Project on Balboa.

Nicole: Oh my God. I don't know who's putting that up, Frank. You coming to install it?

Frank: Ooh.

Arnold: Frank, we, we can't thank you enough for giving us this insider’s look at the once proud 18th Avenue Christmas tradition, but don't go anywhere just yet, because we have some further questions for you coming up, but…

Frank: Okay.

Arnold: We'd be remiss in not telling people that we, we did tell you already about the, the two Streetwise columns he writes for us every month. He's also the author of many books about his memories of growing up in San Francisco and, lo and behold, we sell most of those [00:40:00] through our website. So, check them out.

Frank: That's right. And also, Amazon and Bookshop West Portal and a lot of other places. As advertisers like to say, at many fine stores near you.

Nicole: Bookshop West Portal…

Frank: But check out Western Neighborhoods Bookstore.

Nicole: Thanks Frank. Bookshop West Portal is one of my favorite places to get Christmas gifts and a lot of gifts that I have wrapped under the tree right now may have been from there. We don't know.

Frank: They, they're very, very nice people. They've done book readings for me each time I've had one of my four books come out. And I have to start working. I got a note from the publisher a few weeks ago saying, is there another one coming? It's like, well, have to make a commitment. It's, it's generally a year plus from the time the first word gets typed into the computer until the book comes off the presses. So, I just have to [00:41:00] block out a few months and start thinking again. But as soon as I see more photos on the Western Neighborhoods archives, I'll start working.

Nicole: People want more Frank Dunnigan and that's why I know people are gonna love our next segment in which we ask you extremely hard-hitting questions. Frank, are you ready for these five questions?

Frank: Okay.

Nicole: I think you already answered some of these, but what was your favorite place to go for dinner during the Christmas holidays?

Frank: The Hot House at Playland with a second choice of the Gold Mirror at 18th and Taraval.

Nicole: The Gold Mirror is where I go every night, every time I get, I get the Christmas tree.

Frank: Oh, good, good, good.

Arnold: So how about your favorite place to go Christmas shopping in the old days?

Frank: Oh, I was just talking to a friend about this. I loved the [00:42:00] old Stonestown when it was an outdoor mall prior to the mid ‘80s. It was just a single level. It was outdoors. They had, you know, little miniature planter boxes down the middle. There was just something about being out there in the cold at night with Christmas decorations and twinkly lights. You know, the smell of Blums and their baked goods and candy. The B. Dalton bookstore with that crisp smell of new books. Bruce Bary, the clothing store. The smell of wool sweaters. And, of course, the incredible Woolworth with a variety of things. And, you know, Emporium’s cosmetic department. It, it was just a sensory overload.

Nicole: Absolutely. Well, you can't go there, but what was your favorite place to take people to see Christmas decorations other than the street that you lived on, of course?

Frank: Other than that street, I have to think for a minute because there were so many things. It was [00:43:00] downtown. There was kind of a route through downtown of, you know, City of Paris had the tree. You always had to see the City of Paris tree. You always had to walk by Podesta Baldocchi Floral Shop, with the lights and the plants and flowers. You had to go by Blums. You had to visit the Emporium. Santa at Macy's or Santa at the Emporium were also required. And eating downtown. Again, so many places that are long gone. Bardellis on O’Farrell Street and Bernstein's on Powell Street. You know, just wonderful places. And, you know, if you're trying to save a few pennies and spend them on gifts for other people, well then, have your lunch at Woolworth. Good old Woolworth where you could find anything under the sun. Yeah, just that, that kind of route through downtown.

Arnold: Okay, this one is kind of off the wall, Frank, but I, I feel like I've seen pictures of you wearing Christmas sweaters and ugly Christmas sweaters have [00:44:00] become a thing. So, do you have a favorite ugly Christmas sweater? And if so, please describe it for us.

Frank: Now, I don't consider them ugly. I've seen ones that truly qualify. I've seen people have contests. I think mine are rather tasteful. A snowflake here, an antler there, a Christmas tree. I mean, I, I tend to, you know, favor colors of maroon and green. In fact, I wore one today that was green with two very handsome looking reindeer and some very large snowflakes. But it's not what I would call an ugly sweater. I don't like those, but I do like Christmas sweaters.

