Polytechnic High School & San Francisco (The City) in the 1950’s
by Bob Zimmerman
Those of us who came of age in the nineteen fifties had no idea that we were living in a teenagers’ dream decade. Little did we know that the cars we admired, the music we played, and what we ate and how we entertained ourselves would be quaint artifacts within a decade. George Lucas captured that transition beautifully in his movie
American Graffiti. We were the “in-between” generation, sandwiched between our depression era parents, and the “baby boomers” that came after us.
We certainly didn’t know we would be characterized as living in an “Ozzie and Harriet” world by later generations. Didn’t all moms stay at home while dad brought home the bacon? And we were still in the “black and white” world, photographically speaking.
The majority of the class of 1958 started at Poly in September 1955, although there were a few students that started as freshmen in 1954, the last year of freshmen at Poly. Poly at that time was an “open” school, meaning you could go there from any neighborhood in San Francisco. We had students from Haight-Ashbury, Castro Valley, Hayes Valley, Fillmore, Potrero Hill, Noe Valley, Sunset, and Richmond districts. I don’t think we got any students from the Marina, Pacific Heights, Nob Hill or Cow Hollow.
Poly was a “blue collar” school, in a blue-collar city. San Francisco was a heavily unionized city; it was possible to earn a good living using your hands in San Francisco. The average home price in the fifties was still below $20,000. The ethnic makeup of Poly was mainly white, but had a sizable black and Asian representation. Whites were mainly of Irish and Italian heritage. Poly truly represented a microcosm of San Francisco in 1955.
Poly was the second oldest high school in The City, only behind archrival Lowell, which was within walking distance of Poly.
Poly was perhaps the most unattractive looking high school in San Francisco; it did not have the modern architecture of Lincoln or Washington High in the Avenues, nor the classic Spanish architecture of Mission High or Balboa High. Lowell was the “academic” high school, whereas Poly was known as the “jock” high school, especially its football teams, headed up by Milt Axt, the most famous prep coach at that time.
In 1953, Axt was named California state high school coach of
they year, the third Poly coach to win that honor (Dave Cox in
1923 and Paul Hungerford in 1935).
In 1954, Poly lost to Mission High in the Semi-Finals, and the Mission students drove around San Francisco honking their horns in celebration. It was a huge upset. Poly had won football championships almost every year in the forties and early fifties and had gone undefeated for five of those years (1949-1954).
The first memories of the 1955 school year was the Fall football pageant held at
Kezar stadium, where every high school in San Francisco played a quarter of football against another team. The pageant was started in 1951, and held on a Saturday. I don’t remember whom Poly played that day, but we beat them. The Poly team had two sets of uniforms, the old style shown in the color photograph on this website and the new white uniforms with black shoulder stripes. The players preferred the old uniforms and wore them in the big games. The football pageant also featured cheerleading contests between each school. Poly always had an edge in football because our home field was across the street from the school at Kezar Stadium, also the home of the San Francisco 49ers. The students involved in athletics were also fortunate in that Milt Axt was a scout for the 49ers and he was able to get us into the 49er games as ushers. Now the 49ers use adult ushers. If you were really lucky you could watch teams like the Baltimore Colts practice in Golden Gate Park, not far from Poly, and see stars like Johnny Unitas.
High school football games in The City started in late afternoon, and if you had tickets to the games, you could leave school early to get to the game. Poly students did not get out that early except if we were playing Washington or Galileo, which had their own football stadium. Usually the day of the game, a rally was held in the school auditorium, and enthusiasm ran high since Poly had such great teams.
I am spending a lot of time writing about the football program at Poly because that was the core of what Poly was all about. Bob St. Clair who went to Poly in the mid forties was an established star with the 49ers in 1955, and many Poly players were standout athletes at the college level as well, including Ed Burns who played for USC. Following our class of 1958, Gary Lewis was an excellent running back for the 49ers in the early sixties. Poly had an excellent football season in 1955 and played Balboa for the championship on Thanksgiving Day. Poly won and Ted Cano scored the first touchdown on a long run. Ted was the biggest star that season and made all-city. We sophomores thought Cano was a man among boys. Talk about the big man on campus.
By 1955, there was a major change in musical tastes going on in the country. Rock and Roll was starting to come into its own. Patti Page was giving way to Elvis Presley.
Rock Around the Clock was the number one hit in 1954-55 due to it being the soundtrack for
Blackboard Jungle, a hugely popular movie dealing with teenage rebels in New York City. Elvis had a major hit with
Heartbreak Hotel after he moved over to RCA records from Sun. Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis were also big stars by this time. So you might say that our graduating classes of 1955-58, were the first “rock & roll” classes.
