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Destination Guide

Since the days of the Barbary Coast, San Franciscans have liked to be entertained. They pack blues and comedy clubs, plays, movies, and the opera. San Francisco also has a long tradition, by American standards, of a vital visual art scene.

Art in San Francisco was given a shot in the arm by the recent completion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MOMA). While there are those who contend that the best thing about the museum is the building iteself?a striking, striped, skylit cylinder designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta'there is no question that its excellent temporary exhibitions have drawn tens of thousands of San Franciscans who might otherwise not have bothered to come to an art show. Across Third Street, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts has interesting exhibitions, often of larger multimedia installations and kinetic sculpture, in its two-floor gallery. The M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park and the newly renovated California Palace of the Legion of Honor (a handsome classical pavilion with Rodins "The Thinker" at its entrance) are San Franciscos fine art museums. The world-famous Asian Art Museum, next to the de Young, is a must-see.

Most of San Franciscos private art galleries are clustered downtown, to the east of Union Square on Geary and Sutter Streets. The more experimental galleries operate near the SoMa lofts and in Potrero Hill.

San Franciscans enjoy movies more than most, or so it seems. Popular features, particularly edgy comedies, can be sold out for weeks. New screens are opening all the time to meet the demand, with the AMC 1000 on Van Ness offering 14 screens, and the Sony Theaters Metreon housing 16, including one IMAX. San Franciscans love independent cinema, too. In spite of the multiplex phenomenon, San Francisco moviegoers support quirky rep houses like the Castro, with its mighty Wurlitzer organ, and the Roxie, with its funky and eclectic programming.

The San Francisco International Film Festival, the oldest film festival in the Americas, draws filmmakers, critics and movie buffs from all over the world for its two-week run every year. There are also more specialized film festivals operating throughout the year, including the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, the Jewish Film Festival, and the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, the oldest of its kind anywhere. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts also presents a frequently changing program of experimental and documentary films.

San Francisco has always been a great town for comedy. Its Standup Comedy Competition winners have been virtually guaranteed television contracts. Cobbs and the Punch Line are two of the oldest and most popular comedy clubs.

San Francisco Ballet has long been one of the worlds premier companies with a variety of other companies, such as the globe trotting and award-winning ODC, making San Francisco their home base. More experimental modern dance has found a friendly venue at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater.

San Franciscos other museums are varied and worth visiting. They include, to mention but a few, the Mexican Museum, the Museo Italoamericano, the African-American Historical & Cultural Society Museum all at Fort Mason Center, the Jewish Museum, California Academy of Sciences (for natural history) and, designed for kids but great for grown-ups, too, Zeum and the Exploratorium.

Not even San Franciscos most blustery pretentions can obscure the fact that its theatre scene can be uneven.

The American Conservatory Theater (ACT) presents innovative productions of excellent plays, old and new, at the Geary Theater, as does the Berkeley Rep across the Bay. The Curran puts on both commendable touring plays and musicals. Aside from the big touring productions at the Orpheum and the cavernous Golden Gate, and a handful of small houses like the Theater on the Square-often given over to popular confections like "Shear Madness," there is only a fringe theater scene in San Francisco. The Magic Theatre, a leading interpreter of Sam Shephard Plays, at Fort Mason Center and a few independent, theater-less companies do mount entertaining productions here and there. Performance spaces, such as Theatre Artaud in the Potrero Hill area or The Marsh in the Mission, host occasional experimental plays.

The Music Scene

The award-winning San Francisco Symphony Orchestra plays at ultra-modern Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. Its music director and principal conductor is the charismatic Michael Tilson Thomas, who recently won a slew of Grammys. Touring soloists and symphonies play at Davies, Masonic Auditorium, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, and other venues throughout town. In the summertime, the natural amphitheater at Stern Grove (on Sloat Boulevard in the Sunset District) features outdoor concerts by the Symphony, the Opera, and other performers.

While in recent years the failure of Keystone Korner and Kimballs West have left the city without a regular venue for jazz (the best jazz club in the Bay Area, Yoshis, is across the Bay in Oakland), jazz fans delight in the annual San Francisco Jazz Festival. It features legends like Elvin Jones and Sonny Rollins, as well as lesser-known, more experimental performers. The Festival always gives due acknowledgement to the Latin influences of jazz, with heavies like Eddie Palmieri and the stars of the Buena Vista Social Club. The San Francisco Jazz Festival is establishing a Spring series to complement its regular October run.

San Francisco is inextricably linked with the history of rock n' roll. The return of the Fillmore Auditorium (of Hendrix fame) has been a boon for rock fans. The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium is another venue for big shows, and the new Pacific Bell Park will likely be used for outdoor concerts and major league baseball. The Maritime Hall has become popular for mid-sized shows. Slims and the Great American Music Hall are good settings for performances on a smaller-but no less intense--scale.

There are night clubs all over the city, but locals favor North Beach, and especially SoMa. Most clubs have disc-jockeyed music, but live bands are common. Bimbos 365 Club (a sexy, must-see retro fantasy spot that puts on more blues and jazz than it does rock n' roll), the Justice League, and the Transmission Theater have all hosted well-known acts that have packed the hall.

Next door to Davies Hall, at the beaux-arts Opera House, the San Francisco Opera has an even more devoted following than the Symphony. They mix classic operas with modern ones, including their recent premiere of "A Streetcar Named Desire" scored by Andre Previn.

Doug Gorney