San Francisco Personalities

Whether they take center stage or work behind the scenes, these people bring the sparkle to San Francisco's star attractions.

San Francisco personality, Val Diamond, of Beach Blanket Babylon

Old hat? After 26 years, Diamond still brings down the house with her 200-pound headdress.

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Val Diamond performer

"For me," says Val Diamond, "the challenge has always been to see if I can make them forget what I'm wearing on my head."

As the star of the city's signature cabaret show, Beach Blanket Babylon, Diamond has had her hands—and her hat—full since she joined the cast 26 years ago. Under a hat so big that it appears to be wearing her, she closes the show every night with San Francisco on her mind. Literally.

Not everybody could pull off a hood ornament that pays tribute to the city's most famous landmarks—including the Transamerica building, priapically rising off the top of her head like an impure thought. But when Diamond belts out the bodacious Barbary Coast anthem "San Francisco," the hat seems like a perfect fit. It's seeing her lidless that surprises her fans, as if her personality were too big for real life. "Oh, you have hair!" they say.

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Beach Blanket Babylon is performed at Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd. (Green St.), Wed.-Sun. Guests for all shows except the Sunday matinees must be 21 or older. (415) 421-4222, www.beachblanketbabylon.com.

This is a story about second chances. For many years, Clare Cangiolosi was a worker bee at a big corporation. "Then one day I woke up and decided I didn't want to do that anymore," she says. Though she remained in her job for 13 more years, Cangiolosi also began studying horticulture and volunteering at the Conservatory of Flowers, the wondrous domed greenhouse in Golden Gate Park.

In 1995, when a violent storm damaged the Conservatory so severely that it would need nine years of repair and renovation, she wrapped her legs in towels and waded through the shattered glass. Hired in 1997 as a gardener and promoted two years later to nursery specialist, Cangiolosi restored the high-altitude tropical orchid collection to its position as one of the finest in the world.

"This building just engulfs you," she says of her palace of plants, which reopened in 2003. "I'm like a greedy little child. I can't get enough of it. These plants give out pure oxygen, so you can't help but want to be here."

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The Conservatory, on John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, is open Tues.-Sun. (415) 666-7001, www.conservatoryofflowers.org.

Michael Tilson Thomas music director

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

For this season's opening night—his 10th as maestro of the San Francisco Symphony—internationally distinguished conductor Michael Tilson Thomas included a suite from Bernard Herrmann's score for the movie Vertigo. The 1958 Alfred Hitchcock thriller shot in San Francisco reminds him of the alluring city he visited as a boy.

But there's something else about the film's suspenseful score that made it an especially good fit: It's all about danger, the very element he brings to his conducting. Slender as a quarter note, MTT sometimes appears to have become one with the baton, fusing his body with the music. "Live performance is a very exciting thing," he says. "There's no safety net if you mess up."

He constantly hears the music swirling in his head. Talking with MTT, you sometimes get the feeling he's having a Mahler moment. Or imagining he is Jimmy Stewart ascending the romantic compositions like rooftops, making music vertiginously.

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The San Francisco Symphony performs September-July at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave. Symphony Hall's box office is open Mon.-Sat. (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org.

Nancy Oakes chef-owner

To Nancy Oakes, it's all about mashed potatoes. As chef at Boulevard, voted the favorite restaurant in San Francisco by the Zagat Survey for seven of the past eight years, Oakes has brought what one critic called "comfort food with lipstick and high heels" to a soigné brasserie setting. Her pork tenderloin with porcini mushroom sausage is both to be comforted by and to die for.

But mashed potatoes are merely a symbol of the delicious-food-first philosophy that is the main course at her 11-year-old restaurant. "When everybody wanted mashed potatoes, I made them," Oakes says. "That makes you very popular. I've never been the kind of chef who thinks, 'It doesn't matter what they want; it's what I want.' Sometimes I want to go to the museum of food and discover something, but a lot of times I just want to eat something good."

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Boulevard, at 1 Mission St., welcomes patrons for lunch Mon.-Fri. and for dinner nightly. (415) 543-6084, www.boulevardrestaurant.com.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti bookstore founder

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

Until Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Pocket Bookshop in 1953, the writing of books was a solitary pursuit, and so was reading them. An adult education teacher, Ferlinghetti wanted to bring San Francisco readers and writers to a meeting of the minds. "That was true from the beginning," Ferlinghetti says. "Our very first slogan was 'A literary meeting place.' "

At City Lights, the first all-paperback bookstore in the country, the hard cover of literary pretension was dropped and the gauntlet of dissent taken up. A friend to the Beat movement writers, Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges after publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl in 1956. His acquittal set an important precedent guaranteeing First Amendment protection for works of redeeming social value.

Ferlinghetti's own poetry can be appreciated in the million-selling volume A Coney Island of the Mind. And that book's title, half a century after he began, also describes what he has created with his undimmed City Lights.

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City Lights Books, at 261 Columbus Ave., is open daily 10 a.m.-midnight. (415) 362-8193. Visit www.citylights.com for a list of upcoming events.

Emily Sano museum director

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

San Francisco's cultural offerings are world-renowned, from the symphony to the street theater of Union Square. And yet, oddly, "It has never been known as a particularly strong museum town," says Emily Sano, director of the Asian Art Museum, who is well on her way to changing all that.