The Four Freshmen and other pop type singers were starting to fade away by this time, although Frank Sinatra was still a big star, especially when he moved from Columbia Records over to Capitol. At Poly we listened to a lot of rhythm and blues. A disc jockey named
Jumpin George played R&B.
A big hit in San Francisco in 1955 was a song called
WPLJ (White Port Lemon Juice) by the 4 Deuces. White musical artists like Pat Boone were also re-doing R&B songs like
Ain’t That A Shame by Fats Domino. Other big R&B hits were
Earth Angel by the Penguins and Dance With Me Henry by Georgia Gibbs.
San Francisco High Schools produced George Hamilton from Poly, Bobby Freeman from Mission High (Do you wanna dance?) and the incomparable Johnny Mathis from Washington High. Jazz was still popular during this period, especially Dave Brubeck who played the “cool” west coast jazz. He played at the Blackhawk Jazz Club on Golden Gate Avenue. Cal Tjader played at the Matador in North Beach. The Mastersounds were also popular back then headed up by Monk Montgomery and his famous brother Wes Montgomery. The Kingston Trio was playing at the Hungry I, and Phyllis Diller was telling jokes at the Purple Onion. Our parents still listened to big band music from the swing era, so there were plenty of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman records still around most homes. The Glenn Miller Story came out in 1953 and reinvigorated big band music for a time.
The dress code at Poly was no different than other high schools except we probably did not have the money to blow on clothes that students at Lincoln or Washington had. Boys and girls wore saddle shoes (brown and white). The girls had rolled down white sox. Pegged pants were still in but were being replaced by the new plain front Ivy League khaki look with belt in the back. Pendleton shirts were giving way to button down long sleeve shirts. Madras shirts were in. The “pachucos”, looked on as “hoods” by some, wore blue suede shoes, black pants and black leather motorcycle jackets. White suede for the “white shoe boys” and desert boots (fruit boots) made by Clarke were very popular. If you had the money you could shop at Cable Car Clothiers, Roos Brothers or the Emporium. Sears had just opened a new store on Geary Boulevard and it was a popular place to shop.
The school day started around 8:10am and most of the boys started each day by reading the “Sporting Green” which was the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
Herb Caen was also a popular Chronicle columnist and a San Francisco institution. There were eight periods of the school day. Each “period” comprised of one 50 minute class, which allowed ten minutes to get to the next class. We had four periods in the morning and four in the afternoon. If you were on an athletic team, last period was your gym class, which included after school sports practice. Part of the gym class regimen was a weekly run down to Stow Lake and back or a few laps around Kezar Stadium, which was 220 yards around. Drama was a popular class at Poly, and students got to go to the Geary Theater to see
Anastasia performed by Viveca Lindfors.
At lunchtime the boys could go off campus to eat, but the girls were restricted to the school cafeteria, which was located in the basement. The boys usually brown bagged it in Golden Gate Park, across from the school or went to one of the local “greasy spoons”, such as Johnson’s, right next door to Poly. If you were lucky enough to have a car you could almost make it to Ocean Beach and back before lunchtime ended. Not many students had cars in those days. If you did own one, you parked it in the Kezar Pavilion lot.
Kezar Pavilion was where the high schools played their basketball games, so we Poly students again had the home field advantage for basketball. Basketball was second in popularity to football at Poly but it came into its own in 1956 and 1957, when Poly not only won the City basketball championship but went to the Tournament of Champions in Berkeley both years. We won the first time and lost the second time by two points to Berkeley High School. Bill Simmons was the big star and also an all-city baseball player. The most famous players at that time went to Lowell and St. Ignatius Tom Meschery and Fred LaCour. Both went on to play in the NBA, but Fred died at the early age of 34 in 1972.
Poly offered college preparatory courses, shop classes, and a brand new electronic lab sponsored by Lux Corporation. This was a big deal in the mid fifties, since electronics were just starting to come into their own. “HiFi” music, the forerunner of stereophonic sound was the latest in sound technology. It was still possible to buy 78 rpm vinyl records in 1955, but the more popular 45 rpm records were starting to replace them. 45s were smaller and not as prone to breaking. Thirty-three rpm was now the popular recording medium for musicals, jazz, and classical music. The Columbia Records Club was started where you would get a new album once a month. If you liked jazz, radio station KROW-AM out of Oakland was pretty good. In 1957, some Poly drama students got to visit the station and took the ferryboat there. Ferries were still going strong in the fifties, and trains, called the “Key System”, still ran on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. Car traffic ran in both directions on the upper deck of the bridge.