Nicole: That sounds…

Frank: And you're right, you have seen me in them.

Nicole: That sounds very classy. So, I, I, I believe in your taste in Christmas sweaters, Frank.

Frank: Maybe I'll do a column on that one of these days.

Nicole: Oh my god, yes please. Okay, last question. Frank, if [00:45:00] you could bring back one old timey San Francisco Christmas tradition, what would it be?

Frank: Well other than 18th Avenue resurrected, oh, I've got to think. Well, my dad always liked to do a drive around. We'd go past Shriner's Hospital on 19th Avenue to see the tree they had. We'd go past McLaren Lodge to see the tree they had. We would go past the Living Nativity scene in Golden Gate Park at Lindley Meadow. Another member, Judy Hitzman and I have talked about this many times. Her church participated in it, oh I guess many times in the ‘60s. And she always remembered and tells the story about the year that the sheep ran amuck, and the shepherds actually had a real job of herding the sheep. But that was always a good story, but it was an incredible scene under spotlights at night. I don't think Western Neighborhoods has a photo of it. But, and by the last book, I had a photo that I obtained from [00:46:00] San Francisco Public Library Archives of wise men and shepherds minding the sheep. And it was just incredible. I mean, parents would drive up. Kids in their jammies would be in the backseat of the car and get out and look and watch and there was a little bit of movement, but, you know, there wasn't any sort of a real scene being played out. It was just, take a look and take a picture and off you go to the next interesting site and that I really missed. Judy told me it had begun in the World War II era and lasted at least until the late ‘60s, early ‘70s when her church participated in it.

Nicole: Yeah, that sounds about right. Well, maybe I can convince my boyfriend to drive us all around in our jammies with hot cocoa.

Frank: That's good. That's good.

Nicole: I'll let you know if we manage it, Frank. [00:47:00]

Frank: Yes, please.

Nicole: Well, that concludes our extremely joyful holiday podcast, at least the podcast portion of the podcast with Frank Dunnigan. Frank, thank you so much for being here tonight.

Frank: Oh, I enjoyed it. It was a nice walk back in time and, you know, happy holidays to everyone. And a great 2023 is fast approaching.

Nicole: Yes, it's gonna be a historic year next year for Western Neighborhoods Project. I just have that feeling and we're gonna tell you a little bit about that now. But Frank, you're welcome to hang out and listen to our listener mail, or you can bid your, bid your adieu and continue about your Christmas Eve.

Frank: Oh, I'll hang on for listener mail. That's always a favorite part.

Nicole: Excellent. Okay, Arnold, first of all, how does one send us listener mail?

Arnold: Well I'll avoid the long rigamarole that I usually do for this because we're [00:48:00] running a little bit long and just say, send an email to podcast@outsidelands.org.

Nicole: Yeah, do it. Should we read our really long listener mail or should we just move on for today?

Arnold: It's actually not that long. So, I'll, I'll go through it very quickly.

Nicole: Okay.

Arnold: In response to our Facebook post about the snow in San Francisco, longtime WNP member and contributor Emiliano noted, quote, "snow tends to happen when it does, in January or February." End quote. And Emiliano was largely correct about that. In the 11 days of appreciable snowfall in San Francisco since 1856, four of them occurred in January, three of them in February, including the largest snowfall ever in San Francisco's recorded history back in 1887. However, December's also had three snow days, and that includes a white Christmas in 1856. March is the only other month with a snow day, and it has been 46 years since the inch of snowfall that fell in [00:49:00] February 1976 that many still remember. Don't know about others, but I'd kinda like to see some more snow in San Francisco.

Nicole: You never can tell with global warming. You know what, Emiliano is a dear friend of the organization and he is also the reason why I have gotten to try a Ligouria focaccia cause he brought me some. He stops by there on his way to the office on Friday, sometimes when he helps us identify photographs. And that's his contribution to the organization. Helping us identify photographs, donating photographs, feeding me focaccia. But Arnold, there are so many other benefits to membership and donating. Can we get into that right now really quickly?

