In the early 1950’s, Specs Simmons settled into the creative, tumultuous, and highly charged political world of San Francisco, in a time of great polarity between the conformist culture of the United States, post WWII, when American men returned from war, and American women were exiled from the workforce and forced to return to the suburban domestic home after years working for the war effort and contributing to the winning of World War II. In this environment, the baby boomer generation was seeded. The reactionary politics of Senator Joseph McCarthy gripped America, with conservatives threatened by social movements towards communism and socialism. In juxtaposition to the predominant and idealized American dream of consumerism and the “perfect” family, the freewheeling socially revolutionary bohemians and beats completely defied the social norms to set America on fire. Specs was home.
At this time, Specs continued his family trade, working as a union sheet metal worker, or “tin-knocker” in sheet metal shops such as Dorhman’s, all around the Bay Area, and began his bartending career in North Beach. He met his wife-to-be, Sonia Marantz, at Vesuvio Café, and shortly thereafter, married and began his family, while he was building his deep relationship with the culture of North Beach.
Sonia and Specs, together with their friends
from work, from North Beach, and from the
Western Addition where they lived, ran in
political circles, melding labor activism and
civil rights work, into their social life, as well
as attending numerous jazz clubs in the
Fillmore and in North Beach, hopping from
art openings to rent parties, dance
clubs, and of course the bars of North Beach.
Working class life, infused with lots of partying, was rich and fun. It was cheap to
live in the city at that time, music and art abounded, and the booze flowed. This was a time of great creative and social change, rich in quality of life and social transformation, and Specs was at the center of that culture.
genesis of specs' 12 adler museum cafe
In April of 1968, the beloved Living Room, Specs' 12 Adler Museum Café was born. It is here that the culmination of Specs, the Man, and his life experiences forged a new community, and provided sanctuary for poets, artists, musicians, blue collar workers, social revolutionaries, local business people, as well as global travelers, who have found their home away from home in Specs’, a dynamic place to meet and intersect each others’ lives. From 1968 onward, Specs’ became the location to create social change or find a friendly voice or a friendly ear, a stiff drink and a warm chair! This newly created saloon began to provide a home for all. As Specs Simmons states in an interview, people could live cheap in the neighborhood in single room occupancy hotels, and the bars and cafes became, and remain to this day, their living rooms, where folks gather with friends to share their lives, celebrate, commiserate, have a quiet drink, or involve themselves in a rousing conversation on politics, romance or work challenges.
early days: specs simmons learns the world
An aerial shot reveals San Francisco, we slam zoom to the corner of Columbus and Broadway, the heart of San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood and to Saroyan Alley, home to Specs’ 12 Adler Museum Café. We hear the clinking of glasses and the banter of denizens. The camera pulls up a chair with owner Specs Simmons.
Specs Simmons shares the connection of his presentday bar to his beginnings in Roxbury, Boston. Archival footage and still imagery of Roxbury in the 1930’s and 1940's illustrate the
working class Jewish neighborhood of his youth, of Specs’ vibrant humorous family at work and at play, including images of Specs’ bar mitzvah and Passover celebrations with the elders, the more solemn cultural celebrations which anchored his appreciation for tradition and social responsibility and his Jewish heritage.
An archival image reveals Specs as a young man standing in Boston, near Phillip Simmons & Sons Sheet Metal Shop, his grandfather’s shop where he learned his forty-year trade, to be a “tin-knocker,” and then to an image of one of the sheet metal coffins he produced for the war dead during WWII. An image of Richie Simmons on a soapbox at age 17, mouthing off about his politics, clearly illustrates his social and political views, and he talks about his early found roots in labor unions, values established through working at the family business and in viewing the harsh realities of life, the ongoing clash between management and the working stiff, in post-depression era Boston. Labor posters of the era will be interspersed with the bar’s rich collection of union posters and buttons, as well as Spanish Civil War and Second World War posters and other memorabilia, giving a very rich visual texture to the film.
Specs talks of his first love, of quick-witted banter, a necessity in his youth in order to elbow into the conversation of his nine aunts and uncles. How this love of humor brought him to the stage and to his love of an audience. He shares his history of working in stand-up comedy clubs five days a week making good money, and being challenged by audiences wanting a more ribald humor than his youth yet allowed, and performing at many USO shows for soldiers deeply needing a laugh while they, and all of America, toiled for the war effort during WWII.
the seafaring journey : a young man's journey
In 1949, Specs boarded a ship sailing from New York harbor bound for England. From England he took a ferry to France and hitchhiked to Paris, where he encountered other people traveling to the World Youth Festival in Budapest, Hungary.