The big car news in 1955 was the new Chevrolet, which came with a V8 engine for the first time. Mercurys were also very popular, due to the hit movie
Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean in his 1949 Mercury. Mercury and Oldsmobile had the hot engines. If you were rich, you owned a Buick, or better yet, a Cadillac. There were no foreign car makes around in 1955 except for an occasional MG or Volkswagen. British Motors had just started up on Van Ness Avenue but had not made a big impact yet. The GM Motorama which came to San Francisco every year at the Civic Auditorium, was very popular; it showcased all the new GM makes and their concept cars. The new Corvette sports car and Nomad station wagon were introduced at Motorama shows during this period.
Most families only owned one car back then, at most two. San Francisco has never been very car friendly because of its hills, lack of parking, and small or no garages in the homes. In the fifties, most cars were still stick shift, although the automatic transmissions were getting less costly. There was no such thing as an AM/FM car radio. FM was still a frequency for mostly classical music. Poly students, if they had cars, drove old cars from the late forties. There were even a few hot rods on campus, usually old Fords. One thing for sure – you could immediately identify every car – they were distinctive, unlike today’s look alike cars.
Poly students were no different than students in other high schools. They liked to go to the movies, watch TV, eat fast food (although not so fast in those days), and go to after-school functions like sock hops in the girls gymnasium located on the east side of campus. You could also go to dances at the YWCA in the new Stonestown shopping area. There were also parties at Ocean Beach at the foot of Judah, where there was a footpath through a tunnel underneath the Great Highway. The Great Highway was the favorite place to drag race. Unfortunately, racing killed one Polyite there. Another favorite spot was “Playland at the Beach”, at the north end of Ocean Beach, which had all of the typical carnival rides, a fun house, and fast food restaurants, although not chain restaurants. Playland was a great place to grab a taco or tamale at the “Hot House”, or a hot pie at the “Pie House”. You could also get a great burger and shake at several places in Playland.
Television was in its heyday. Sunday night was Ed Sullivan, Monday was
I Love Lucy, and Tuesday was Texaco Theater with Milton Berle. Wednesday and Thursday was
Playhouse 90 and GE Theater with Ronald Reagan. Saturday night was
Cavalcade of Stars with Jackie Gleason. How sweet it was!
At either end of Ocean Beach were places to swim if you did not want to brave the cold Pacific Ocean waters. There was Sutro Baths located next to the “Cliff House”, which had several bathing pools, or you could go to Fleishhacker Pool next to the Zoo at the
southern end of Ocean Beach. Fleishhacker was where the high school swim meets were held. The high school soccer games were usually held at Beach Chalet or Balboa Park. If you wanted pizza, Villa Romano on Judah Street was the place to go and be seen. After school was out, you could head to the Park Bowl on Haight Street or Bob’s Drive-In, to hang out. Another popular place for burgers was Zim’s at 19th and Taraval. If you wanted a hot fudge sundae, the place to go was Blum’s across from Union Square.
There was usually a party to go to every two weeks or so, some via invitation and some via “crashing”. If you were really avant-garde, you could go to North Beach and hang out with the Beatniks (name coined by Herb Caen in 1958) drink espresso and cappuccino at Enrico’s, or listen to Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg at the City Lights Bookstore. You could walk down Broadway to the International Settlement at Pacific and Kearny, which had two blocks of restaurants, bars, and houses of ill repute.
Car cruising was a popular pastime with San Francisco high school students in the fifties. You could hit several of the Mel’s Drive In restaurants, Ott’s, Bob’s, Tic Tocs, or even A&W out in the new Westlake area. At these drive-ins, you could get carhop service or go inside and eat. In order to cruise, students had to pool their limited funds to come up with gas money. Gas back then was about 30 cents a gallon. Then there was the matter of alcohol. Somehow even though we were underage, we came up with the wherewithal to buy beer, Thunderbird or Ripple wine, or even the vaunted “hard stuff”, usually Early Times bourbon. And yes, you could go down to Third Street and have a “wino” pick up a six-pack and a half pint for you. And most of us smoked in those days – Lucky Strikes, Camels, Chesterfields, or the new filtered brands such as Marlboro. Our parents drank “boilermakers”, not martinis, and vodka drinking was still rare. Only the rich drank scotch. San Francisco, then as now, was a hard drinking town. Some bars that were around in the fifties are still with us today. Parents in those days did not get involved in school activities, including sports.
On the weekends, and during the summers, it was time to visit Santa Cruz, the Marin Town and Country Club in Fairfax, the Russian River, Clearlake, or if your family was rich, you went all the way to Lake Tahoe. Not many Polyites went to Lake Tahoe. Summer was also the time to work to earn spending money. The minimum wage was not yet $ 1.00 an hour, but 83 cents an hour went a long way then. If you worked during the summer, or held a part-time job, that was enough to get you through the school year. Getting to and from school was normally via the “Muni” railway. The “33 Haight Ashbury” ran close to Poly and the “N Judah” ran right alongside Poly. Students had bus passes – ten rides for 50 cents.
