On a recent Friday afternoon in the Sunset, three tweens practiced a dance recital on the main stage at Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove. A man sitting atop one of the park’s stone “ziggurats” chomped contemplatively on a red apple, and an Irish Setter sniffed around the grassy lawn.
Aside from the multimillion dollar renovations done in 2005 — when landscape architect Lawrence Halprin turned the rolling hillside into a tiered amphitheater rimmed in stone — Stern Grove has remained largely unchanged since its inception.
Before Rosalie Meyer Stern purchased the 33-acre site in 1931, the eucalyptus-filled area had been owned by the Greene family, who built a hotel called Trocadero Inn on the property in 1892. For more than two decades, the establishment — which is still there today — flourished as a popular roadside stop for travelers. Nextdoor was the plot of land that is now Stern Grove, which was used as a beer garden, open-air dancing pavilion, an deer park.
Around the start of Prohibition, Stern bought the property for $50 million from the Greenes, dedicating it to the city of San Francisco in memory of her late husband, Sigmund Stern. In the deed, she stipulated the site be used only for recreational purposes, such as music and “pageantry,” and in 1938, she and a group of volunteers organized the first Stern Grove Festival. They decided to throw it on the weekends during the summer months and to make admission free, so that everyone could attend.
“Keep in mind that the country was still suffering from the ravages of the Depression,” says Doug Goldman, Stern’s great-grandson and the chairman of the Stern Grove Festival. “The musicians at that time had no employment in the summer, so this served as a source of employment for them, too.”
Eighty years later, Stern Grove Festival — now attracts hundreds of thousands of people over its two month season — is still free to attend.
What has changed are the music offerings, which Goldman says have differed over the decades. In the early days, pop orchestras and symphonies were popular, and trendy acts like child pianist Laura Dubman performed. Operas, ballets, and musical theater were de rigeur in the 1950s, and Goldman says there was a heavy focus on jazz during his mother’s tenure as chairwoman.
Except for the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Ballet, which typically make an appearance at every festival, this year’s lineup is entirely different, with an eclectic range of acts that includes Afro-blues duo Amadou & Mariam, Latin band Los Angeles Azules, and Brooklyn funk trio Moon Hooch. New to the festival is the electronic-dance quartet Brazilian Girls (Aug. 20), as well as Oakland musician Fantastic Negrito (July 2).
Goldman — who is a fan of Tower of Power and Pharrell Williams — is particularly excited about this year’s lineup, though he’s quick to clarify that “just because it’s free to attend does not mean that in any way we skimp on the quality of the artist.”
And even though he’s against hiring the same act more than once in a five-year period, he was willing to break his “arbitrary five-year rule” this year because of the festival’s 80th birthday. Kool and the Gang open the season on Sunday, June 25, and some of the repeat artists this year include Stone Foxes (July 16), War (Aug. 13), and Mavis Staples (Aug. 27).
With the grove’s natural acoustics and subterranean location, anyone will sound great on the festival’s stage, regardless of skill-level. Once called “nature’s music box,” Stern Grove’s combination of eucalyptus and sloping hills serve as natural sounding boards against the hubbub of the city streets that border it.
“You’re completely separated from all of that,” Goldman says. “You’re in the middle of San Francisco, 150-feet down from the plateau of the city, and that’s very special.”
Kool and the Gang kick off Stern Grove Festival
at 2 p.m., on Sunday, June 25, at Stern Grove, 19th Ave. and Sloat Blvd. Free; sterngrove.org