The festival was a post WWII peace effort by England and
Hungary, attended by over 20,000 youths from 82 countries. Specs talks of his continued journey to the newly created state of Israel in 1949, where he stayed with Jewish and Arab families. We intercut to the many collected objects or chatchkas on the walls of his bar, and
he discusses how they reflect his journeys and those of the merchant marines who have made Specs’ Bar their living room when they returned from sea, a ritual which continues until this day.
Specs talks of his upbringing in the great port city of Boston, Massachusetts, which has always held great allure to the sea and its’ mysteries. Marine imagery, whale bones, scrimshaw, and the infamous walrus oosik bone fill his world renown bar.
north beach's trinity:
specs' 12 adler museum cafe + vesuvio cafe + tosca cafe
Specs spins his yarn of how in 1952, he worked at Vesuvio Cafe, home of the beats, hotel and restaurant workers, artist models and musicians. We intercut between present day and archival footage of Vesuvio Cafe and its patrons from the 1950s era. Of his nights when he cooked the cheap spaghetti dinners that kept many locals going when they hung out after their days’ work was done.
Elly Simmons talks of how her parents met at Vesuvio, and
we intercut between an iconic portrait in the bar of her
mother Sonia Simmons, who hailed from the Lower East Side, New York, also a child of a Jewish immigrant family. Sonia was the woman who would become Specs’ wife and mother of his two children. Specs shares how Sonia had planned to return to her home of New York City to live, but when he proposed to her after a few months together, she decided to make San Francisco her home and they began a life together in North Beach, and soon thereafter, a family.
A collage image reveals the opening day of Specs’ 12 Adler Museum Cafe on Sonia Simmons’ birthday, April 26, 1968, when the famous “Golden Triangle” of North Beach was formed. Tosca bar owner Janette Etheridge shares how bar patrons travel the well-worn path across Columbus Avenue from Tosca Cafe and Specs’ Bar, run by Specs himself, to Vesuvio Cafe, now run by long time bartender and owner Janet Clyde. We intercut between present day footage of patrons transversing Columbus Avenue to and from Tosca Café, Vesuvio Cafe and Specs’ 12 Adler Museum Café. Elly Simmons and Janet Clyde talks of the strong relationship between the owners, managers, and bartenders of all three establishments which remain tight to this day, and of the regulars who continue to float back and forth across and between these three iconic North Beach establishments.
Camera pans right to reveal the City Lights Bookstore, cutting to an image of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Poet Laureate Jack Hirschmanas well as City Light editor Elaine Katzenberger talk of the importance of Lawrence Ferlinghetti as the founder and publisher of City Lights Books, which remains to this day an anchor of literary culture in the neighborhood and around the world, with
travelers coming daily to explore the works of many local writers and poets, many of whom hang at Specs’ to this day. Many a night following book readings at City Lights you will find the authors and audience crossing Columbus to Specs’ bar to gather around the back table over libations, furthering their conversations on world literature and political
discussions. Final imagery reveals a present day gathering of writers and poets in Specs’ bar, including footage of the International Poetry Festival.
creation of a kaleidoscopic epicenter of activist culture
Images of archival labor posters, Spanish Civil War posters, and news clippings of historic political and social activism are intercut with images and interviews with union activists, including Specs himself, Timothy Paulson Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council, painter, poet and activists Agneta Falk and Jessica Loos. They talk of union bars in San Francisco, always welcoming activists and organizing in its’ space, from ILWU and SEIU workers, to strippers from now defunct - Lusty Lady (the first organized strip joint in the USA). Specs’ has been an organizing center for numerous progressive organizations over the decades. Important environmental activists such as Randy Hayes, Claire Greensfelder, Mike Roselle and David Brower have brainstormed major environmental actions over numerous pints of ale; and striking workers have come to decompress and relax after hours on the picket lines and in negotiations.
