The Tenderloin’s sanctuary of song
Rebecca Roudman and Jason Eckl, members of the band Dirty Cello, are doing a sound check in the middle of the day, in an unconventional location: the lobby of the Cadillac Hotel in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
This location has special meaning for Roudman, who played here before starting this band. “We did our performance at the Cadillac Hotel and I fell in love with the place,” she says. “And what I mean by that is, I loved how everybody was very friendly in the crowd. I loved how everybody was very receptive in the crowd. And everybody was just – it just had a nice vibe, about the whole place.”
“A nice vibe” is welcome in this neighborhood, with its rough-and-tumble reputation. And that’s a major part of why Kathy Looper, who owns the Cadillac, arranges these monthly concerts, which are open to the public.
“I leave the front door open,” she says. “And people who are walking by will hear the music, stop, tiptoe through the door and ask if it’s OK to participate. And I tell them, ‘Of course,’ you know? Yes. Come in. Enjoy. Have fun. And they do.”
A history of music
Looper has some musical history from the Tenderloin herself. Her father would bring her along in the late 1940s and early 1950s as he visited Greek social clubs.
“And then when I became a teenager,” she remembers, “there was a café, called the Minerva café, right down on Eddy Street. And they used to have Greek dancing. So my mother would let me come down here with my relatives – and we’d dance the night away. It was fun. It was a lot of music and fun.”
That changed in the 1960s, when the neighborhood “really drastically declined,” she says. “And almost every storefront was vacant. Most of the hotels were vacant. This hotel only had 13 people in it,” out of a capacity for 138. The owner of the Cadillac was so anxious to get rid of it that he sold it to Looper’s husband LeRoy for a dollar. The couple transformed it into the West Coast’s first single room occupancy (SRO) hotel.
They knew stable housing was important for people, along with job training. There are several places in the Tenderloin that provide those. But the Loopers also knew that once you have shelter and food, then it’s time to feed your soul. And music does that.
“People in the Tenderloin live in some very depressing situations,” she says. “They might not have money. They probably experience lots of disappointments in their life. So, they’re not coming to the concerts with an uplifted mind. But by the time they leave they’re smiling, they’re happy.”
Concerts for the public
“Heck fire, we have a big crowd when the music’s going,” said longtime resident Robert Mathena. The former chef has been a resident of the Cadillac since 1950.
Mathena agrees that the concerts bring people together. He knows “people all along Eddy Street” drop in. Participants in a summer youth program are sitting on the stairs today, as well as people like June Cook from Castro Valley. She had an appointment at a non-profit around the corner, saw the concert poster in the window, and “I thought I would hear the musicians. And this is a historical place, the Cadillac Hotel.” She liked seeing what she describes as “two San Franciscos, at the best, where you have a generation of young people and the people who live here.”
“We’ve played everything from house concerts to giant venues with thousands of people,” says Rebecca Roudman, the cello player in Dirty Cello. “And the Cadillac is one of my favorite places to perform because we love the energy from the crowd.”
It’s that shared energy, that coming together, that Kathy Looper hopes to create -- “to hear music, in their neighborhood, in a hotel similar to theirs, that makes them feel like human beings again.”