Formerly housed in a wing of the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, the Asian decamped two years ago to its vast new home in the Civic Center, where Sano set about imposing order upon Asian Art's unruly empire. "Asia is a word that was invented by the Greeks and Romans, and in reality no Asia exists," Sano says.

For a place that doesn't exist, it has produced exquisite artworks. The museum's holdings, some dating back to 5000 b.c., are displayed thematically by following the spread of Buddhism from India through China and finally to Japan. With the move—thanks in part to Sano's efforts—2,500 pieces of the permanent collection can be shown at one time, more than twice the number previously on view.

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The museum, at 200 Larkin St., is open Tues.-Sun., with hours extended until 9 p.m. Thurs. (415) 581-3500, www.asianart.org.

Frank Ware champion cable car bell ringer

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

Before the 1906 earthquake, San Francisco had more than 600 cable cars operating on 22 lines. But as those numbers dwindled, the clang-clang-clang of each cable car became more special.

"When tourists get here, the first thing that goes through their minds is 'Cable car!' " says gripman Frank Ware, defending champion in the annual cable car bell-ringing contest. "Their eyes light up, because they've only seen them on Rice-A-Roni commercials." It's no coincidence that during the first of his two ringing victories, he sang the Rice-A-Roni song.

Ware grew up in the northern Philippines, where there were "no cable cars, just water buffalo and carts." Today he keeps his nearly eight-ton pride and joy running smoothly up and down the impossibly steep hills. Two simple clangs of his bell communicate "Let's go" to his conductor and everyone else in earshot. "I can hardly wait to come to work when I get up," Ware says, launching into a pealing paradiddle as he rumbles down the Powell-Mason line.

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The Powell-Mason cable car line begins at Powell and Market streets and runs over the top of Nob Hill to Fisherman's Wharf; the Powell-Hyde line begins at Powell and Market and ends at Aquatic Park; and the California Street line runs east-west from the Financial District through Chinatown and over Nob Hill. (415) 673-6864, www.sfmuni.com..

Jane Tollini animal keeper

When Jane Tollini accepted the job of penguin keeper at the San Francisco Zoo two decades ago, it was only because her gig at the time was cleaning Monkey Island. But eau de penguin didn't turn out to be a big improvement. "You smell horrible all the time," she says. "People think it's a hygiene problem. I never wanted to work with birds, but when I found out nobody else wanted them, that got me."

Now her feedings are the zoo's best theater (formal attire suggested only for fowl), and her flock of 64 Magellanic penguins is the world's most successful breeding colony in captivity.

Each Valentine's Day, Tollini leads a "sex tour" of the zoo highlighting the animals' mating habits. She makes her observations as explicit as possible, figuring the zoo shouldn't be just for kids. "It's a bit anthropomorphic," she admits, "but all the information is accurate."

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The zoo, on Sloat Boulevard with entrances at 47th Avenue and off of the Great Highway, is open daily, including Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Tollini leads her sex tour for three days each February. (415) 753-7080, www.sfzoo.org.

Carey Perloff artistic director

Carey Perloff has often surprised her audiences during 13 seasons as artistic director at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT), producing then-unknown Tony Kushner's Angels in America and directing five works by Tom Stoppard, including two American premieres.

When she directed Ibsen's A Doll's House last year, the theater set was constructed to resemble an actual doll's house. "I thought, 'God, this feels so familiar to me,' " Perloff recalls.

No wonder. Until she was 14, she maintained a collection of dolls that filled half her room, and Perloff could often be heard giving them directions and commanding them to recite dialogue to her. "I always loved creating scenarios and playing them out lots of different ways," she says. "The thing that's much more fun about actors than dolls is that they constantly surprise you." It turns out to be more fun when the dolls talk back.

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The American Conservatory Theater performs at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St. The theater box office, at 405 Geary St., is open from noon to curtain time on performance days and from noon to 6 p.m. on nonperformance days. (415) 749-2228, www.act-sfbay.org.

Barry Bonds left fielder

Few moments in baseball are more theatrical than the home run: the slugger's annihilating swing, the satisfying crack of the bat, the ball's titanic arc. The controversial Barry Bonds, who has launched 703 of these spectacular suborbital swats during his career, turns every homer he hits for the San Francisco Giants into a collectible treasure. Just two of Bonds's record home-run balls—the 73rd in 2001 and the career 700th last season—have brought more than $1.3 million at auction.

In 2004, Bonds earned his record seventh Most Valuable Player trophy, nailed the National League batting title (.362), and racked up more homers (45) than strikeouts (41). In recent years, fans in other ballparks have booed their own pitchers for not letting him hit. That's what it means to swing like a million bucks.

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The Giants open the season on April 5. For tickets to home games, call or visit the SBC Park ticket office at Willie Mays Plaza (Third and King streets), open during games and Mon.-Fri. 8:30 a.m.- 5:30 p.m. AAA members get a 20 percent discount on the Giants' behind-the-scenes stadium tour, normally $10. (415) 972-2000, www.sfgiants.com.

Photography by Jock McDonald

This article was first published in March 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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