A collage of archival footage recounts the numerous social and political causes represented by activists hanging at Specs’ throughout the turbulent and exciting 60‘s and 70‘s, up to current times. Interviews with musicians Rosalie Sorrels, Taj Mahal, and members of the Union of Left Writers, illustrate the participation of major organizers, artists, and worker bees from the anti war movement, the women’s movement, the International Hotel struggle of Eminent Domain, as well as key figures in the formation of the Environmental movement in the USA, and the world, and the myriad ethnic power movements including Chicano/UFW, Black, Asian-American & Native American/Alcatraz activists, that have all made Specs’ their home.
off beat denizens -
poets, painters, strippers, the working stiffs, troubadours, & suits
John Prine, Rosalie Sorrels, Boz Scaggs, Juan Felipe Herrera, Warren Hinkle, Margo St. James, Michael Disend, Herb Gold, Ron Turner, Bob Kaufman, Winston Smith, Jack Hirschman, Frank Garvey, Kitty Margolis, Thelonious Monk, and The Boys of the Lough, these are but a few of the musicians, writers, artists and infamous San Francisco characters who have frequented Specs’ over the years.
Interviews with these folks as well as visuals of their work illustrate the wide mix of creative clientele, which continues to develop with the changing population of the great city of San Francisco, as young tech workers, hipster artists, spoken word poets and filmmakers flood into Specs for a drink and to relax after a long days work.
A montage reveals neon adult entertainment signage and ends on - The Garden of Eden. Specs’ talks of how the Garden of Eden strip club, upstairs from Specs’, and Specs’ bar used to share a common bathroom, resulting in an interesting interweaving of patrons. The dancers would come down to take their breaks in their scantily clad work clothes, much to the delight of the regulars, as Specs’ has always been known as a safe haven for women.
Specs jokes of how only five cards have ever been printed for the bar, one reading “Sir: The lady is not interested in your company” and the companion card reading, “Ladies, the Gentleman prefers to Sulk in Silence” as well as, a series of three escalating eighty-six (banned from the bar) cards; first, “Kindly lower your voice,” the second: “Lower your voice or leave,” and finally, the dreaded “Eighty-Six.” Current bartenders Jacqueline Beier, Michael Grim and Tony Lioce discuss the historic and diverse mix of clientele who have always made Specs’ their home, and the changing clientele today.
last call: the specs film
sorties of love, loss and lust in a twenty-first century bar
Rehearsing in her mother’s home in West Marin, we hear Spec’s granddaughter Maralisa Simmons-Cook, performing one of her songs from her soul collective group Space Captain as she illustrates her character, continuing the deep felt love of music in her family, and the allure of performing for an audience.
We cut to a baby shower of Specs’ regulars, and to interviews with young workers in high tech industries, and footage of the young and beautiful women bartenders of Specs’ Bar.
We hear testimony from longtime regulars who continue to make the bar their home, mixing with a flood of young hipsters and world travelers on the lively and wild weekends of North Beach. Regulars from around the globe who hail from all continents; from Ireland, England, Egypt, Mexico, Guatemala, Eastern Europe, Greece, Asia and Africa.
Director Elly Simmons shares how the bar is a prime example of the archetypal cycle of life, how love, and lust and new romance imbibed by alcohol permeates North Beach, new couples marry and commit, settle down and have kids, other recently divorced mid-lifers reenter the marketplace with battered and vulnerable hearts, while older regulars age and pass on, all part of the crazy dramas of North Beach life!
As so the universal dramas of human life encapsulated in a community of offbeat and beautiful regulars continue…
Using traditional documentary technique (interviews, archival footage, and b-roll), interspersed with family history collages incorporating paint, paper and fabric, created by director and visual artist Elly Simmons, as well as paintings, prints, photography and collages created by other Specs’ regulars, Last Call: The Specs Film will be a visually rich and artistically creative documentary film.
Our stylistic approach will include multiple layers of visual and poetic audio collages which will integrate historical and contemporary imagery, including works by the visual artists of Specs’ bar, footage of political gatherings and poetry readings, audio collages and literary
overlays, incorporating with the words of the writers, poets and musicians who call Specs home, as well as music from the great mix tapes from Specs' bar, put together by Specs Simmons from his personal and extensive collection of American Roots music, blues, jazz, and world music. The recounting of Specs’ history will weave rich visual and musical surprises and twists, creating a jazzy and cheeky, artistic approach.
Last Call: The Specs Film will interweave periods of traditional documentary technique and contemporary documentary style with intriguing and mind blowing moments of pure beauty and poetic vision, thus reflecting the transformative culture of North Beach and its’ denizens.
