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The Speakeasy is Back, Under the Streets of North Beach

Updated: Apr 26, 2024 09:44
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Heather Mae Steffen as Velma. Photo by Valerie Guseva

Under the streets of North Beach, on the cusp of Chinatown, a Speakeasy has resurfaced.  In a cavernous maze of vice and gin, populated by showgirls,  jazz musicians, dirty politicians, rum runners, scallywags, and songbirds…while the doors only open to those with the right password.

So naturally Stuart and I put on some hats and pinstripes, grabbed some pizza at Capo’s, found some dames wearing fasteners and feathers to descend into San Francisco’s roaring 1920s.

Down below the streets, the bars hummed and the pianos played, the crooners joked and the dancers tapped, while a crowd of Volstead violators played along.   The scenes take place in and among the crowd, or on stages, in gambling parlors, even in hidden rooms with two-way mirrors.

Cecilia Palmtag as Eddie the emcee. Photo by Valerie Guseva

Like a good San Francisco crowd, everyone seemed to be dressed to nines, which helps with the immersion and eventually becomes the real entertainment.  You can approach a group and pretend to be a gambler hard on his luck, maybe you’re the Mayor looking for campaign support?  You can be whoever you want in a ‘speak’.

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Never did find out if these two were a couple of fancy ‘working girls’, not sure what happened to them.

What I don’t suggest you play-act as, after several glasses of bathtub gin, is a vice cop who tries to arrest a group of ladies for ‘prostitution’, because those ladies might turn out to have large Russian boyfriends without a sense of humor.  But if you do make that mistake, simply bribe the Russians with gambling chips and slip out the back door, and into a fresh den of sin.

After all this is a ‘choose your own adventure’ type of place, you’re allowed to wander and find new strange and wonderful scenes behind curtains and hidden doors.

Gambling at The Speakeasy. Photo by Andy Feifarek

In 1920s San Francisco, and despite the drinking ban, hooch was alive and well, just slightly more hidden.  San Franciscans had voted overwhelmingly against prohibition, after all, we’ve had a strong drinking culture here since the Goldrush days.  San Francisco still has more bars per capita than any other city in America. 

In the mid-20th century, when they started keeping statistics like this, they found that SF residents consumed not only more booze per capita than any other city in the U.S., but the city was also first in gin mills per capita.  

In 1920s Northbeach speakeasies were common, as was organized crime and eventually mafia gang wars, involving incredible characters like, “Gerri Ferri, the ‘Don Juan of North Beach'”, and the “King of North Beach Crooks,” ‘Luigi Malvese’.  If you’d like to read about North Beach’s prohibition history check out this article on  I also highly recommend you read about San Francisco’s most legendary madam, power broker, and philanthropist of the time Sally Stanford while you’re at it.

From left, Emily Corbo, Anne Yumi Kobori, Shaneen …d as the chorus girls. Photo by Valerie Guseva.jpg

First opening on January 10, 2014 in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, The Speakeasy ran for more than five months earning praise from critics and audiences alike.

After moving to a new location on the border of North Beach and Chinatown, The Speakeasy boasted an enlarged script of almost 1,500 pages, requiring minute-by-minute precision to coordinate scenes unfolding simultaneously in six different areas of the venue. Bucking trends for a night out on the town, The Speakeasy enforced a dress code for guests, offered period attire for rent and required that mobile phones be turned off and stowed away inside the theater. After the first act, patrons were free to “choose their own adventure,” freely exploring The Speakeasy’s maze of hidden rooms.


“Over the course of its inspired run, The Speakeasy has employed over 265 performers and paid more than $1.74 million to artists,” said Peter Liu, a member of Boxcar’s board of directors.

In its latest iteration, The Speakeasy is pleased to welcome back many cast and crew members from years past who will be reprising more than half of the roles. Among the returning cast are Holly Silk in the role of Eloise, Donna Marie McMillan as Dorothy, Cecilia Palmtag and Rachael Richman, who both previously played Charlotte and next year will be sharing the newly developed role of Lois Lipstick, Robert Kittler as Clyde, David Magidson as Oliver and Eddie the emcee, Cecilia Palmtag.  Tickets start at $65.



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