This article originally appeared in The Semaphore #196, Fall 2011 under the title "The Broadway Boyz of the '50s and '60s"
By Dick Boyd
North Beach has always been special. The mix of people has been a tossed salad. Back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, most residents were Italian — or at least part Italian. The religion was predominately Catholic. If you went to church at SS Peter and Paul’s, you would hear a lot of Italian spoken before and after services. Even the North Beach post office had employees who spoke Italian. Today, of course, most of those behind the counter speak Chinese as the neighborhood demographics have changed.
But back then the seasoning in the salad was provided by the characters I call the Broadway Boyz. Broadway was the hang out for those guys. This was true because three of the best Italian restaurants could be found within 100 yards of each other. – New Joe’s, Vanessi’s and Swiss Louie’s (now at Pier 39). They could also be found at Mike’s Pool Hall (now Urban Curry), and, of course, at Enrico’s, the place to be seen out front. Lots of the local boys worked along Broadway at a variety of jobs from bus boy, to waiter, to Maitre’d, to chef, to owner. I was a partner in Pierre’s (546 Broadway) back then and knew these guys.
This photo was taken at 12 Adler Place when it was owned by Frank Guidera. (L to R)—Coke Infante, Vic Fazziano of Big Al’s, Frank Marino (in back) Maitre’d of New Joe’s, Graham Melindy, bail bondsman Benny Barrish, and Jack Anderson.
Photo: courtesy Carolyn Infante
Pee Wee Ferrari: Pee Wee of Tipsy’s (556 Broadway, now under construction) was the “Dean” of Broadway back then. If you had a question, you went to Pee Wee. He had seen the really bad times and could answer most questions. He could tell you, for instance, all about watering down the bar booze. Pee Wee had card games in the back to supplement his earnings. Back in those days, before Broadway took off, times were tough. You often had to find ways to survive. I don’t think the cops really gave a rip what you did, because they usually turned a blind eye or maybe settled for a free drink or two, often at night with their wives.
Coke Infante: Coke was the consensus “mayor” of North Beach. He roamed from card games at Aquatic Park to the bars all the way back to North Beach. One time, a cop put the handle on him for a warrant. The pinch took place across from La Rocca’s Corner (957 Columbus). Coke asked the cop to walk him back to Central Station, which was then located on Kearny, across from Portsmouth Square. The cop, who knew Coke, consented. Coke knew exactly what his bail would be and borrowed that amount from friends along the way. Somehow, Coke had developed a dislike for alleged artist Walter Keane, the guy who took credit for those famous eyes, which were actually created by his wife, Margaret. Walter was a bad drinker and swore like a longshoreman in front of whoever was present. He was a lousy liar’s dice player, too, but loved to play. If Coke knew Walter was in a bar playing liar’s dice, he would hustle over and harass him. I wish they had video back then because those scenes would be on YouTube today. Walter even went so far as to hire Eddie Ascencio as a bodyguard. Walter offered Eddie 200 bucks to break Coke’s arm. Eddie just happened to be Coke’s close friend. They put together a great scam. They went to Rossi’s Drugs (now the Café Divine at Union and Stockton) bought some plaster of Paris, some gauze and a sling. They then went to a nurse friend and she did the cast on his arm. When Walter saw Coke’s arm in a sling he paid off. Coke immediately had the cast removed, located Walter and in an “in your face moment” made sure Walter saw there was no cast. The Coke stories could go on forever. I’m sure old-time North Beach residents have a bunch of them.
Leo Rossi: Leo was another North Beach Original. Early on in San Francisco, he lived close to St. Vincent de Paul Church. English was his second language, so school wasn’t a cakewalk. I first met Leo in 1961 when he was working as a butcher at Iacoppi’s shop at Grant and Union where North Beach Pizza is today. Leo was also a great cook. In the ‘50s, he started to hang out at Enrico’s. He would sit at the “family” table reserved for close friends of Enrico or Lucky Luchessi, the manager. Leo became fast friends with Enrico and used to share recipes with Enrico, who was a gourmet, a great chef.
Strangely, Enrico wanted Leo to become an actor in the style of Laird Cragar, a physically hefty Hollywood actor of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. Enrico took him down to Malibu to live with actor Burgess Meredith .Leo made a film called “Alias Big Cherry,” but it never got released. The story is that it was suggested by some New Jersey bad boyz that the filmmakers might find a horse’s head in their bed, if the film was released. I got that from Leo, so I think it’s probably the truth. If you want to know more about Leo, see Shawn at Red’s Java House on the Embarcadero. He knew Leo like a book.
Billy Breslan: Billy and I go back to 1959 when he was a waiter/bouncer at the Monkey Inn on Van Ness Avenue. Later, he was working at the Red Garter, a beer joint up Broadway from Pierre’s, that featured banjo music and men waiters wearing referee shirts. He would drop by and ask for a job checking ID, saying he would do it for 10 bucks a night and all the Coca-Cola he could drink. We hired him. Though Billy was only 5-foot-8, there was never a problem at the door when he was working. Of course, there were a few fights inside, especially when it was a full moon or the Canadian Navy was in port.
