A knack for the timpani

Photograph of San Francisco Symphony timpanist Ed Stephan by Kristen Loken


Being the San Francisco Symphony’s principal timpanist is just one of the things keeping Ed Stephan busy these days. He’s also head of the percussion department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh; on the faculty at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and at Northwestern University in Chicago; and timpanist of the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he’s spent much of the summer.

The Pacific Heights house he calls home is being sold, so he’s been looking for another place in the neighborhood.

And the symphony’s new season begins this month. Stephan is particularly looking forward to the Stravinsky Festival. The orchestra, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, will perform the composer’s Persephone and The Firebird from September 21 to 23; and his Violin Concerto, Petrushka and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) from September 27 to 30.

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City sues Fillmore Heritage Center developer

The Fillmore Heritage Center’s public spaces are empty, and no change is in sight.

CITY ATTORNEY Dennis Herrera filed suit this morning against developer Michael E. Johnson — who built the Fillmore Heritage Center  — for more than $6.5 million the city claims Johnson owes for a loan that helped build the complex.

“The years of excuses are over. Time’s up,” Herrera said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “San Francisco taxpayers need to be made whole.”

For a few lively years beginning in 2007, the 50,000-square-foot space at Fillmore and Eddy housed Yoshi’s jazz club and restaurant and the 1300 on Fillmore lounge and restaurant, plus a gallery, screening room and garage. Yoshi’s closed in 2014 and briefly became The Addition, which Johnson ran himself before it too closed. 1300 on Fillmore closed in 2017 and now operates at the airport. The city took over the complex in 2017 when Johnson defaulted on the loan and has not yet figured out what to do with the empty commercial spaces.

“The city made this loan in good faith and has given Mr. Johnson every chance to pay back San Francisco taxpayers,” Herrera said. “San Francisco has worked with Mr. Johnson at every turn. Mr. Johnson has never held up his end of the bargain.

At a public meeting in May 2016, Johnson told the audience he had, in effect, had the project thrust upon him. He noted that he was primarily a housing developer when he was asked to become involved by local residents who wanted an African-American in charge.

He said it was a mistake for him to get involved in entertainment and restaurants. “It was a bad decision to go down that road,” he said.

After Yoshi’s on Fillmore declared bankruptcy, Johnson decided to run the club and restaurant himself. “I made another mistake,” he said. “We decided we’re going to try to resurrect it and create The Addition.”

He added: “We found out that operating that 28,000-square-foot facility was very difficult. We went six months. We couldn’t make it work. We had to close.”

The case is: City and County of San Francisco v. Michael E. Johnson et al., San Francisco Superior Court case no. CGC-18-568954, filed August 16, 2018.

Previewing “A Dance With Death”

Kelly Johnson and his daughter Leda Meredith in the final minutes of his life on May 7, 2018.

KQED TODAY OFFERS a preview of the New Fillmore documentary A Dance With Death, screening Wednesday night, August 15, at 7 p.m. at the Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street. It tells the story of longtime Fillmore resident Kelly Johnson’s decision — after a celebrated career as a dancer, musician and vaudeville performer — to end his life earlier this year.


A lesson in how to die
A podcast conversation with director Arash Malekzadeh

EARLIER: “The final days of Kelly Johnson

A Fillmore film premieres at the Clay


Set at sea, but born on Fillmore


When I graduated from high school, my mother gave me a mermaid pendant on a silver chain, told me I’d always be a fish out of water, and sent me out into the world. I’d never been much of a swimmer, but somehow that made the totem even more apt.

Anne Gross

Continuing in that same stream, six years ago my husband and I decided to leave our large home in a remote Colorado mountain town and move into a miniscule apartment in a massive building in the Fillmore neighborhood. The move, although exciting for my husband, who was joining a flood of engineers entering the city, left me gasping for breath. I’d decided to leave my nursing career and start writing, but hadn’t anticipated how isolated that choice would leave me in a new city. For months, fear and insecurity circled like sharks, and were my only companions.

The new apartment quickly became oppressive as I pounded on my keyboard, so I took to pounding the sidewalk on and around Fillmore Street. I explored narrow Orben, Perine and Wilmot alleys with plot twists and quirky characters whirling in my brain. I became that annoying person in the back pew of St. Dom’s who came in from the fog just to eat candy bought at Mollie Stone’s. I watched the dogs wrestle in Alta Plaza, tongues lolling happily, while distant sailboats on the bay drifted between the mansions. My hope was to find the best library chair, the perfect cafe, the softest tuft of grass in the park where I could comfortably write. Instead I became Elkin’s flaneuse, aimlessly wandering.

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How a coffee shop saved my life

James DeKoven at Peet’s on Fillmore in 2007.


On February 4, 2000, I arrived in the Fillmore under dire circumstances. Six months earlier, my fiancee had given the ring back — a devastating blow that occurred weeks after I gave up a well-paying job to write fulltime. Broken-hearted, half-mad and facing an uncertain financial picture, I fled from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.

At the time, it was more of an escape than any sort of plan for the future. For better or worse, I’ve never had many long-term goals. I just needed to get my head together. Once healthy, I could have clarity about the next step. But as I found out, sometimes destiny provides the relief. Who needs a personal coach, Jungian therapy, psychedelic journey, or self-help book when there’s Peet’s Coffee at Sacramento and Fillmore?

