When The Savoy Tivoli was the Heart of North Beach Bohemia
In The City That Was, Bohemian Archivist P Segal tells a weekly story of what you all missed: the days when artists, writers, musicians, and unemployed visionaries were playing hard in the city’s streets and paying the rent working part time.
If you’ve ever wandered up Grant Avenue in North Beach, you’ve probably passed the Savoy Tivoli, near the corner of Union. It’s kind of a sleepy spot now, more than half empty on a weekend night, even though it has the ground floor wall cut out to make a fantastic covered, open-air, terrace. In the years I lived in North Beach, the Savoy was so packed that you usually ended up sharing someone’s table.
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A large framed quote hung on the terrace wall in those years. It said, “Why don’t people understand that patience and leisure are intertwined?” That was perhaps a warning to newcomers that service was spotty, which it was. But when it arrived, it was fabulous. Howard, for example, was a tall black drag queen whose hair was three different colors each week. Typically, no one collected your check. You took it to Madame Nu, a short Asian drag queen, who sat in the concierge-like booth in the dining room, listening to the sounds of the Majolica fountain splashing nearby. A joke that made its way around the terrace: “Savoy Tivoli: now offering same day service.”
On nights when the service was particularly bad, people would just go into the also crowded bar and get their own damn drink. The bartender, Franco, had one front tooth and the wisdom of Buddha. It was worth not getting another martini from our theoretical waitperson, just to collect a few seconds of grounding at the bar.
You never knew what was going to happen there, in the golden years of champagne and cocaine. For one thing, it attracted that bohemian combination of fringe intellectuals, arty types, plenty of writers, and celebrated eccentrics. Jack Sarfatti, the maverick quantum physicist, was usually there with his best friend, Kim Burrafato, profiled in Esquire Magazine as a golden boy who shocked everyone by not being utterly famous yet. Artists in their paint-soaked clothing lounged there after the light was gone. Poets like Gregory Corso would storm in and yell a new poem over the blabbing of the crowd. The Lord and Lady Leslie, a cheerful split personality, would wax lyrical about the druggie days in Morocco with William S. Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Allen Ginsberg, and Corso.
The Savoy patrons were frequently entertained by other people’s dirty laundry. There were “The Seven Fighting Couples of North Beach,” famous among the regulars for their domestic squabbles, which were likely to happen after a few drinks on the terrace. Ferlinghetti’s biographer and poet Neeli Cherkovski would have political shouting matches with Stephen Schwartz, a writer thrown out of the Communist Party for reading Ezra Pound, who finally found receptive ears for his political commentary among the Neo-Cons.
The patrons of the Savoy Tivoli entertained each other, argued, critiqued each other’s writing, and cruised the fresh supply of visitors to the terrace every night. Then there were surprises. One summer, a bus carrying a French brass band would pull up outside on random nights, and they would line up on the street to play. On other nights, a white limo would arrive, and a big man in a white linen suit and white Panama hat, who looked like the scion of some Caribbean banana republic, would belt out terrible operatic arias on the street. He was paid to go away more than once. Perhaps that’s how he paid for the limo.
A martini in those days at the Savoy cost $2, $3 if it were top shelf. You could occupy a terrace table from cocktail hour to closing for $10, stepping out to get some food elsewhere, maybe. Or you could order from the kitchen. If the chef were in a mood, and he knew who ordered a salad, it might be delivered with a new metal scrubby pad under the tomatoes.
Freddie Kuh, the bohemian businessman who owned the Savoy, ultimately sold it. The new owner, whose daughter had a Hell’s Angels boyfriend, tossed the giant Majolica fountain and installed pool tables. A bar was built on the terrace, and the quote about patience and leisure disappeared. So did the bohemians and the charm.
I took this photo of the Savoy a couple days ago, right after I stopped at the Trieste for coffee. Minutes before I got there, this happened: