Wednesday, October 18, 2006

San Francisco - Home of the World's Tallest Building


Although I would never want to live there, boy do I wish I could have spent 24 hours in mid-1970s San Francisco when Mayor Robert Ramsay ran this burg. Wait, I hear you, don't I mean Mayor Alioto or Moscone? No, I mean Mayor Ramsay of The Towering Inferno when San Francisco held the claim of being home to the tallest building in the world. Though it crashed on its first Titanic night, The Glass Tower, apparently at what is now 1 Market Street, stood at 135 stories, just a block down from the Perrine Building (yes, another mythical structure) just to the north at about the same height as the Chrysler Building, soaring above the various Embarcadero towers.

Mayor Ramsay made the pro-growth Alioto look like a whimp, and had there been a sequel to the Towering Inferno I am sure he would have enlisted Donald Trump to build twin towers on top of Twin Peaks. One tower on each peak, mind you, not two on each peak. Even Mayor Ramsay would consider that to be overkill.
[That's Mrs. Ramsay on the left having a sharp reaction to Faye Dunaway. Can you blame her?]

Though Towering Inferno was so big it took two studios (Fox and Columbia) to produce it and chock full of top box-office talent, the real star of the flick in my mind is Sheila Mathews Allen, wife of director Irwin Allen, in the role of the mayor's lovely wife Paula Ramsay. No character goes through a more dramatic transformation than Paula. Entering the film as cosmetological mirror of The Glass Tower with her blonde tressses piled nearly two feet high, she weather through a harrowing ride in the glass elevator hitched to a helicopter, through fire, water and more before finally emerging on California Street just before dawn.

I think that had there been a chance for a sequel: The Towering Inferno – The Morning After, we would see a new Paula Ramsay and a new San Francisco emerge. The mayor, u untouched by the ordeal would be quick to rebuild and rebuild bigger and brassier. But Paula, a changed woman, would not retreat to her Pacific Heights mansion but serve soup at Glide, hang out with the Cockettes, alert members of the People's Temple that they were being led by a charlatan, campaign for tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway. San Francisco, through the visionary trailblazing of Paula Ramsay would end up looking much like it does today but sooner and with more passion. Or wait, maybe San Francisco turned out to be Mayor Ramsay’s vision after all. High rise luxury condos on the Embarcadero? Oh, no! Oh, my!

Of course, the remake would also explore the sexual heat of the main romantic relationship of the original, the intense but never fully realized lust betwen Paul Newman's high-minded architect and Steve McQueen's working class fire chief. One of the real treasures of the original is the scene at the beginning when McQueen's fire chief enters the building's leasing office and asks how much textile manufaturing is taking place in the building. Wool, yes wool, he explains, is highly flamable. This, of course, is completely plausible since back in the 1970s, many Tibetan weavers and Marin shepherds stored their stock and flocks in the high rises on the Embarcadero. In fact, I wonder if I should send a DVD of the flick to the DVD to the TSA . They might give second thought to the next herd of sheep coming through those metal detectors with wicks and stones. And to think we've wasted all this time on gels and liquids!

So who was this woman that played the remarkable Paula Ramsay? Though never a huge star, Sheila Mathews Allen appeared in many of her husband’s filrm, perhaps the only one equaling Towering Inferno was her role in the original Poseidon Adventure as the nurse. Allen, of course, was the king of 1970s disaster movies, following his demolition of San Francisco by leveling LA in Earthquake. He went on to hit the Gulf Coast with a natural disaster of the sweet winged kind in The Swarm where a bee besieged Beetle took its deck of drones into the Astrodome where they were done in by heavy duty air-conditioning a quarter of a century before the same arena served as the processing spot for Katrina victims. Allen would go on to his exclamation point trilogy on TV with Flood! (1976) Fire! (1977) and Outrage! (1986).

But perhaps my favorite use of Sheila was in Allen’s wonderfully bad extraterrestrial outing Lost in Space where she guest starred playing characters such as Aunt G
amma, Brynhilda and Ruth Templeton. But it will always be Paula Ramsay that we will remember her by. Though Irwin has been gone for more than a decade, Sheila is alive and well, looking lovely as ever on the right at the recent premier of the Poseidon remake. No word on what she thought about it.

One of the reason I feel especially close to her is that one of my college writing teachers, Bob Duncan of the husband and wife script writing team of Bob and Wanda Duncan who were the lead script writers for Lost in Space. How lucky I am to have been mentored by someone who not only wrote such classic lines as “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger, Will Robinson!” and gave Sheila an entrance line of “Beware, earthlings, you have entered the sphere of Brynhilda!”


Alas, I guess I’ll never get to know the wonderful world of the Mayor Ramsay era San Francisco when it was mirrored on other TV series equally out of touch with the times (Phyllis, The Doris Day Show). An era when Barbra Streisand’s dad was the highest judge on the bench (What’s Up Doc?). And even though we had a gay police commissioner (McMillan and Wife), Dan White’s brother (Dirty Harry) was on the force and making sure those men in blue didn’t get too light in the loafers.

Ah, we may have been a bit too brash during the Ramsay era, but my what a proud skyline we had!


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