Poly had its Junior Prom in 1957 at the Forest Hills Lodge near Laguna Honda, and the Senior Prom in 1958 at the Mark Hopkins Hotel. There were also two or three dances every semester on campus. KPIX TV also hosted a local weekly program called
Dance Party, similar to the nationally televised American Bandstand show. Several lucky Poly students were invited to appear on the show and show off their dance steps.
We were also lucky during track season; all of the track meets were held inside Kezar Stadium – another home field advantage. We played our baseball games nearby in Golden Gate Park. Poly was very centrally located to the sports venues in use back then. The Poly baseball team won the City Championship in 1957 and played at Seals Stadium. That was a big deal. The soccer team almost won the championship in 1956, losing to Mission on a penalty kick. The stars of both teams came from James Lick Jr. High, so they all knew each other.
There were two traumatic events at Poly in 1957. We had our biggest earthquake since the great quake in 1906. It happened in March just before noon. The overhead stage lights in the school auditorium swung back and forth and those of us on the stage immediately jumped off the stage. No harm was done but it was scary. In November 1957 we experienced the second traumatic event – our loss in the high school football championship game to Balboa, 12-7. It was shocking since we had beaten Balboa in the regular season fairly easy even though Balboa was a great team. That was Balboa’s first football championship ever. Several players from that game are enshrined in the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame including Al Maranai and George Siefert. Football was the most important activity at Poly, so we students took the loss very hard. Almost 50 years later, George Siefert , a successful 49er head coach, remembers it vividly. He failed to bat down the winning touchdown pass. That was the saddest Thanksgiving Day I can ever remember.
1957 was the year of the most famous Chevrolet ever built. We thought it was a nice looking car but did not realize it would become one of the most famous cars of all time. 1957 was also the year of Buddy Holly and
Peggy Sue, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Great Balls of Fire. A very good year, except for the earthquake and the football defeat.
1958 was our graduation year and the year the Edsel was introduced. A bad omen. A national recession hit that year, and it was difficult to find a job, especially if you were a high school student with no skills. Graduation was at the Opera House on a Monday night. Afterward there were many graduation parties around town, and the next day many students went back to see Poly for the last time. That summer, we prepared for college, tried to find a job, or went into military service before the service came looking for us. There was a military draft in those days. That year was a sports milestone as the New York Giants baseball team moved to San Francisco and the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.
Of course none of us knew it at the time, but this era would become known as
an “age of innocence” time in U.S. history, a period of time we all look back on fondly now, especially those of us who were teenagers at the time. How would we know that the age of drive-ins, soda fountains, big fin cars, and Rock and Roll would fade to chain restaurants, plain Jane cars, and Rock without the Roll.
The Haight Ashbury would become the Mecca of the hippie movement, the cold war would become hot with some of us heading to Vietnam, and the Kennedy and King assassinations would be less than a decade away. Short crew cut haircuts would give way to long stringy hair, and saddle shoes and poodle skirts would end up in thrift shops.
Cruising would be banned and the first sit-ins would occur on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Our City by the Bay was about to become the center of the music world and the anti-war movement at the same time.
Poly would be declared unsafe due to earthquake hazards and
closed in 1972. Except for the gymnasiums, it was completely torn down a decade later. A lucky few Polyites got some of the bricks used in the building of Poly. Now a condominium sits on the site. Kezar Stadium was demolished and rebuilt on a smaller scale. Playland-at-the-Beach is gone, as is Sutro Baths. There is no more Blackhawk Club, or KROW-AM radio. What a great time it was before the party ended.
But the music lives on, as do the cars. You can find them both at every car show in the United States.
Hot August Nights is a re-creation every year of the 1950’s in Reno.
For those of us who grew to adulthood in San Francisco in the Fifties, we had no idea we were living in one of the great cities of the world. We discovered that later as did thousands of transplants that “discovered” San Francisco and transformed the City from its blue-collar roots to an upper-middle class place to live and work. Although most Polyites ended up out in the suburbs to raise families and embark on careers, there is still a special place in our hearts for the City by the Bay and the old, long gone but not forgotten, high school on Frederick Street across from Kezar Stadium.
Links for this page:
History of Poly/Lowell football
History of Kezar Stadium on Wikipedia.
Jazz in San Francisco with a photo of the Montgomery Brothers.
- Purple Onion Web Page.
Wikipedia article on Herb Caen.
Player profile of Fred La Cour
of St. Ignatius.
Playland-At-The-Beach and pictures.
George Seifert in high school.