Arnold: You can, and I will keep it quick. You, your membership helps support the OpenSFHistory treasure trove of historical photos. It helps the care and exhibition of the Cliff House collection that we had on display this year. It helps this podcast. You get exclusive perks. [00:50:00] You get the quarterly member mag, membership magazine. Discounts on events. So, you can become a member by clickity, clickity clacking on that big orange button on every website page.

Nicole: That's true, and we hope you're enjoying your membership magazine right now while you're all curled up by the fire, which is where, you know, myself and Chelsea are likely at, because we do everything together. But whatever holiday you're celebrating or not celebrating, we hope that you're also snuggled up at home with the people and the things that you love.

Arnold: Indeed. Which brings us, I guess, to some short announcements.

Nicole: Yes, absolutely. So, in many ways this is a sentiment that we always bring to the local history that we do, but it's extra special this time of year, right? And maybe it's the cold, maybe it's the abundance of colorful lights all around us, but I love San Francisco in the winter. It's completely magical. [00:51:00] And it always replenishes me after a long year of making history happen, which is good because we are preparing all sorts of fun things for 2023. Arnold, what are we doing next year?

Arnold: That's right Nicole. You're gonna get more of what you love from the WNP in 2023. Things we specifically have in the works right now are history walks from John Martini and Richard Brandi. Collaborative events with our friends at the Global Museum at San Francisco State and with the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute for Architects. Perhaps maybe the Cable Car Museum as well, Manny's in the Mission, and more that we can't even announce.

Nicole: Places we're looking to celebrate include the Alexandra, Alexandria Theater, which turns 100 years old in 2023, and boy, is it looking its age. As well as the Helen Crocker, Crocker Russell Library, which turned 50 this year. We'll also be showcasing new exhibitions for the front windows of the WNP Clubhouse on Balboa [00:52:00] and a brand new rotating OpenSFHistory exhibition series curated by myself that's inspired by Ansel Adams, and features highlights from the collection alongside that of a local photographer each quarter.

Arnold: That's not all Nicole will be doing. She's also go, gonna be heading a panel discussion on the problems of and potential for public monuments. That panel will feature Ralph Remington, San Francisco's Director of Cultural Affairs at the Cal, California Association of Museums annual conference in March. And that's when we're gonna begin, begin our public program series. And we need your help to make sure these trains run smoothly.

Nicole: Yes, donating to our winter appeal one last time before the end of 2022 ensures you get one last tax deduction and it will also make sure we start a new year on solid grounds. So sincerely, we do need your support to survive and do the [00:53:00] work that we all enjoy providing for you.

Arnold: And we've actually sweetened the pot a little bit this year. Donations over $75 are eligible to receive a limited edition Trad'r Sam enamel pin, while supplies last, designed by our friends at San Francisco Neon. Donations over $125 are eligible to receive an authentic Cliff House mug, which is part of the glassware we saved at the Cliff House auction last year and, as we've fully disclosed in the past, it's just a plain white mug. It doesn't say Cliff House on it, but we guarantee it is from the Cliff House.

Nicole: Yep. And because it is Christmas Eve, I'm gonna tell you right now, we cannot guarantee delivery before Christmas. But we'll get it to you to sip your delightful hot beverages in in 2023. So, with that, Arnold, take us on home. What's the preview for next week?

Arnold: Next week, we are going to help ring in the change from the old year to the new one by telling you [00:54:00] about a strike at San Francisco State University that changed things there.

Nicole: Yes, we will. Frank, thank you again for being with us.

Frank: Oh, glad to be part of it and celebrate.

Nicole: Frank, you're the best. Alright, everybody, have a wonderful Christmas eve, a very merry Christmas tomorrow if you're celebrating, and we will see you again next week, right before the new year.

Arnold: Happy holidays everybody.

Frank: And happy New Year.

Nicole: Good night. Good night.

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, [00:55:00] and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

On the Map (click marker for larger map)
More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 130: West Portal

    The story of West Portal, the neighborhood and the avenue. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Jul 12, 2015)
  • Podcast # 477: Lloyd Kahn

    Special guest and author Lloyd Kahn joins the podcast this week to talk about growing up in West Portal. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Oct 14, 2022)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History