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Legendary Locals of the Outside Lands

by Lorri Ungaretti

These profiles are from Legendary Locals of San Francisco’s Richmond, Sunset, and Golden Gate Park (Arcadia Publishing), by City Guide Lorri Ungaretti, who leads tours of the Sunset, Richmond, and Stern Grove. Her book includes many more remarkable people from the city’s west side.

Three distinct areas — the residential Richmond and Sunset Districts, separated by Golden Gate Park — were once considered the western desert of San Francisco. At one time, much of this land was inaccessible sand dunes, and many people believed it was uninhabitable. Over time, however, visionary people moved sand, created a great park, constructed roads, laid water and sewage lines, and built houses in the Richmond and Sunset Districts, creating “suburbs” within the city limits of San Francisco. The rich history of the west side of the city includes many people, some of whom have pursued artistic careers. Some of them became famous after leaving their childhood homes, and others were recognized first in San Francisco.

Changing the World View of Photography

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Ansel Adams, 1955 (Courtesy SF History Center, SFPL)


Photographer Ansel Adams was born in February 1902 and grew up on Twenty-fourth Avenue in the Richmond District. On Ansel’s 13th birthday, his father gave him a year’s pass to the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. He later wrote, “I visited every exhibit many times during that year.” When Ansel was 14, his father gave him his first Box Brownie camera during a family visit to Yosemite. Ansel helped people see that photography was an art, not just “taking some pictures,” and his photographs are among the most famous in the world. Ansel later became an active member of the Sierra Club, serving for 30 years on the board of directors.









Writing about Life
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William Saroyan in 1934 (Courtesy SF History Center, SFPL)


Prolific author William Saroyan is best known for the novel The Human Comedy and the play The Time of Your Life, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1940. The play was set in a saloon in San Francisco. Saroyan often wrote about Armenian-immigrant life in Fresno, California, where he was born in 1908. In the 1930s, builder Henry Doelger built a house for Saroyan’s sister and mother on Fifteenth Avenue, near Noriega Street, in Golden Gate Heights. Saroyan had his own study and writing room downstairs with a view across the Sunset District toward the ocean. He once said, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” No such exception was made. Saroyan died of prostate cancer in 1981.



A Funny Lady
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George Burns and Gracie Allen in 1952


Born Grace Ethel Cecile Rosalie Allen on July 26, 1895, in San Francisco, Gracie Allen grew up on Fourth Avenue in the Richmond District. She attended Star of the Sea High School on Ninth Avenue. After graduating in 1914, she moved to New York to work in comedy. She met comedian George Burns in 1922, and they began working as a vaudeville comedy team. They were married in 1926. They had their own radio show in the 1930s and 1940s, and The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show was broadcast on television from 1950 to 1958.

In his 1988 book Gracie: A Love Story, George wrote about their act together, attributing their success to Gracie. Originally, she was the “straight man” and George was the comedian. However, their audiences laughed at whatever Gracie said and did not laugh at George’s jokes. He quickly changed the act. Onstage, George just asked a question and gave Gracie a chance to talk. He wrote, “In one of our vaudeville routines, I asked Gracie, ‘Did the maid ever drop you on your head when you were a baby?’ ‘Don’t be silly George,’ she’d answer in an astonished voice . . . ‘We couldn’t afford a maid. My mother had to do it.’” George also wrote, “Gracie certainly wasn’t the first comedienne in vaudeville . . . What made Gracie different was her sincerity. She didn’t try to be funny. Gracie never told a joke in her life, she simply answered the questions I asked her as best she could . . . All I had to do was say ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ and she talked for 38 years.”

Gracie Allen died of a heart attack in 1964. The Gracie Awards, given annually for exemplary programming created for women, by women, and about women by the Alliance for Women in Media Foundation, were named after Gracie Allen. She never forgot her first school, Star of the Sea in San Francisco, donating to the school and attending at least one reunion.



Television’s Jeannie
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Barbara Eden with Larry Hagman in I Dream of Jeannie


Barbara Eden was born Barbara Jean Morehead in Tucson, Arizona, in 1931. She moved to Fortyfifth Avenue in the Sunset when she was very young. Barbara graduated from Lincoln High School in 1949, studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and in 1951, won the Miss San Francisco pageant. She is best known as Jeannie in the television series, I Dream of Jeannie, which ran from 1965 to 1970.







World-Renowned Singer John Royce “Johnny” Mathis was born on September 30, 1935, in Texas. When he was a child, his family moved to San Francisco’s Richmond District. At George Washington High School, he was known for his singing voice and his athletic ability in track and basketball. He attended San Francisco State College, where he set a high-jump record of six feet, five and a half inches. Johnny left San Francisco when Columbia Records offered him a recording session. He is known for early hits, including “Chances Are,” “Misty,” and “It’s Not for Me to Say,” and later hits like “Too Much, Too Little, Too Late” (with Deniece Williams) and “The Last Time I felt Like This.” Johnny has won numerous awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the Ella Award from the Society of Singers, and induction into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame. He currently lives in Beverly Hills.

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Recording artist Johnny Mathis in 1960








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Mathis was an outstanding athlete in San Francisco











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