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My electric journey


It all started during lunch at La Mediterranee last year. I had written the rough draft of a novel about the crazy, particular, sometimes heroic and sometimes downright despicable people who discovered electricity, but I was stumped on what to do next. Should I try to get a publisher? Start a blog? Hire an editor?

Luckily, I was having lunch with my friend Kim Nalley. Kim has been the headliner at the Fillmore Jazz Festival almost every year for the last 15 years, so she knows about entertaining. I was lucky enough to meet her through parenting. Our older kids went to the Sherith Israel’s preschool on California Street, and now our younger kids go there together.

Kim immediately knew what to do: “Kathy, you like to talk. Start a vlog, a video series.”

That started a quest to transform my ideas onto the screen, albeit a small one. Luckily, my book is composed of a series of vignettes about one remarkable person or idea, each leading to the next. So I learned how to edit video and started recording in my house on Washington Street. Kim helped me out by recording an original version of “Electricity” from a “Schoolhouse Rock” video for my theme song.

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A test of faith

Rev. Debra Low-Skinner is vicar of Christ Church Sei Ko Kai on Alta Plaza Park.


“Our congregation reflects San Francisco,” says Senior Warden Gordon Park-Li of historic Christ Episcopal Church Sei Ko Kai, which graces the corner of Pierce and Clay Streets across from Alta Plaza Park’s grand staircase.

On any given Sunday, its small, warm sanctuary welcomes Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and Americans of assorted other heritages. In a neighborhood where houses sell in the multiple millions, the stately Victorian home of Christ Church offers a unique link to the good and the bad of San Francisco’s past, as well as its constantly changing future.

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An unwitting witness to a crime


I was walking to the Walgreens at Fillmore and Bush when I heard running footsteps behind me. It was 4:25 in the afternoon on the Fourth of July.

I turned to see a group of young people, perhaps 20 or more, bolting up the hill. As they surged past me, one knocked me aside and I fell against the building. No one paused, though one of the bunch glanced back at me with an almost apologetic look. Then the group tacked left in a flock and burst into Walgreens. I entered right behind them.

Inside, it seemed a scene from a movie. The kids were working the hair and dental products, toppling merchandise from the shelves into cloth bags, laughing and moving quickly down the aisle. The more expensive items were out of their reach, locked up behind clear plastic shields. The thieves seemed content to load up on the cheaper merchandise.

They ranged in age from about 10 to 25. The youngest boy in the bunch took the sentry’s position by the front door. He grinned at the employees behind the registers, picked through items a shopper had left behind in a returned basket, then tossed them back. Apparently they were not worth stealing.

Walgreens employees were taking it all in stride. Two were calmly filming the melee on their phones. After about three minutes, the youths swept out in a mass, leaving behind heaps of fallen merchandise in the aisle for store employees to pick up and put back on the shelves. A woman behind a register saw my incredulous look and said: “This happens all the time. The police will come, but not right away.”

I asked her what would happen then. “They’ll say they can’t do anything,” she said.

Someone had called 911 the moment the young thieves had swarmed into the store. I hung around for about 15 minutes afterward, dazedly carrying out a haphazard mix of finishing my shopping and helping clean up. As the editor responsible for compiling the monthly Crime Watch report in the New Fillmore, I was slowly processing the fact that I had been swept up in one of my own crime reports.

No officers had yet arrived. Employees had left their tasks to clean up the mess. The line at the registers grew longer.

That cat could write

She turned her newspaper articles into a book.

AFTER OUR FRIEND William died, we helped empty his house and put it on the market. His downstairs tenant was moving, and the pregnant cat that lived mostly under the house and on the street was left without a home.

It turned out no one wanted a pregnant cat — not the nearby Pets Unlimited, nor the SPCA, nor anybody else. So we took her home. Then she had 11 kittens — on 7/11, no less. This did not seem lucky, at least not for us, now with a dozen cats.

Although she was busy enough already, eating and nursing and grooming, again and again and again, we put her to work writing for the neighborhood newspaper. Her nametag — and byline — said simply Saralee. It turned out she was a talented writer with a gift for delicate phrasing and an eye for the wry detail.

“I’ve called this beautiful neighborhood home my entire life — more than two years now, although a proper lady never tells her age,” she began her first story.

These were not her first kittens. “A moment of ardor with an attentive tabby left me with eight kittens to tend — and me just a kitten myself,” she wrote. “No sooner had the kids left the nest than I was out the window again. A small partay with a cool gray long-haired tomcat and I soon found myself with nine little ones this time.”

A visit to the vet capped her prolific output at 28 kittens. Her stories in the New Fillmore made motherhood sound like a joy. “I have to say, this might be my most beautiful brood yet,” she wrote.

She told her story so well that all of her kittens found new homes — and, in the process, we became related by cat to many of our neighbors. Her kids would write on Mother’s Day and 7/11. It was a lucky day after all. Nearly everywhere we went — to a local restaurant, store, church or coffee shop — we’d get an update on Saralee’s kids.

She turned her stories into a book, available on Amazon. And she blossomed into a beautiful and classy Miss Lady, with a lipstick pink collar and heart-shaped nametag.

Saralee died on July 28 after a short illness. She will be missed by many in the neighborhood — and in the literary world.

— Thomas Reynolds