Tony Bennett deserves a cable car of his own!

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 deserves a cable car of his own!
Tony Bennett at 1982 Cable Car Parade marking the shutdown of the system for complete rebuilding. SFMTA Archive

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.

Tony Bennett deserves a cable car of his own!

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.

Tony Bennett deserves a cable car of his own!
Mayor Dianne Feinstein, Tony Bennett, City Chief of Protocol Charlotte Maillard Swig (behind door), and Muni General Manager Harold Geissenheimer on Cable Car 58 during celebration the reopening of the completely rebuilt cable car system, May 2, 1984. SFMTA Archive

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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Comments: 5

  1. I agree Rick. The first thing people think of when they hear “I left my heart in San Francisco” is the Golden Gate Bridge or the cable cars. They are the iconic symbols of the city.

  2. Thank you for this, Rick Laubscher, MSR President.. A fun fact: Although another artist was chosen to create the “official” cable car poster for the reopening celebration in 1984, I took with me to the event on Nob Hill my original painting of the cable car that we used for my version. Because of my acquaintance with your organization, and with Charlotte Maillard I was given access to the stage area where he sang “I left my heart in San Francisco”. Cyrl Magnin (nicknamed “Mr. San Francisco” by Herb Caen) was there also. I got both Cyrl Magnin and Tony Bennett to sign the front of my original painting (acrylic on wood panel 18″x30″) and I gave it to Mayor Dianne Feinstein as Tony Bennett finished his song. One of the Mayor’s aids wisked the painting away and I have never heard of it since. Most likely it is out there somewhere if not in her collection. Should someone run across it, I hope they know the signatures are authentic and signed at that particular moment in San Francisco Cable Car history. John Wullbrandt

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