Each chapter will be introduced with its own visual collage. The collage will contain relevant iconic imagery for the content covered in that particular segment of the film. For example, an opening collage might include archival visuals from world political, social and economic times, such as Hitler’s Germany, the great depression, popular culture, Yiddish Theater, etc., as well as personal family images from Specs Simmons early life in Roxbury, Boston, horsing around on the beaches of New England, the Bar Mitzvah, etc.
We will also use political cartoons and images of humorous satire, both from early historical periods of Specs‘ life as well as current bar napkin art and cartoons by Specs‘ bar patrons including Kristin Wetterhahn, David Lovens and Stuart Jackson. Thru the life of Specs Simmons, we will see revealed, the historical and social movements of his time in a manner echoing the beautiful treatment of the life of Jack Kerouac in the book “Desolate Angel” by author and historian Dennis McNally, one of our interviewees and a consultant on the project.
Archival images will include political posters, pro-war and anti-war propaganda from America’s wars, including WWII, Vietnam and Iraq. We will juxtapose such charged images against the archival images, still, film and audio, of simple daily life in North Beach and San Francisco in general. Protest posters, from the walls of Specs’ bar as well as collections of Specs’ patrons, both pro- and con- numerous causes, will be juxtaposed against photos of impassioned anti-war protesters and racist clan members, American Nazi Party propaganda posters, relevant to Specs Simmons’ personal history, the famous International Hotel struggle for housing rights, Alcatraz Indian occupation imagery, direct action photographs of radical environmentalists, as well as images of anti-nuclear actions, all of these will be offered to the viewer as they relate to the lives of the denizens of Specs’ bar, the politics of the Simmons’ family, and the culture of San Francisco over the decades that Specs’ Bar has been in existence.
Bar memorabilia related to these struggles interspersed with humorous visuals, and chatchkas will illustrate the importance of survivor’s humor, classic in Jewish culture. Images from the famous “postcard” boxes will be shown as well, sent in from patrons traveling the world, and perused on a daily basis by a new influx of patrons.
We will depict iconic San Francisco landmarks as they change over the years; picturing the famous corner of Columbus and Broadway, the advent of topless strip clubs, old Italian men on park benches, the young recent Italian immigrants working the doors of restaurants, Chinese women doing Tai Chi in the early morning fog in Washington Square Park, the famous wild parakeets of Telegraph Hill, and the not so famous pigeons of North Beach, flying amidst the hanging laundry that flaps in the wind from the fire escapes of local buildings. A darkened city skyline brings us, finally, to the LAST CALL of strangers falling out into the cold and dark San Francisco night, when the bars and clubs call out their “LAST CALL!”, shut their doors to their patrons, fold shop, and the dawn of a new day will begin again within a few short hours; the workaday world of North Beach, Chinatown and downtown begins anew. The cycle continues!
Rich visuals recount the personal family story of Specs Simmons, archival photos including milestones such as Richard Simmons’ bar mitzvah, family photos from the collections of the Bornstein and Simmons clan, the wedding of Sonia and Specs, images from the beginnings of their young family, first in New York, then San Francisco, and sweet images of Mara, Elly’s younger sister who died tragically at too young an age after a brief illness, one of the stories of loss of the film, which we counter-pose with the many lively birthday, anniversary, and bachelor party celebrations which continue to this day.
Certain family symbols pop up consistently in the film, mirroring personal mythologies, such as the “specs, or glasses” of Specs Simmons, which gave him his famous nickname, now worn by the life sized ceramic “King Nut” sarcophagus in the back of the bar, with the face of Specs instead of the Egyptian king, and the now fashionable again “bob” haircut of Sonia Simmons, her signature image, a haircut she, and her sisters, wore throughout their lives, and one popular these days amongst many of the women who frequent Specs’ bar.
We shall see the gardenia, symbolizing Billy Holiday, jazz, romance and beauty, all part of Specs’ bar life. We will have trickster images, of all sorts, as Specs Simmons is the penultimate trickster character. And we shall have the symbol of the crab, king of crustaceans, a symbol of the sea, of crotchety old men (women too), of wild untamed sex, and of course of the “traif” seafood so beloved by the New Englander Specs and all who frequent the bar. Crab, mussels, lobster, oysters, whitefish, lox...