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San Francisco's torch song still burns brightly

Baghdad by the Bay prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tony Bennett's hallmark ballad, although it was dethroned by a song from the 1936 film 'San Francisco,' belted by Jeannette MacDonald.

February 14, 2012|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times
  • Tony Bennett won his first two Grammys for "I Left My Heart in San Francisco."
Tony Bennett won his first two Grammys for "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." (Larry Busacca / Getty Images )

Reporting from San Francisco -- At the stroke of noon on Tuesday, music will blast out over the shoppers in Union Square and the homeless people in Hallidie Plaza. The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus will chime in from the City Hall rotunda, along with the big-hatted belters from Beach Blanket Babylon. Radio stations have been asked to preempt the midday news.

And if Mayor Ed Lee has his way, San Franciscans from Nob Hill to Noe Valley, the Presidio to Potrero Hill, will look up from their computer keyboards, drop what they're doing and burst into song. The same song. The one this storied city's residents love to hate and hate to love: I left my heart in San Francisco. High on a hill, it calls to me ….

It is, more or less, the 50th anniversary of when Tony Bennett first crooned San Francisco's musical Rorschach test in the Venetian Room of the Fairmont Hotel, and the mustachioed mayor with the Busby Berkeley bent is presiding over a civic extravaganza in honor of the 85-year-old legend with the silver hair and golden pipes.

"Thanks to Tony Bennett, people have been experiencing the magic of San Francisco for 50 years no matter where they are in the world," Lee said in a written statement announcing the festivities. "The song reminds us of why we love our city so much and when we are away, it calls us home."

At least two people, however, are all but guaranteed to spurn the noontime chorus: the men who together dethroned the onetime official song of San Francisco, who stopped those little cable cars from climbing halfway to the stars, more than a quarter-century ago.

That's when then-Supervisor Quentin Kopp — who described "I Left My Heart" as "a schmaltzy jingle," the fault of the "hippie-love movement" and unworthy of the city it aimed to honor — introduced a resolution to instead make the theme from the 1936 earthquake movie "San Francisco" the official song of Baghdad by the Bay.

Now that, Kopp said in a recent interview, was a song. Belted out by Jeanette MacDonald just moments before the killer quake struck on the big screen, "it's a bracing, vigorous, strong song" about risk-taking and adventure, optimism and welcome.

But Kopp's distaste for Bennett's ballad was nothing compared to then-San Francisco Chronicle columnist Warren Hinckle's vitriol. During a monthlong imbroglio — played out in the newspapers and at City Hall as the Democratic Party prepared for its 1984 convention here — Hinckle called the lyrics "infantile drool." The song, he said, was "barely suited for elevator music" and was "as much San Francisco as bathtub chablis."

In the middle of the debate, a Chronicle poll had "San Francisco" beating out "I Left My Heart" by nearly 3 to 1.

The paper's editorial board backed Hinckle and Kopp, arguing that Bennett's tribute to the city was about as exciting as "a visit from an aunt." Particularly, the board posited, when compared to MacDonald's punchy lines:

San Francisco, open your Golden Gate.

You let no stranger wait outside your door.

San Francisco, here is your wandering one saying, 'I'll wander no more.'

At first, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein threatened to veto Kopp's measure. Then she suggested, in rhyme, a Solomonic answer: Let the city have not one, but two official songs. "Let's admit it, Quentin: We're both right. So let's unite," she wrote to her adversary. "Who knows, we may not only compromise — but harmonize."

Kopp's response to her overture? No way.

Next, the city's Culture and Recreation Committee took up the matter of the official song. But many of the region's aspiring singers and songwriters mistook the panel's hearing for an audition, lining up and warbling out their own original compositions.

That evening, during a party scheduled in the Beaux-Arts rotunda, thousands cheered renditions of "San Francisco" by the Gay Men's Chorus and a dozen or so others — and booed the UC Hastings College of the Law rugby club, which had the unfortunate job of belting out the underdog.

The 50-cent drinks didn't help matters much.

Eventually a compromise was reached. "San Francisco" did unseat "I Left My Heart" as the city's official song. But Bennett's baby became the official city ballad. (For anyone who is curious, Los Angeles doesn't have a single official song.)

Tuesday's festivities probably will not match the volume of the celebration and rancor of 1984.

It is, after all, Valentine's Day.

City Hall and the Fairmont Hotel will be bathed in red light. Bennett, who won his first two Grammy Awards for "I Left My Heart," will be the guest of honor — fresh from winning his latest two Sunday night in Los Angeles.

However, Bennett won't be serenading the noontime crowd. He's saving that for a $5,000-a-head dinner at the Venetian Room on Tuesday night to benefit the UC San Francisco division of — you guessed it — cardiology.

He will, however, take part in the City Hall singalong. Ready?

The loveliness of Paris seems somehow sadly gay

The glory that was Rome is of another day

I've been terribly alone and forgotten in Manhattan

I'm going home to my city by the Bay...

maria.laganga@latimes.com

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