SAN FRANCISCO – Tenor Robert Close – known as the “San Francisco Opera Man” – was booming the words of Ave Maria on Maiden Lane, the historic little shopping street in the heart of the city’s Union Square district.
Close, a San Francisco native who performed for six years in Phantom of the Opera, is a wellknown figure here, along with soprano Litz Plummer, “the Opera Lady,” and when the weekend weather is right, they’re both singing their hearts out and surprising first-timers who’ve never before heard opera on the streets of the City by the Bay.
Close and Plummer are just two of the many reasons to visit Union Square, beginning, of course, with quaint Maiden Lane, which is closed to automobile traffic from 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
The lineage of the two-block street goes all the way back to San Francisco’s infamous Barbary Coast days, when it was known as Morton Street and was the city’s red-light district.
All that changed after the devastating earthquake of 1906, when the street was renamed Maiden Lane and cleaned up.
These days, the lane’s refinement comes not only from its operatic side, but from its variety of upscale shops, a café with outdoor seating, and the Xanadu Gallery, which specializes in fine Asian antiques and whose home behind a clean brick exterior is the only structure in San Francisco designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
After listening to Close and eyeing the shops, I made a mental note to return to hear Plummer, a Georgia native, who was due in about an hour.
Then I walked to Union Square, where, many years earlier, my wife and I would bring our young children to watch Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad light a giant hanukkia as part of the Bill Graham Menorah Project.
The late Graham was the Jewish rock-music promoter who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe and eventually rose to fame championing the likes of Jefferson Airplane and the Rolling Stones.
I still relish the memory of those chilly San Francisco nights, when we would watch Langer being hoisted up on a mechanical lift to light it. These days the lighting still draws large crowds.
On this visit, I decided to have a bird’s-eye view of Union Square, so I walked across the street to Macy’s, where I took the elevator up to the eighth-floor Cheesecake Factory terrace for a look down at an arts-and-crafts fair, and I could even hear the wonderful clangclang of the cable cars making their way down Powell Street.
Union Square is a departure point for several other points of interest in the city.
One is John’s Grill at 63 Ellis Street, where Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon, his masterful novel about the adventures of famous private-eye Sam Spade, later characterized by Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 movie version directed by John Huston.
A dated fire escape – perfect, perhaps, for those quick getaways? – gives the front façade of the building a veritable “Hollywood look.”
Author Hammett, who himself was a private detective, worked for the Pinkerton detective agency in the nearby Flood Building at 870 Market Street, so it made it convenient for him to walk to the restaurant, whose dark paneling and green leather booths represent a step back in time, as if you could almost imagine Sam Spade lurking in the shadows.
When I walked into the restaurant and asked where Hammett had written his novel, a hostess pointed me in the direction of a small, enclosed area at the back of the room, where a table was covered with a fresh white tablecloth.
A more recent addition to the area south of Union Square is the Contemporary Jewish Museum at 736 Mission Street, where the aim is to examine what the museum calls “new perspectives” on the world of Jewish culture.
Also not far from Union Square, the Hotel Nikko at 222 Mason Street is where I found Feinstein’s, a 140-seat nightclub operated in partnership with the multi-platinum- selling, two-time Emmy and five-time Grammy Award-nominated entertainer Michael Feinstein, known as the Ambassador of the Great American Songbook.
In a later telephone interview, the soft-spoken Feinstein described the American Songbook as music “that transcends the time in which it was created.”
“It’s American popular song,” he said, “that begins... perhaps in the 1920s when there was an era of great writers creating fresh and different kinds of songs that we still hum, we still listen to today.”
The songbook, he said, “is ever-evolving,” progressing to the point where new songs may yet become part of the songbook.
“But the nucleus for me,” he said, “is the music and lyrics created by the Gershwin’s, Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and you can name your favorite from that time.”
In 2000, Feinstein recorded a CD of classic pop songs by Jewish songwriters with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the invitation of Zubin Mehta.
Feinstein said with obvious pride that the orchestra, conducted by Alan Broadbent, treated the music “with the same respect with which they would treat Beethoven or Brahms.”
Later on in the day, I found myself back at Maiden Lane, where Litz Plummer, who is also a storyteller and voice-over artist, had arrived in costume, ready to join Robert Close in a wonderful rendition of ’O Sole Mio.
It all made for yet another memorable day in Maiden Lane.