Stern Grove Festival Reflects Eclectic Bay Culture

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Friday June 11, 2004

Weekly public concerts from a rustic outdoor bandstand and al fresco family picnics on a park lawn on a sunny afternoon might seem most traditionally the stuff of Middle America rather than the Bay Area. But at San Francisco’s Stern Grove they are the essence of a local tradition you can enjoy every summer. 

Set in the southwestern part of San Francisco, Stern Grove is a venerable outdoor concert space that, for nearly seven decades, has hosted free public concerts on summer Sunday afternoons. This year’s Stern Grove Festival season starts out with jazz on June 13 and fades away with a Blues concert on Aug. 15. 

The festival is high quality egalitarian entertainment. Thousands of people crowd park benches or spread out on the lawn to listen to an afternoon of music.  

The grove is a natural amphitheater on the floor of a ravine that trends gently west towards the Pacific Ocean. Hillsides covered with eucalyptus, redwoods, and bright nasturiums rise steeply upwards from an open concert meadow and form a stunning backdrop to the simple stage, as well as effectively screening out the surrounding city. 

In recent years the annual programs have come to reflect the Bay Area’s increasingly eclectic cultures and tastes in music. The San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Symphony remain traditional fixtures, but this year’s schedule (see sidebar) also features an Indonesian gamelan, West African music, Gershwin, and something called “Sounds Electronic.” 

Admission is free. There are no tickets and seating is based on when you arrive, not wealth nor connections, except for one row of picnic tables reserved for volunteers, the Stern Grove Festival leadership, sponsors, press and performers’ families. Anyone who arrives early enough can claim a good spot on the park benches or lawn fronting the stage. Many concertgoers make a day of it, trekking down into the grove in the mid or late morning and enjoying a leisurely picnic, conversation, a novel, or the Sunday paper in the hours before the performance starts at 2 p.m.  

Many concert-goers come back again and again. Stern Grove concerts have been a three-generation tradition in my family. My mother performed there in the 1940s, when Mrs. Stern, the founder and benefactor of the festival, still occupied her traditional table under a spreading tree. 

Some of my favorite Stern Grove memories are of lively Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the Merola Opera (the San Francisco’s Opera’s annual training program for young singers), and the Bicentennial Fourth of July, when a vigorous “1776” was staged for a happy, festive, crowd. 

Owned since the mid-19th century by a Mr. Greene who had planted the surrounding eucalyptus, the grove was “discovered” as an outdoor performance space by wealthy San Franciscan Mrs. Sigmund (Rosalie M.) Stern in the 1930s.  

She purchased the property and gave it to San Francisco as a park and performance space. She later gave the University of California funds for its first women’s residence hall, Stern Hall, but that’s a different story.  

The first concert, by the San Francisco Symphony, was held in 1932. In 1938, Mrs. Stern, then president of the San Francisco Recreation Commission, set up the non-profit Stern Grove Festival Association to sponsor a regular summer program of music, dance, and drama.  

She laid down the foresighted and immutable requirement that the entertainment at the grove be free of charge. Her descendants still head the festival Association. 

Stern Grove is at the northwest corner of the intersection of Sloat Boulevard, which runs west to the San Francisco Zoo, and 19th Avenue, which speeds south from Golden Gate Park. You can reach the grove by bus or by car. Consult the Stern Grove Festival website (www.sterngrove.org) for public transit details, and lots of other particulars about attending the concerts.  

The most direct and scenic driving route from the East Bay is probably via the Bay Bridge to Market Street, all the way up Market around the shoulder of Twin Peaks to Portola, then down the hill to the intersection of Portola and Junipero Serra Boulevard. Veer right onto Sloat and the grove is not far ahead. 

Onsite parking is very limited. A steep driveway off Vale Street descends to a small amount of first-come-first-served parking near the Concert Meadow. You’ll probably have to make do in the surrounding neighborhoods north or south of the grove. Check street signage for any special Sunday parking regulations. 

A main entrance road (pedestrians and shuttles only) curves down into the grove from the intersection of Sloat and 19th Avenue, and steep, switchback, trails enter the park from several other points.  

Within the Meadow, besides lawn and bench seating, one row of picnic tables is available for first-come-first-served reservations by calling (415) 831-5500 at 9 a.m. on the Monday before the Sunday performance you plan to attend. 

You can come and go from your seats before the performance, as long as you leave at least one member of your party in place, get your hand stamped (since access is cut off to unstamped latecomers when the Meadow fills up), and get back by 1:30 p.m.  

Near the Meadow there’s the 1892 Trocadero clubhouse, originally a secluded stop for the “carriage trade,” now a venue for pre-concert talks. Food booths are set up for the concerts, and there are trails and parkland to explore. 

Prepare for your concert picnic with a blanket, quilt, or tablecloth to mark your picnic spot on the lawn or pad a hard wooden bench. Remember a hat or sunglasses; the spectator seating faces south.  

Travel light. It can be a long walk down into the grove. There are special access arrangements and seating for mobility impaired spectators. See the website for details.  

Dress in layers. It can be balmy in the East Bay and foggy at Stern Grove. It can also start out chilly, breezy, and overcast in the morning, and turn sunny and warm by performance time, or vice versa, if the fog is coming in. 

Although the performance is free, volunteers circulate asking for Festival donations. Be as generous as you can, since staging a summer’s worth of concerts requires at least a million dollars. 

Don’t smoke in the Concert Meadow or bring pets. Tall items, like sun umbrellas and folding chairs that can obstruct views, can be used but must be taken down before the concert. You can’t record or photograph the performances without authorization.