Remembering a Trolley Titan

klebolt-1-240px.jpgMarket Street Railway photo.

I woke up to the news on Saturday, October 1, 1988. Fellow Market Street Railway director Jack Smith was on the phone. “Rick, we lost the big man last night.” I knew immediately what he meant, though I desperately wanted to be wrong.

Maurice Klebolt was dead. The Godfather of the Trolley Festival, the saviour of streetcars on Market Street, the man who never stopped working to protect vintage rail in San Francisco…gone.

We all knew Maury was at risk. He’d had a massive heart attack three years before, and barely survived. That time, he was standing next to car No. 130 at Geneva, and was lucky enough to have been with people who administered effective CPR immediately. This time, he was sitting on his favorite bar stool at The Mint, a tavern on Market Street next to the Trolley Festival storage area where he regularly held court (Market Street Railway’s Pharr Division facility today). Though he got immediate attention this time, too, the doctors said nothing would have saved him. Maury was 58.

Maury Klebolt was an original, the kind of person you write books about. As a student of San Francisco history, I believe that, in his own way and time, Maury was as big a character as someone like Emperor Norton. He had a vision, a dream that vintage trolleys could come out of retirement–become streetcars again–and carry commuters and shoppers, not just fans, on a real transit route. He built the last ten years of his life around that dream. Everything else in his life, it seemed, was just there to fill up leftover time.

klebolt-62.jpg
Maury Klebolt changes trolley poles on visiting Sacramento Northern streetcar No. 62, 1983, being tested (unsuccessfully) for possible use in the first Historic Trolley Festival. Click to enlarge. Market Street Railway photo.

Many people laughed at Maury, but then, those of limited perspective often laugh at those with a mission. And unlike many in the railway preservation movement, Maury wasn’t an all-talk, no-action guy. He was constantly in motion: writing letters; contributing the hard-earned profits from his small travel agency to the office holders and candidates who listened to his dreams; badgering and hectoring anybody and everybody involved in a particular decision he needed to go his way.

Bombastic? Yes. Infuriating? At times. Well-intentioned? Always. Effective? Beyond a doubt.

Maury was just like a big kid. And he knew how to use that part of his character to get away with things that no one else could have. So many memories of his exploits come to mind. Let me share just one that typified Maury’s way of doing things. He called me one day, and the conversation went something like this:

“Well, better get ready. You’ve got to go over with me to the Soviet Consulate.”

“What for?”

“To get the Russian car. What do you think?”

“What Russian car?”

“The one I used your name to line up.”

“Maury, I’ve told you you can’t…”

“It doesn’t matter, sweetness. It’s too late. I wrote the letter, told them everybody in the City wanted it in the name of world peace, that it was a great ambassador for them, and that it would get Gorbachev, or whatever their new guy’s name is, out of the chute with a big bang. It musta clanked around the Kremlin for awhile. They probably scratched their heads and said ‘Huh?’ But I just got a call from the consulate. They want it to happen, so I told them you and Barton (Carl Barton, Muni’s Trolley Festival overseer) would be over there at 11am tomorrow with me. They think you’re a real big shot.”

“Maury, I can’t go tomorrow. I’ve got a meeting in my office, and…”

“Oh, you have to go. It’ll be a diplomatic blunder if you didn’t. Big insult. Hell, you could even restart the Cold War.”

“MAURY!”

“Besides, wait till you see this car. It’s a honey. They say it was built in 1921, but you know the Commies, nothing existed before the Revolution. I think it’s really from 1912, and…”

The conversation—or Maury’s monologue—went on, and sure enough, there we were at the Soviet Consulate the next morning, talking with the commercial consul and pretending that we knew what we were doing. At one point, the deal looked like it would fall through when the consul told us we’d have to pay something like $25,000 to have the car shipped.

Maury didn’t blink.

“Oleg, what shipping line will you use?”

The consul named a Soviet shipping line.

“And who owns that shipping line?”

“Why, the Soviet people, of course.”

“And who owns the streetcar?”

“You know the answer to that. Everything in the Soviet Union is owned by the people.”

“Well, if the Soviet people are in charge, and they want to give us the streetcar, why don’t they just tell their shipping company to send it over?”

“Mr. Klebolt, it’s not that simple…”

“Huh? I thought you had the worker’s paradise over there. Don’t tell me your bureaucracy is as bad as ours. It sounds like your place is one big Muni. Can’t do anything without talking it to death. Gotta get this going, so it can be here for the big celebration.”

“Celebration?”

“Why, sure. We’ve got the Mayor all lined up to drive the car up Market Street, with throngs watching, cheering the friendship of the Soviet and American peoples, big presentation, a plaque on the car, television cameras for days. You’ll be on the networks. Moscow will probably make you a hero or put you in the Kremlin wall or something.”

“Welllll… what if I can get it shipped as far as Los Angeles?”

klebolt-3557.jpg
Maurice Klebolt poses with his pride and joy, Hamburg tram No. 3557, along with then-Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer, at 20th & Church Streets during the Trolley Festival of 1984. Market Street Railway photo.

I can’t guarantee you every quote in that story is right on the money, but it’s close, and I know it captures the spirit of Maury Klebolt. And if you change the players and the circumstances, it’s pretty much the story of the Hamburg car, the two Milan cars, and the two Japanese cars, and the Seattle trolley coaches, and so much else about the Trolley Festival, and the future F-line, that we all value.

To Maury Klebolt, no! meant “Yes, but don’t let me catch you;” maybe meant “Tell them to ship it tomorrow and sign my name to the bill;” and yes meant “Get three, they’re small.”

