Tony Bennett’s ‘Halfway to the Stars’ Cable Car!

San Francisco has awarded just about its highest civic honor to a beloved honorary son, the late Tony Bennett. As morning fog chilled the air on Valentine’s Day, Mayor London Breed was joined high on a hill – Nob Hill – by Bennett’s wife Susan Benedetto, SFMTA/Muni leaders and workers, VIPs, and friends of the cable cars – to dedicate California Street Cable Car 53 to the singer who drew untold millions of visitors to the City and its cable cars with his rendition of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”.

Tony Bennett's 'Halfway to the Stars' Cable Car!
Unveiling the unique “Halfway to the Stars” ribbon on the ends of California Street Cable Car 53, next to the Fairmont Hotel where Tony Bennett first performed “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in 1961. Below, Mayor London Breed and Tony Bennett’s wife Susan Benedetto (second and third from right) rode the car up to the dedication from California and Market Streets, with a police motorcycle escort. Derek Johnson did the honors as gripman for the special run. Photos by Jeremy Menzies, SFMTA photographer
Tony Bennett's 'Halfway to the Stars' Cable Car!

The Mayor’s Office issued a comprehensive news release recounting the event. Click here to get the details. Numerous news and social media postings spread the word – and the love.

The original idea to honor Tony Bennett with a cable car came from our nonprofit, Market Street Railway, on the day he passed away last June at the age of 96. Just weeks later, at the August 2 civic celebration of the 150th anniversary of the cable car’s invention, Mayor Breed embraced the proposal. Her leadership made it happen.

The date – Valentine’s Day – was suggested by Susan Benedetto, in memory of a wonderful event staged for her husband at the Fairmont Hotel some years ago on that date, and of course, for his love of San Francisco. As she told the crowd, “When ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ became such a hit, it really made Tony a citizen of the world, known to an ever-growing audience of fans. It became not only San Francisco’s anthem, but Tony’s, too. He never tired of singing the song, and audiences never tired of hearing it. Thanks to the Fairmont’s statue, and now this special cable car, fans from all over the world will forever have a place to visit and feel close to Tony. Nothing would have thrilled my husband more. He lived for the music, and for his fans.” 

Tony Bennett's 'Halfway to the Stars' Cable Car!
Next to her husband’s statue in front of the Fairmont Hotel, Susan Benedetto speaks from her heart to the crowd gathered on the block of Mason Street that was rechristened “Tony Bennett Way” in 2016 . Jeremy Menzies photos, SFMTA.
Tony Bennett's 'Halfway to the Stars' Cable Car!

Acting as MC of the event, MSR President Rick Laubscher told the crowd, “With one phrase in one song, Tony Bennett made our cable cars world famous. He reminded us of how special our city is. Our nonprofit transit preservation group is proud to help organize this permanent tribute to him.” 

The unveiling of the cable car culminated months of work by our nonprofit and Muni’s cable car team that focused on creating a unique but traditional design to honor the man whose anthem, long the City’s official song, elevated the cable cars into worldwide icons. Beyond that, Bennett, a noted philanthropist and artist (under his birth name, Anthony Benedetto) supported then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein in her successful fundraising campaign to rebuild the entire cable car system in the 1980s. An example of his art, a giant heart onto which he painted San Francisco scenes, adorns the Fairmont’s lobby.

Cable Car 53 itself was built in 1907 and was renovated extensively by the cable car maintenance crew a couple of years ago. The car had not yet had the traditional California Street cable car “ribbons” applied to the ends, which list the streets it serves. Laubscher suggested that special ribbons be applied instead, honoring the song’s lyrics that have become synonymous with the cable cars, which as Bennett sings, “climb halfway to the stars”. The bottom section of the unique ribbons read “Since 1873”, referring to the year Andrew Hallidie opened the world’s first cable car line, just two blocks north on Clay Street.

Tony Bennett's 'Halfway to the Stars' Cable Car!
SFMTA Director of Transportation Jeff Tumlin (at right) and Muni General Manager Julie Kirschbaum celebrate the dedication of Cable Car 53 to Tony Bennett with cable car maintenance chief Arne Hansen (in cap, between them), cable car superintendent Fred Butler (at left in tie and safety vest) and the cable car maintenance crew that brought the vision to reality. MSR photo

Working closely with Muni leadership and its unmatched cable car maintenance team, led by Arne Hansen, MSR created other special touches for Car 53, including plaques honoring Bennett inside each end of the car, placed for maximum visibility to boarding riders. Another plaque honors the song’s composer, George Cory, and its lyricist, Douglass Cross, life partners who wrote the song in 1953 from their home in Brooklyn, out of homesickness for their “City by the Bay”. The musical score of the first two bars of the song also appear in subtle decals at the end of the rooftop letterboards on each side of the car, announcing its dedication to Tony Bennett. Larger banners with the same theme adorn the sides of the car for the moment, and flags honoring Tony Bennett will fly indefinitely on the roof, designed by MSR’s David Dugan and produced and donated by our Board Vice Chair James Giraudo, president of Pacific Coast Flag.

Tony Bennett's 'Halfway to the Stars' Cable Car!
Tony Bennett's 'Halfway to the Stars' Cable Car!

It’s more than fitting that a California Street cable car was chosen for this honor. California Street is the oldest surviving cable car line, built just five years after Hallidie’s by railroad nabobs Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker to serve their own Nob Hill Mansions. Soon, it also served the adjacent mansion of silver king James Clair Flood, the only stately Nob Hill residence to survive the 1906 earthquake and fire, becoming the Pacific Union Club. Two of Flood’s great-great-grandaughters, Karin Flood and Christina Flood Kane, were special guests at the celebration.

The Cal Cable line also served a hotel built starting in 1902 by the daughters of one of Flood’s business partners, James Fair. That hotel, the Fairmont (restored after burning in 1906), hosted today’s celebration, a fitting tribute, since Bennett sang “I Left My Heart…” for the very first time on New Year’s Eve 1961 in the Fairmont’s famed Venetian Room to a rapt audience. Bennett’s association with the Fairmont endured for the rest of his life, culminating in the commissioning of a bronze statue of him on the hotel’s front lawn to celebrate his 90th birthday in 2016.

After the ceremony, the car entered regular service on the California line, where we expect its ribbons and tributes to Tony Bennett will make it an “Instagram magnet”, bringing even more positive attention to the car. It is expected to be running in service every day on the California line, with minimal breaks for periodic maintenance.

Tony Bennett's 'Halfway to the Stars' Cable Car!
Tony Bennett’s cable car in service at California Street and Grant Avenue. Jeremy Menzies photo, SFMTA

Market Street Railway will be proposing special ways to get the most value from this unique cable car this summer and beyond, in support of the City’s economic recovery. Stay tuned!

For now, our deepest thanks to Susan Benedetto for joining us and warming our hearts at the celebration, Tony Bennett’s manager Sylvia Weiner and her team, Michelle Heston and general manager Markus Treppenhauer for hosting the celebration, violinist Rose Crelli, who enchanted the crowd with her rendition of Bennett’s signature song, and the Muni and Mayor’s Office teams who arranged everything perfectly.


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