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Gatekeepers of San Francisco

By Carey Dunne

They don’t necessarily work from corner offices, but in many ways, they wield more clout than their bosses. They’re as chummy with San Francisco’s limousine drivers, music festivalgoers and waiters as with its politicians, socialites and rock stars. They can’t walk more than a block in the city without running into someone they know. They’re the charismatic gatekeepers of the city’s social life, the faces of legendary local institutions. And if you want access to the best concerts, parties, dining and accommodations—not to mention endless tabloid-worthy stories— you might want to know their names.

William May

Doorman of the Fairmont Hotel

In 1986, 10 years after he moved to California from Columbus, Ohio, William May was hired as a doorman at the Fairmont San Francisco, the fabled luxury hotel on Nob Hill. Bedecked in Ionic columns and gold-swirled marble floors, the Fairmont has seen 110 years of Bay Area history: It’s where the charter establishing the United Nations was signed, where Tony Bennett debuted “I Left My Heart In San Francisco,” where every American president since William Howard Taft has stayed.

“When I was hired, my boss said, ‘This is a position—it’s not just opening doors and carrying bags,’” May remembers. “‘You become part of the San Francisco community. These types of jobs matter. We need you to be a personality.’”

May delivered. In his 31 years as a doorman, he’s become the de facto face of the Fairmont. As the first person to greet arriving guests—including President Bill Clinton, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Mayor Willie Brown and Frank Sinatra—May is a vital “ambassador to the city, to [his] colleagues, to the hotel brand.” When the Fairmont unveiled a statue of Bennett on its lawn, May escorted the legendary crooner to the ceremony.

With his easy laugh, warm charisma and signature opener—“Good morning! Any questions, directions or suggestions?”—May lends an air of familiarity to what could feel like an intimidating institution. His signoff—“Have a successful day”—is a blessing of sorts.

When things get crazy—say, before a fundraiser for Nancy Pelosi, whom May knows as just “Nancy”—“I kind of look through the chaos.” After years running marathons and practicing Bikram yoga, May now burns occasional stress by “aqua jogging” in the Presidio Y pool. On his off-days, he earned a degree in English from UC Berkeley and a law degree from San Francisco State University, which he put to use as a paralegal protecting housing rights in Oakland.

There are blips, of course: May recalls parking Janet Jackson’s Ferrari one evening—and getting locked inside. “I didn’t know how to get out of this car. It’s Saturday night, everyone’s asking, ‘Where’s the doorman?’ And I’m trapped in this Ferrari.”

The impeccably dressed son of a tailor, May accents his three-piece suits with cufflinks of Onyx and gold—a gift from a hotel regular—and a silver Forest Time watch. The story of the watch speaks to the depth of the connections May forges on the job. Years ago, he befriended a limousine driver who collected watches. “We hit it off,” May says, “and after a while, he gave me an old Bulova watch with a brown leather strap.”

The driver often talked to May about his heartbreak over his wife and kids, whom he’d lost in a car accident in the ’90s. “It was almost like he was stuck in time,” May says. “One day, I said, ‘Well, she probably would want you to move on.’ I encouraged him, and he started dating.” Soon, a package arrived for May: A new watch, an Invicta, with a note that said “Thanks a lot for our talks, I’m seeing someone now.”

Last year, the driver presented May with yet another watch—the Forest Time—and said, “You know, I’m getting married, and I’m very happy.”

Danielle Madeira

Another Planet Event Group

“My mom says I collect people like some people collect stamps,” says Danielle Madeira, Vice President of Special Events for Another Planet Event Group (APEG), a full-service production company specializing in live music. As she walks down Hayes Street with her Yorkie-Maltese mix, Penny Lane, that much is clear: In the span of a few blocks, Madeira gets stopped several times for hugs from people she knows.

As the official event producer for San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and The Independent, as well as Oakland’s Fox Theater, APEG produces 70 percent of the concerts in the Bay Area. That includes the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival, held annually in Golden Gate Park, as well as shows by the likes of Paul Simon, Neil Young, Lady Gaga, Radiohead and Daft Punk. It’s often Madeira’s personal relationships in the music industry that make APEG’s bookings so successful.

