The “Town Crier” hangs up his bell

by Gerald Nachman

Hear ye! Hear ye! Hear ye! This isn’t a farewell column (I hope) so much as a see ya later column. For 20 years, on and off, I’ve been sounding off in these pages—first on aging and other matters for the much-missed editor Merla Zellerbach, who talked me into writing for the Nob Hill Gazette when I left the Chronicle in 1979 after 14 years as a critic and columnist. For the last five years I’ve been ringing my little bell as the unofficial “Town Crier” to take on that most untouchable of topics, San Francisco, which I dearly love but roll my eyes at four times a day, at least.

The City provides an inexhaustible supply of silliness, adoring self-regard, preciousness and political rectitude to keep several columnists working night and day to keep up. I was lucky enough to have that satirical side of the town pretty much to myself lately in the local press, trudging along and following in the large footprints of Herb Caen and Charles McCabe, who loved taking shots at San Francisco, our favorite local sport.

One column a month was not nearly enough to get to all the local follies. Just in the last week: second-string quarterback Colin Kaepernick remained seated in protest during the playing of the National Anthem (I would readily protest the anthem itself as unsingable, militaristic and boring); a popular class in coffee making at UC Davis made headlines (can you get a PhD in decaf latte history?); 27 more stories about Uber and Airbnb; and a fabulous plan to turn the landmark Crocker Bank into a hotel—(so why not a Coit Hyatt and a Four Seasons Ferry Building?).

The reason for my retreat is threefold: I’m promoting my little heart out for a new book next month, “Showstoppers!: The Surprising Stories Behind Broadway’s Most Remarkable Songs,” a 10-year labor of love that zeroes in on musical theater’s great blockbuster moments, explaining why they’re great and how they came to be written, with as much backstage lore and gossip as I could gather from interviews with Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, Jerry Herman, Tommy Tune, Hal Prince, Marvin Hamlisch, Bebe Neuwirth, Edie Adams, Dick Van Dyke, John Kander, Faith Prince, etc. The book covers about 50 songs, from “Manhattan” in 1925 to songs from “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys.” End of plug.

I’m also putting together a collection of 100 or so of my showbiz pieces from the Chronicle and starting on a big new book, the first definitive biography of Jack Benny. There are four memoirs of one of the 20th Century’s most beloved entertainers (by his wife, daughter, manager and a comedy writer) but this will be the only complete, objective look at Benny, a comedians for the ages.

Anyway, that’s why I need to give up the monthly NHG column, which I hope to resume again in time, maybe in a year or so. Meanwhile, I look forward to what the new ownership of the Gazette will do with the magazine to broaden its scope to include—well, Russian Hill, anyway. My only regret in taking a hiatus is giving up the chance to regularly zing San Francisco, but I should have a bulging folder of column ideas when the old, if cracked, Town Crier’s bell peals again. 

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