Noe Valley Voice May 2005

Florence's Family Album
San Francisco's Fairs to Remember

Editor's Note: Twenty-first Street resident Florence Holub, now 86, wrote this remembrance in 1989, 50 years after she worked as a sketch artist at the Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco's third major world's fair. To see photos and read more about the 1939 Exposition, visit or the Bancroft Library at Exhibits/Looking/ hardtimes.html.

The coming of May's Carnaval in the Mission District has prompted some recollections of past parades and celebrations in San Francisco. I have seen a few parades in my 70 years, but I recall my first with special clarity.

It took place one evening in 1925 in San Francisco, shortly after my family came to California from the farm lands of Idaho. This parade was an extravaganza called the Diamond Jubilee, a celebration to mark the 75th anniversary of California's admission to the union.

Crowds of citizens from every neighborhood lined Market Street, watching with awe and amazement as shimmering floats slid by in the semi-darkness--floats decorated with thousands of tiny, diamond-like lights and graced with beautiful fairy princesses wearing sparkling tiaras.

As my young brothers and I sat on orange crates in front of our parents, behind the ropes that marked the parade boundaries, I thought to myself, Never again would I see anything so wondrous!

In the decade that followed, my prophecy proved accurate. In comparison to the Diamond Jubilee, the parades of the late '20s and early '30s seemed like collections of weary, out-of-step marchers accompanied by clamorous marching bands playing off-key. But in 1939, following the completion of the San Francisco­Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco hosted the Golden Gate International Exposition, a world's fair situated on the newly manmade landfill called Treasure Island.

That year, I was a 19-year-old art student at the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), and during summer vacation I did quick sketches of fair visitors. I also was one of about 20 girls who worked for a sand sculptor on the "gayway," where there were many concessions, rides, and shooting galleries, as well as the surprisingly popular Sally Rand's Nude Ranch, where an assortment of unlikely girls played volleyball half-heartedly, wearing only cowboy hats and holsters. (Sally Rand was a graceful fan dancer of the time, who manipulated her large, plumed fans so that her nude body was never really visible.)

There were many fascinating carnival folk, or "carnies," who followed the fairs across the nation, and one of them, a man who worked close to our operation, would guess a person's weight for 25 cents. If he erred, the customer won a walking cane.

One slow day, I noted that he gave away a lot of canes, and I wondered how he could make a living that way. Upon mentioning this to a more worldly coworker, I was informed that this was a come-on, done deliberately to stimulate business. When the man guessed wrongly, he still made money because the canes cost only 10 cents, so he was still 15 cents ahead. When he guessed correctly, he kept the cane and the customer's quarter as well, which was worth a great deal back then. (In 1939, streetcar fares were 10 cents; an Italian dinner with red wine cost $1 at the Iron Pot Restaurant on Montgomery Street, and the finest full-course steak dinner at Alfred's could be had for a mere $1.25.)

All through the summer, we sketch-artists worked two-hour shifts, then were relieved by fresh girls. This gave us a break in which to explore the exposition. Treasure Island was an enchanting place: there were about 40 large buildings and many smaller pavilions and courts and promenades covering the island.

The majestic Tower of the Sun presided over a long square pool and fountain, and covering its lawns were expanses of brilliant, multicolored flowers that formed intricate patterns like those on a Persian carpet.

The enormous sculpture "Pacifica"--a female figure meant to embody the cultural gifts of the Pacific Rim, which was the exposition's theme--was designed by Ralph Stackpole, head of the sculpture department at the art school. Pacifica, as well as most of the abundant statuary, was not constructed to last, and would soon be lost to history. However, one piece of monumental sculpture, designed for the fair's San Francisco Building and cast in black synthetic stone, has endured. This delightful rendering of playful whales later found an appropriate home in the central courtyard at the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

At the fair, many of my breaks were spent watching the progress of the famous Mexican artist Diego Rivera and his assistant, San Francisco's Emmy Lou Packard, as they sat high upon a scaffold, painting the huge mural that now occupies one wall of the theater at City College of San Francisco.

I also roamed through villages and courts and buildings filled with displays. Live music from every culture was being played everywhere. There were classical as well as big band performances, and, of course, parades and dancers.

Most visitors went to and from the fair on the ferries that ran across the bay and gave riders a dazzling view of the brightly lit island, including a fine look at the tall, spotlit Ferry Building before it became dwarfed by highrises.

When after two exciting years the fair ended and the bright lights were turned off, I wondered poignantly if we would ever be so happily engaged again. We were, in time, but on a smaller, more intimate scale.

In the late 1970s, newcomers from Latin America, bringing their culture with them, began a yearly parade and celebration called Carnaval next door to Noe Valley in the Mission. With each passing year, this grassroots festival has grown in size and quality.

The Carnaval parade is always a lively, happy event, with salsa music and skillfully choreographed samba dancing performed by scantily clad dancers topped with plumed headdresses and looking like so many pre-Columbian lords and ladies letting their hair down. The dancing is sometimes erotic but done with good-natured humor, with taste, and always before a large and appreciative audience.

Last year [1988], the Noe Valley Samba group, directed by Jorge Duarte, designed a parade float based upon the theme of peace. The float was decorated with white doves and symbols representing the earth and other planets. This year, Duarte and his group focused on the endangered rain forest, and created a float resplendent with palm trees and colorful tropical birds.

The Diamond Jubilee can never happen again, nor can that memorable Exposition of 1939, but Carnaval can and will come alive, again and again, because those who perform in it do so just for the joy of it!

San Francisco's 2005 Carnaval takes place on Memorial Day weekend, May 28 to 29. The two-day festival on Harrison Street will feature crafts and food booths, dance lessons and demonstrations, and live entertainment on three stages. Carnaval's Grand Parade, on Sunday, May 29, kicks off at 9:30 a.m. at 24th and Bryant streets and dances north on Mission Street to 17th Street.