SCENE 1: Heraclitus and the River of Time
Cities change. Over time buildings are torn down. Businesses close. People move or get pushed out. New structures rise out of the ground. People move in. In San Francisco buildings and warehouses are being torn down and replaced at an alarming pace with large condos (most of them market or luxury rate). All that is left are the memories, echos and photos of bygone eras. One such place is a large working-class dance hall in the outer Mission, a few blocks past Ocean Avenue but before Daly City called El Tapatio
At one point El Tapatio was a rock & roll spot.
“In 1967 it was called The Rock Garden. The Grateful Dead performed in this building 4 times in 1967. Jerry Garcia’s Mom was in the audience.” – slip n.- Laytonville, CA – Yelp Comment
SCENE II: Five Sets a Night
In its last incarnation it was mostly frequented by folks from Central America and Mexico out on the town, all dressed up to go dancing, trying to forget the drudgery of life. There was a large wooden dance floor but outside of that the carpet floor of El Tapatio was a mosaic of discard chewing gum, so plentiful it looked like a pointillist painting. After visiting the club, the next day you would often have to scrape gum off the sole of your shoes. In the 1980’s and 90’s you could dance to a ten piece salsa band four nights a week. How do I know this? I played in a band that did five sets a night, Thursday through Sunday. The gig started a 9 pm sharp and ended at bar-time around 2 am.
- Two lead singers
- Four Horns – Alto and Tenor Sax, Trumpet and Trombone
In that band were some solid players. Bill Theurer played lead trumpet. Mario Vega on tenor, Donaldo on timbales. Carlos Ramirez, rest his soul, now deceased, held down the bass. Playing twenty hours a week the band got pretty good. We played the hits of the day. Bamboleo, Devorame Otra Vez, Lluvia probably. Some salsa classics no doubt. Oscar De Leon. El Gran Combo, Hector LaVoe. Being in the Outer Mission we would also play a lot of cumbias and even Mexican rancheras. A lot of songs about food – Sopa de Caracoles, Patacon Pisao. I remember Perez Prado mambos and other odd classics from the 1940’s and 50’s. Nelson, one of the lead singers had this huge voice and could sing bel canto. He would belt out, very dramatically, beautiful Mexican ballads. The gig paid $55 a night. It covered my rent and helped put my wife through grad school. Friday and Saturday nights were packed and the owner at one point surely enjoyed the ride.
SCENE III: All Night Long
San Francisco during the 1980’s and 90’s was buzzing with salsa and cumbia bands. After working the El Tapatio we would sometimes head down to Ceasar’s Latin Palace, now Rocapolco, and hang out and hear such great players as Orestes Vilato, Anthony Carillo and Raul Rico. At Ceasar’s you could still get a drink after hours but the liquor often seemed like something they found in the cleaning supply closet – dangerous concoctions that tasted like lighter fluid and could easily wear a hole in your stomach.
SCENE IV: The Ghost of Perez Prado in the Halls
A friend of mine in the trades said that they are tearing down El Tapatio and building the tallest building on Mission Street, meaning at least six stories tall. It will be a large housing complex of some kind. I doubt that the first floor will feature a large dance hall, but probably the ubiquitous cold glassy retail space with the “for lease” signs in the window for perhaps years. Time will tell, but one thing is for certain – the ghost of Perez Prado will be wandering the halls late into the night shouting out mambos.
Still alive down the block is Taqueria Guadalajara, that has been there for at least thirty years. People “in the know” travel miles for Guadalajara. I walked by last week and a line stretched out the door. Some things do stay the same. A carnitas burrito “super” hopeful never goes out of business.
4798 Mission St, San Francisco, CA
Closes at 1 AM