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Celebrating Golden Gate Bridge's 50th Birthday

March 15, 1987|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

SAN FRANCISCO — In this year of historic anniversary celebrations all across the United States, one already capturing national and world interest will be staged on, over and beside San Francisco Bay on Sunday, May 24.

That date has been named the Golden Anniversary Day of Golden Gate Bridge--and don't forget to bring your walking shoes.

A Bridge Walk for visitors and Bay Area residents, as well as for TV and radio audiences, will be held to relive the excitement of the Grand Opening day in 1937 when 200,000 people walked, strolled, ran and danced across Golden Gate Bridge.

Transcontinental Message

That first Pedestrian Day began 24 hours before President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pressed a telegraph button in Washington to open the long-awaited bridge to automobile traffic.

The 1937 opening day for footloose celebrants really was on May 27, but it has been moved ahead three days this anniversary year to a Sunday to accommodate as many participants as possible.

Several pedestrian-only hours will be set this May 24 for the memorial Bridge Walk that will bring back some who walked it 50 years earlier. Many Bridge Walkers who were not born half a century ago will be dressed in fashions of the 1930s.

Foghorns will blare even in the hoped-for sunshine, and cannons will boom across the bay as soon as the official chain-cutting ceremony is completed at the San Francisco approach to the bridge and the redwood log sawing has been staged at the Marin County entrance.

As soon as F.D.R. telegraphed the opening of the bridge on that May noon in 1937, 500 Navy aircraft zoomed overhead. Bells, whistles, horns and sirens created a grand cacophony around the bay.

The Wings of Gold vintage planes will return May 24 as part of a salute to the Golden Age of Transportation. Two groups of Stearman aircraft, one from the east and one from the west, will cross flight paths in a winged salute to the bridge that has been a symbol of welcome to uncounted millions of travelers, immigrants and men and women returning from overseas service to their country.

Sailing Under the Span

A fleet of naval, commercial and pleasure craft will sail under the span that became one of the engineering wonders of the world when its roadway was suspended at a 19-story height above the surging waters of the strait between the bay and the Pacific Ocean. The fleet will include vessels and yachts from past eras of shipping and sailing.

Spotlighting the importance of the Golden Gate Bridge to the development of San Francisco and all of Northern California, a Cavalcade of Cars will follow the Bridge Walk. Vintage automobiles will carry celebrities, public officials and bridge workers.

In the afternoon a free Golden Gate Concert will be staged by internationally known producer Bill Graham beside the bay in Crissy Field, against the backdrop of the bridge. An expected audience of more than 100,000 will be entertained by a range of performing artists and musical groups including Huey Lewis & the News, the Grateful Dead, Tony Bennett and the Turk Murphy Jazz Band.

For the evening, arrangements are being finalized for the San Francisco Symphony to take over in Crissy Field. The dramatic pageant finale will then expand to five locations including Crissy Field and Ft. Baker, with space for an estimated 1.5 million spectators.

Planes and sky divers carrying golden flares will present the national colors. Local and national dignitaries will address the vast live and national TV audience. Voices all around the bay and city will join in a 50-second countdown. As many as 10,000 watercraft will be gathered in the bay to participate in the climactic moments.

The telegraph key used by President Roosevelt will be pressed, and the two 746-foot bridge towers--soaring to the height of 65-story buildings--will be illuminated with their new golden display of lights to fulfill the dream of Joseph Strauss, designer of the bridge, and the many others who did so much to make it a reality.

Grand 'Happy Birthday'

Voices around the bay will join in one of the grandest renditions of "Happy Birthday" ever heard. Then many nations will join in one of the largest international displays of fireworks ever presented in North America.

Ready for this gala day and evening will be the renovation of the Roundhouse near the bridge's toll plaza into a visitor information center that will include historical displays.

A Memorial Garden near the Roundtower will honor the workers who built the bridge and the 11 who died in its construction. "Bridges to History" is a project that will compile oral histories of bridge workers and developers.

My wife, Elfriede, and I had the rare opportunity to prepare for our preview bridge walk by talking with Pauline Scott, a gracious 89-year-old lady and longtime family friend who participated in the 1937 opening-day bridge walk with her husband, Dr. Allen Scott, a dentist.

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