LOCALS | ANNE RUTH ISAACSON
After a long walk back home from the Hardly Strictly Blue Grass Festival, I stopped at Fillmore and Sacramento for coffee. Outside on the corner there were no free tables, but a gentleman signaled that I could join him and his friend.
That was the day I met Kelly Johnson. I found him instantly likable and engaging. Soon I would learn what many locals already knew: that he can usually be found on that corner, nursing a coffee, available for interesting conversation.
I relocated to San Francisco a decade ago, a specialized architect working in biotechnology. But on my own time, I paint narrative portraiture — portraits that tell a story. Kelly was becoming part of my San Francisco story. So one day I went down to the corner and asked him to pose for me.
That’s when I really began to know him. Kelly entertained me with stories of his childhood on the vaudeville circuit, his days of running a dance studio a few doors away, his years with the symphony — and especially his half-century of calling this corner of Fillmore Street home.
“It’s just one of those neighborhood things,” says political consultant Duane Baughman, a Washington Street resident and a Peet’s regular. “You show up at the same place at the same time — and you know so many of the same people — that you trick yourself into believing you’ve known each other for years.”
But it has been a few since they first met.
“The people I know and respect and care about most in the neighborhood were always huddled around Kelly’s table,” says Baughman. “You just figure, ‘Hmm, that must be the place to be, and the guy to know.’ And sure enough, it turned out to be true.”
Since he retired as executive director of the Berkeley Symphony, Kelly has spent most of his days on the corner of Fillmore and Sacramento.
“That’s when I became a street person,” he laughs.
He preferred the northwest corner when the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf was open. “I knew the people,” he says, “and the sun was over there.” Now it’s Peet’s, where the locals tend to gather, especially since the venerable Royal Ground closed a block south on the Fillmore-California corner.
“I never go out in the morning feeling like I’m going to have coffee alone,” Kelly says. “I meet people easily, and I seem to have this knack for connecting people — I’ve just always done that.”
He adds: “Everybody has a story, and almost everybody’s story is interesting.”
Kelly Johnson grew up on a farm in the Bible Belt north of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the son of a confirmed stage mother. She pushed Kelly and his sister Connie to become child performers on the vaudeville circuit. In addition to his talents as a tap dancer and pianist, he was also an acrobat and a contortionist.
“My mother trained us like she trained her dogs,” he says. “But I loved performing. We loaded up our stuff in the station wagon and we drove and drove. We worked the Chicago circuit.”
In his 20s he tried to go straight. He came west to San Francisco in 1963 as an employee of International Harvester, a young corporate climber with a conservative life. But the world was exploding around him, and suddenly it was the Summer of Love.
A more spirited life called. By 1969 he had moved to the Fillmore to study dance at Marc Wilde Ballet, above what is now Athleta. He moved into a bustling third-story Victorian flat across the street. The walls were painted purple, the floors were bright green and the ceilings were sky blue as a backdrop to a sea of stars. The place was already occupied by a Great Dane, an Australian Sheepdog, eight cats, a white rat, a parrot and six people — including dancer Penelope Lagios and her 6-year-old daughter, Leda.
“I just fell in love with this neighborhood,” he says. “It felt like home. It was edgy, but edgy in a way I liked.”
Kelly and Penelope soon married, and he raised Leda as his own child. She too would grow up to become an important dancer, then later an author and authority on foraged foods. She recalls that Kelly early on issued an order of sorts: “We need to get our act together.” Within a year, there were no roommates, only one cat, and the walls were painted white. “He brought in respectability,” she says now.
Kelly had a bigger vision, so he renamed the ballet school the SF Dance Theater, expanded its classes, brought in more experienced teachers and provided musical accompaniment.
“Dance was just emerging here,” he says. “It really took off in the ’70s and ’80s. That was the most exciting time of my life.”
Carlos Santana had a studio across the street next to the Clay Theatre in a building long gone, and even came up once to play for a ballet class. Bill Graham, already a prominent rock and roll promoter, lived around the corner on Bush Street. The Fillmore Auditorium was going strong, and so was Winterland.
“There was always music on the street,” Kelly says. “It was a festive atmosphere.”
San Francisco was attracting more free spirits and flower children every day.
“A lot of colorful people came through our studio,” Kelly says. “Some took gigs in nude ‘love dances’ in North Beach. One student showed up on the screen having sex on a trapeze in Behind the Green Door, the first blockbuster porn film.”
But the atmosphere on Fillmore Street could be threatening after dark. Some would-be dancers were reluctant to come for night classes. “People would call and ask, ‘Is it safe to come there?’ ” Kelly remembers. So the SF Dance Theater moved to a larger location with three studios on Van Ness Avenue, at its peak providing a wide range of dance classes for 1,400 students, seven days a week, thriving until it closed 1982. Kelly went on to other gigs.
By 1996, after 13 years as executive director of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, he decided he wanted to focus on the piano. Drawing on his childhood experiences, he set up a circuit of upscale retirement homes between Napa and San Jose — all eager for accomplished entertainment, with good instruments, and able to pay. He was doing as many as 130 performances
“The only thing I ever knew I wanted to do with my life was to play the piano,” Kelly says, sitting one recent morning at Peet’s. “And that’s the thing I did last.”
Through all the years he held on to his flat near the corner of Fillmore and Sacramento.
“Fillmore’s shops have become a destination, rather than serving the neighborhood,” Kelly laments. “I don’t know who goes there. But the thing that holds it together is the long-time residents. We all know each other, and this is where our paths cross.”
He adds: “I get pissed off about what’s going on in San Francisco, but I’m still in love with it. And this corner has been important to the neighborhood for a long time.”
Eventually, physical problems slowed him down and ended his piano performances. After surgery to regain the use of his left arm, the crew at the ex-Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf would come upstairs to help him out of bed, change his sheets and help with his recovery.
“I had my first spinal surgery at 14,” Kelly says. “That ended my career as a contortionist. I’m paying for it still. My entire body is wracked with arthritis.”
Still, he remains an engaging presence and an enabler of friends. He says it is his neighbors — “my extended family” — who make his life here possible. And he still has some creative projects in the works.
Right now he has revived work on a series of piano dance compositions he began several years ago, and is in the midst of producing 24 pieces the right length and tempo for dancers to exercise. He hopes to make them available for downloading later this year. And he just renewed his passport so he can visit his daughter, if she stays in Costa Rica.
It’s the diverse group of people Kelly has collected that is even more impressive than his status as a local landmark.
“Kelly is a unifier,” says Duane Baughman, “someone we feel we can all gather around in what can sometimes feel like a cold, excluding city. Our special little corner of the world is amazing because of the people we see and catch up with every day at that spot. It’s Kelly and people like him who keep people coming back to the corner to share their days, their ups and downs — with no judgments — and keep this feeling like a small town.”
To inquire about her limited edition signed print “Kelly on Fillmore,” contact the artist at email@example.com.