While APEG CEO Gregg Perloff is “the big guy,” “I’ve become a bit of the face of the company,” Madeira says. On paper, her job description involves talent buying and production for special events, from private garden parties to rock ’n’ roll corporate events. In reality, it also involves reasoning with inebriated Hells Angels at a Metallica concert after party; convincing her boss to book a set by The Muppets band at Outside Lands (“I got a shout out from Animal!”); and “drinking wine with Fergie on the side stage during a Dave Matthews Band show.” (There’s a story there: “Fergie was like, ‘Should I go on stage and perform with Dave?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, did he look at you? Did you make eye contact?’ I leave for a minute, and when I come back, Fergie’s on stage, jumping around. I think she scared the bejesus out of the band.”)

There were early signs of Madeira’s calling as a concert producer. Long before she was “a good friend” of Lars Ulrich, she was a 13-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, attending her first live music show: Janet Jackson, her “obsession.” After “spending about a year of babysitting money on merch,” Madeira and her friends spotted Jackson’s boyfriend in the venue lobby. “I went up to him, and I was like, ‘Hi. Is there anything you could give us?’” He forked over three front-row tickets, said, “Put on your merch, cheer like crazy.” Once in the front row, Madeira chatted up a middle-aged audience member, who happened to know Jackson’s backup dancers—and who brought the awestruck tweens backstage post-show.

Later, while studying at the University of Kansas, Madeira became a Greenpeace volunteer—mostly because it gave her an opportunity to tour with the Dave Matthews Band (“I was obsessed”).

Now Madeira, a mother of two, is the gatekeeper who holds the keys to the alt-rock outfit’s VIP concert seats.

While most of her peers look back on their music festival days with nostalgia, she’s getting to cut lines of “shrilling girls” at a sold-out show of The 1975. She says she’ll never get sick of it: “I still have so much fun.”

Kathy King

Director of Operations, Boulevard and Prospect

One evening in early May, a power outage struck the James Beard Award-winning restaurant Boulevard, housed in an 1889 Belle Epoque landmark overlooking the Bay Bridge. While feeling around in the dark, Kathy King tripped and broke a toe. During her periodic absences over the next few days, patrons kept demanding to know: “Where’s Kathy?”

As the front-facing personality of Boulevard and its dressed-down sister restaurant, Prospect, King has developed something of a cult following among Bay Area fine diners. Under different management, the restaurant could easily feel stuffy with its mosaic floors and polished bronze, but pretension is against the rules for King and her friendly staff. “I like people to feel really comfortable—it’s like my house,” she says of her managerial style, which has earned her a James Beard Foundation’s Service Award nomination and Women Chefs and the Restaurateurs’ Golden Fork Award. “I’m a bit more casual than a lot of owner-managers might be.”

Growing up in Michigan, King discovered her hospitality gene while working in her parents’ women’s clothing boutiques, then went on to attend art school. After landing in San Francisco and discovering a dearth of art jobs, she started working as a waitress at the late, great SF restaurant Square One, run by famed chef Joyce Goldstein. After overcoming some mild shyness—“When I first got into the business, I had to force myself to go and touch tables,” King says—she was promoted to General Manager. In 1996, chefs Nancy Oakes and Pam Mazzola poached King to work as GM at Boulevard; the trio opened Prospect Restaurant, in the Infinity Building on Spear Street, in 2010.

Perks of a friendship with King, as you might guess, include access to in-demand spots at the city’s best restaurants. “I squeeze VIPs, regulars and friends in at the times they want and at tables they want,” she says. Regulars at Boulevard include San Francisco high society matriarch Denise Hale and designer Ken Fulk; meanwhile, staff of the architecture firm Gensler Associates “kind of see Prospect as their dining room.” At Boulevard, boldface names range from Johnny Depp, who “left the hostesses all giggly,” to Hillary Clinton, who entered the restaurant flanked by Secret Service and bomb-sniffing dogs. Paparazzi swarmed the spot when, in 2014, Beyoncé and Jay Z booked a last-minute dinner reservation at the end of their $100 million On the Run Tour. King sat them in the wine vault, “because it was empty,” where they ate seafood and steak with their daughter, Blue Ivy. After more than 20 years in the business, King admits she can “still get kind of star-struck,” but you’d never guess.

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