In a world of Xerox copies, Maury was one of a kind. We can never replace him. We can only dedicate ourselves to do all we can, in our own tepid styles, to make sure his remaining dreams come true. For without Maurice Klebolt, there’d be no rails in the new pavement they’re putting on Market Street today; no Trolley Festival; no summer Embarcadero experiments; no Wharf extension; none of it. Anybody who believes differently is just fooling himself.

It was fitting that he was scheming and dreaming right up to the end. Maury had supported Sup. Jack Molinari to replace Dianne Feinstein as mayor. Jack and Dianne have both been big Trolley Festival supporters, but Jack lost to Art Agnos, a state legislator of Greek heritage who knew almost nothing about the Trolley Festival, and would have every right to be suspicious of a project so close to the heart of his opponent. If this turn of events fazed Maury, he didn’t show it.

The day after I learned of Maury’s death, I shared it with a high City official close to the new mayor. He was genuinely saddened, for though he said he thought Maury was a real thorn in his side sometimes (not his exact phrase), he knew Maury always wanted to do things that made The City better. Then he paused for a minute, looked at me, and said, “Say, you don’t know anything about this Athens trolley Maury was working on, do you? He said we could have a big Greek party to welcome it, and the mayor could drive it, and…”

If St. Peter’s thinking about dieselizing the streetcar routes of Heaven, he’d better think again. Clear track ahead, Maury. Put it to the brass. We miss you already. We’ll never see your like again.

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Editor’s Note: Read this classic Chronicle article on one of Maury Klebolt’s most famous exploits.

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A Streetcar Named Undesirable

Editor’s Note: This article, by Marshall Kilduff, appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 15, 1979. Maurice Klebolt went on to become a board member of Market Street Railway and one of the forces behind the Historic Trolley Festivals from 1983-87 that led to the permanent F-Market and Wharves vintage streetcar line.

A German streetcar was trundled on the back of a flatbed truck to the front steps of City Hall yesterday where city officials fashioned a reluctant welcome for the unbidden gift.

Maurice Klebolt (left) with his pride and joy, Hamburg tram No. 3557, about 1984, some five years  <a style=

after this article was written. Its restoration was approved by then-Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer (right).” width=”700″ height=”615″ /> Maurice Klebolt (left) with his pride and joy, Hamburg tram No. 3557, about 1984, some five years after this article was written. Its restoration was approved by then-Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer (right).

The occasion was pronounced “a triumph” by Maurice Klebolt, the portly Municipal Railway gadfly who brought the 35-year old tram from Hamburg but neglected to tell the Muni.

City officials, whose annoyance showed through their ceremonial manners, announced the unsolicited gift will be stored away on a siding at the Geneva carbarn, probably for good.

Klebolt and his band of Muni nostalgia buffs and critics—known as the Citizens Advisory Panel for Transit Improvement—had sweet-talked Hamburg officials into turning over the car, made obsolete there by a new subway system.

Klebolt, happy as a clam, raised the money—including $1500 of his own—to ship the tram from Germany. The Hapag-Lloyd shipping line carried the car at a discount rate. Klebolt was in fine fettle yesterday. Mayor Dianne Feinstein was winding up a ceremony on the City Hall steps with Canadian tourism officials from Ontario when Klebolt sidled up and presented her with a spray of red roses.

The mayor turned to her perplexed guests and explained the newcomer as though he were an eccentric uncle who had been told to stay upstairs during a parlor wedding.

“Mr. Klebolt has paid for this streetcar. But we don’t quite know what to do with it, you see,” she smiled icily.

undesirable-2.jpg
No. 3557 participates in the parade marking the centennial of San Francisco’s first streetcar line, 1992. Market Street Railway photo. Click to enlarge.

Feinstein, who had already been presented with a gold chrome bottle of Canadian whiskey and a toy cannon, looked around for somewhere to stow the flowers. She spied a couple of French newlyweds, Jacky and Susan Baudot, who had chosen that moment in their lives to leave City Hall after being married by Judge Gerald J. O’Gara.

“Congratulations. I’m sure you’ll be very happy,” she said, handing off the roses to the startled couple.

Everyone posed for pictures while Klebolt moved off to the red tram, sitting on rusty rails on a flatbed truck.

Despite its advance billing as a “beauty,” the tram was missing its turn signals, rearview mirrors and inside light fixtures. Klebolt rubbed a dent on the tram’s flank.

Its interior was fitted in mahogany, true enough, but the slatted floor installed for the wet north German weather resembled the working area of a luncheonette.

“It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” said Muni general manager Richard Sklar bravely.

“Every transit system should have one sitting in its yard for five years,” he added.

undesirable-3.jpgMarket Street Railway photo.

Sklar and Klebolt had a gentlemanly exchange about who was to pay the final trucking costs to the Muni’s Geneva yard. Klebolt assured him his group was good for all expenses.

Klebolt’s masterplan is to round up even more old discarded cars from “international centers of transit” such as Calcutta, Milan, Kyoto, and Melbourne.

The cars would be run along a proposed Embarcadero line, estimated by Muni officials to be five years off.

“Looks like we’ll need about 12,” Klebolt said.

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Editor’s Note: Maurice Klebolt passed away in 1988. He is memorialized in Remembering a Trolley Titan article, from our member newsletter Inside TrackRegular streetcar service on The Embarcadero was not five years off, as “estimated by Muni officials” in the article, but 21. The F-line extension along the northern Embarcadero opened in 2000.

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