While on Broadway, Billy became fast friends with 6-foot-6 Lucky Luchessi. It was really a “Mutt & Jeff” friendship that endured until Lucky passed away in 1999 at age 81.
Gino Del Prete: I met Gino officially when I opened Pierre’s in 1960. (I had met him briefly when we were dating two sisters. He married his girl, but I escaped.) The club was open during the day back then. He came by and introduced himself. We took a walk and he told me about the many in’s and out’s of the biz on Broadway. Some of it he had learned the hard way. For example, he got caught refilling expensive booze bottles with a cheaper booze, not even the same proof. We were all in a survival mode then. Broadway didn’t really start moving as a club venue until the Condor knocked out the walls on the Columbus street side. Gino hired the Vernon Alley Trio and other clubs followed suit. There is no doubt that Gino was well-known all around North Beach for his flamboyant personality. His battles with his wife Gloria Padilla, a k a “The It Girl,” at the Sinaloaup on Powell were public and heated. He was a big tipper and the shoeshine kids all sought him out. Yeah, there were shoeshine kids roaming the area. Gino is still going strong and works for Del Curto Properties with Coke Infante’s widow in the real estate/rental business.Hungry i, he helped a lot of entertainers, including Bill Cosby and Barbra Streisand get a start.
Lucky Luchessi: Lucky was managing Enrico’s when I first met him. He was a friendly guy, but if he didn’t know you, he could be formidable. He was a good guy to stay on the good side of. He would come by Pierre’s, take his false teeth out and stick only his head through our entry curtains. Then he went thru a routine of funny faces that would be a hit on today’s YouTube. Before Broadway, he had worked at joints down in the old International Settlement on Pacific between Montgomery and Kearny. These places were clip joints that employed B-girls to get sailors to buy them champagne. The bottle was just ginger ale and a little bitters, which would be given a little shake to make it bubbly when they poured it. Most sailors were really green horns and never knew the difference. Lucky was there to protect the girls from overzealous sailors, who wanted to get “too familiar” with a girl. Lucky made it to 91 before he died of natural causes.
Poopsie O’Conner: Poopsie was an imposing guy at about 6-foot-2 and 250 lbs. He was also a hall-of-fame drinker. More than once he came in and drank almost a fifth of a bottle of bourbon His big assist to me at Pierre’s was when he got me in the Godfathers. The Godfathers helped support St. Vincent’s School for Boys in Marin. For anyone in the bar business, it was a big plus. It was the era when the “old boy” network was running things. There were members who worked for the Board of Equalization (taxes), the Alcoholic Beverage Control (enforcement of liquor-related rules)and, of course, the cops. There were also plenty of “connected” attorneys.
In the late ‘80s, I would see Poopsie at Fahey’s on 24th and Taraval. It was on his route home, which included the Miraloma Club, Fahey’s and the Four Deuces. He was working for the VA then. When I moved to Hawaii in 1994, I lost track of Poopsie, but I will never forget him.
Davey Rosenberg: Davey, a very large man, came in to Pierre’s once in a while early in the evening for one drink. He just wanted to keep connected with the guys on Broadway. He was always in a good mood. He became fun-loving friends with Leo Rossi, another Titanic-sized guy. Once they rented an elephant and showed up at the “Exotic Erotic Ball,” an event held in the Cow Palace put on by Margo St. James. Davey was the guy who put the topless in motion when he spotted a topless bathing suit on Grant Avenue at Nasimo’s North Beach Hi Fashion. Bingo! As the Condor’s PR guy, he talked Gino into having Carol Doda give it a whirl. She was already on the piano doing go-go dancing. She gave her OK. The police were invited, but took no action. That was on June 19, 1964. Within three days, almost every place along Broadway had a topless girl dancer, including Pierre’s. There was no shortage of girls willing to bare their breasts. Davey passed away in 1986.
Tommy Vasu: Tommy, who was known as “Tommy the Dyke,” came into Pierre’s to play liar’s dice with Walter Keene. She usually had her good-looking blond with her and dressed in a double-breasted suit, topped by a Fedora hat. She used the men’s room. She explained to me that it would cause quite a commotion if she went to the ladies room. Tommy had the parking concession between New Joes (now the Beat Museum) and Enrico’s. She also owned Tommy’s Joint at 529 Broadway (now the Garden of Eden) and 12 Adler, a famous lesbian pick-up place downstairs (now Spec’s). In those days, there was a staircase connecting the two clubs. Tommy’s blond girlfriend got hooked on heroin; and Tommy started dealing it to help keep expenses down. This led to her arrest, which back then the homophobic SFPD was more than ready to do, even with flimsy evidence. She made bail and became a fugitive. Eventually she turned herself in and was sent to Tehachapi for five years. After her release, she lived in Southern California where she reportedly died of natural causes.