In the circus that is San Francisco, clowns are not an unusual sight; they protest in front of City Hall, a “guy in weird clown costumes” (AKA a clown) got busted for sticking up banks and pharmacies in 2015. There used to be a band called The Clowns in the 1990s that played places like the Purple Onion when it was a weird, retro punk club. And although it’s a two-hour drive away, let’s not forget the “wave of clown terror” that hit the Sacramento area in October 2016 with mobs of deranged harlequins chasing kids in Galt.
Creepy clowns in San Francisco go back a lot farther than the current clown wave. At 4 a.m. on March 27, 1967, unemployed circus clown Cecil E. Hurst borrowed a dime from the clerk at the Albert Hotel at 2135 Mission St. so he could use the payphone in the lobby. He called the FBI and told them of an elaborate assassination plot against S.F. Mayor John Shelley.
Shelley, a pro-labor but socially conservative Catholic who became mayor just as San Francisco started going crazy, was placed under tight police protection until the FBI could trace Hurst’s calls back to the residential hotel where he lived. Shelley was facing a possible recall at the time, and didn’t need the aggravation.
“It’s creating havoc in my home,” Shelley pleaded, “and it may just give some other screwball ideas.”
“I do remember borrowing a dime from the clerk but I don’t remember making a phone call,” Hurst said after his arrest. “I have no reason to dislike Shelley. In fact, I agree with many of the things he has done.”
When Hurst wasn’t tumbling out of overstuffed clown cars, he was a commercial skin diver. On Christmas Eve 1964 threatened police officers with a spear gun “easily capable of killing a shark” according to the Chronicle. It took Hurst’s dad and two cops to wrestle the aquatic weapon away from him.
For “making an annoying and threatening phone call without revealing identification” in 1967, Hurst received three years probation on the condition that he sought psychiatric treatment.
Continuing with the circus theme in San Francisco that week, Anton LaVey’s 500-pound lion, Togare, ran amuck in the Church of Satan founder’s California Street mansion.
“SORCERER’S LION GOES WILD,” the Examiner screamed in 70-pt type above the masthead on Saturday, April 1, 1967 — the day after Hurst’s arrest. LaVey had agreed to babysit a 280-pound male jaguar named Kitty. This pissed off Togare to no end.
After LaVey got the bright idea to take Togare into the house to calm him, the big cat destroyed the drapes, a $200 leather coat, a typewriter, and a pair of boots belonging to someone the Examiner referred to as “Mrs. LaVey.” LaVey wasn’t married at the time, so this is likely referring to Diane Hegerty, co-founder and high priestess of the Church of Satan.
“Togare was quite saucy,” said “Mrs. LaVey.”
After the fracas, Kitty was hauled off to the zoo, while Togare was left at LaVey’s where he reportedly “snuggled up and went to sleep — sweet as a lamb.”
Hopping on the creepy clown trend is the San Francisco Opera, which mounts its first production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in 15 years. The bloody climax of this two-act opera where Canio, the leader of a traveling clown troupe, is driven to murder by jealousy may be where clowns got creepy.
After Pagliacci’s debut in 1892, you had Lon Chaney, Sr. playing vengeful clowns in silent movies, the Joker gassing people to death in Batman comics, and the demonic Pennywise in Stephen King’s It—which may be more responsible for recent clown hysteria than anything. But do we get any of this without Canio and that knife of his?
In the 1950s and 60s, Italian tenor Mario Del Monaco played Canio in several San Francisco Opera productions of Pagliacci. What Chronicle opera critic Alfred Frankenstein called Del Monaco’s “extremely violent expression” went beyond his explosive singing style, however.
“I used to have to ask him not to take it so seriously,” American mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens told the New York Times after Del Monaco’s death in 1982. “Once in the last act of Carmen, he threw me down so hard he sprained my wrist and almost broke it.”
Stevens finished her performance but had to be taken to the hospital afterward. She refused to work with Del Monaco in a San Francisco production of Carmen in 1959 over Del Monaco’s bigger paychecks, but the extra $100 she demanded was probably for hazard pay — especially considering Del Monaco’s preference for real swords over rubber props.
The San Francisco Opera is performing double feature of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana throughout September.