After a long illness, Tony Bennett has moved on to perform the Great American Songbook in the sky. It’s now time for San Francisco to immediately give him our highest honor: a cable car dedicated to him. Here’s why.
Tony Bennett was one of the most talented and enduring singers of the last 75 years. Generations of people around the world sequentially discovered his unique voice and unmatched phrasing, and through his performance, hundreds of wonderful songs. Yet he is best known for a tune written not by Porter, Gershwin, or Rodgers, but a gay couple from Brooklyn. Douglass Cross and George Cory had lived in San Francisco before moving east around 1950. Pining away for the City by the Bay, they penned “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1952, but it never took off.
Until, that is, that New Year’s Eve 1961 show at the Fairmont’s famed Venetian Room. Bennett was on tour and his manager was looking for “new” material. That San Francisco song seemed worth a try. By all accounts, Bennett’s performance wowed the audience. He recorded it on Columbia soon after, but as a “B side”, the flip side of a 45 rpm record distributed to disc jockeys. Turns out they liked that “B side” better and it became a hit, winning Bennett Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Performance by a Male Vocalist. It became the title track of a successful album and one of his most requested and best selling records ever.
It also unquestionably brought millions of visitors to San Francisco over the years. For most listeners, “To be where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars” was the line that stuck, and pushed the little cars to the top of their must-do list. (On the ‘flip side’, apparently many listeners didn’t hear the next line, “The morning fog may chill the air”, since sweatshirts remain a top-selling item at the Wharf.)
The cable cars first gained a measure of national fame when Army and Navy service members rode the cars for fun on their way to and from World War II action in the Pacific Theater. Mayor Roger Lapham’s badly misguided attempt to scrap the Powell cable cars in 1947 greatly amplified the cable cars’ fame. That notoriety may have inspired lyricist Cross to include them in the song, which names no other human-made objects, not even the Golden Gate Bridge.
It seems fair to say that the magnetic ability of cable cars to draw visitors to San Francisco was constantly recharged by the enduring popularity of Bennett and his signature song. (Okay, maybe those ear worm Rice-a-Roni TV ads helped too.) The promotion of the cable cars to almost mystical status in the song resulted in uncounted millions of dollars of extra tax revenues for the City’s treasury over the decades, from visitors drawn to it by the lyrics as rendered by the master.
So, when it came time to celebrate the Cable Car Centennial in 1973, there was no question that Bennett should be at the top of the invitation list. Likewise, when then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein led the campaign to rebuild the decrepit system in the early 1980s, Tony Bennett was the star attraction at both the shutdown and restart parades.
Tony Bennett was probably the most loved San Franciscan who never lived here. That may seem odd to some, but since at least Gold Rush days, San Francisco has drawn people from all over the world, some to visit, some to stay. In that light, it’s somehow fitting that our City’s anthem was made famous by a lifelong New Yorker.
Late in his life, as Alzheimer’s settled in, he was honored with a statue in front of the Fairmont Hotel on Mason Street, that block of which was renamed “Tony Bennett Way” in his honor. But there’s another honor that’s already overdue. So we, Market Street Railway, the nonprofit that preserves San Francisco’s transit heritage, want to be the first to request that he be remembered in another way: with a cable car dedicated to him. One candidate: California Street Cable Car 58, pictured with Bennett and Feinstein above. But dedicating any cable car to him would carry his memory “halfway to the stars” every day.
And what better time to remember Tony than August 2, the 150th anniversary of the invention of the cable car by Andrew Hallidie, which we’ll be celebrating that morning at Powell and Market Streets at 10:30 a.m. with Mayor Breed and a score of history re-enactors. Come on down and sing along to Tony’s song with us, then, and without fail, take several cable car rides in the very near future. Use Muni’s great all-day $5 pass for unlimited one-day rides on the California cable car line, where you can get off and visit Chinatown, Jackson Square, Polk Gulch, and Nob Hill (and Tony’s statue, high on that hill).
RIP, Tony Bennett (1926-2023)
—By Rick Laubscher, MSR President
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