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  • Beck Diefenbach

    “Scabby” the rat catcher demonstrates his surgical abilities to visitors at the San Francisco Dungeon.

  • Beck Diefenbach / San Francisco Dungeon

    Col. Jack Gamble welcomes guests to the San Francisco Dungeon in San Francisco.

  • Beck Diefenbach / San Francisco Dungeon

    Nikko, of Shanghai Kelly’s Boat Ride, claims his victims in the San Francisco Dungeon in San Francisco.

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  • Beck Diefenbach

    Sam Roberts of the Hounds threatens a young visitor in the San Francisco Dungeon.

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Discoveries: S.F.’s seedy history inspires lively trip to the past

Published: Sunday, Jul. 6, 2014 - 12:00 am

Know what you’re thinking: Just what Fisherman’s Wharf needs, another tourist trap.

Yet, when the new attraction is provocatively called “The San Francisco Dungeon,” and its promotional come-on promises, in the words of artistic director Kieran Smith, “gripping, dark and twisted tales of San Francisco from 1849 to 1907,” even the terminally jaded among us is tempted to give it a look-see.

The other options on Jefferson Street, where an estimated 75,000 people a day congregate during busy summer months, hardly fall into the “gripping, dark and twisted” category – though the Applebees on the corner can be a little scary, and the T-shirt and trinket shops twist every spare coin from your grip.

Despite its kinky name, the Dungeon is not that kind of underground establishment. Go to the Castro or Tenderloin for that type of venue. Fisherman’s Wharf’s dungeon, rather, is based on the historical and theatrical sendups popular in London, Berlin and elsewhere in Europe. San Francisco was chosen as North America’s first foray into “histortainment,” in which visitors shell out between $19 and $26 for an hour’s immersion into the city’s seedy underbelly, replete with shady characters from the Gold Rush days to the Alcatraz nights featuring wildly emoting live actors, epileptic fit-inducing flashing lights, kidney-jarring shaking and splashing and a bombastic Hans Zimmer-like soundtrack, augmented with banjo.

Why spend all that time driving up to Sutter’s Fort or taking a ferry to The Rock or reading heavily patina brass Barbary Coast plaques when you can get all the rich history in 55 minutes with some frights and giggles thrown in, right?

Indeed, touts the Dungeon’s general manager, Adrea Gibbs, the place is downright educational.

“The history of California and the Bay Area is so rich,” she said, during a media preview before the venue’s June 26 opening. “I grew up in California and was raised with that 5th-grade (4th actually, but who’s counting) curriculum of California history. To go through the story about the fire, being with a prospector, Alcatraz – these stories lend themselves brilliantly for this particular attraction.”

Note to kids: Don’t toss out those textbooks just yet. The Dungeon may be great fun and all, but it’s hardly comprehensive, sort of like thinking you’ll learn about the law by renting “Legally Blonde.”

But we’re happy to note, though, that its creators have not oversold the Dungeon. It’s fast-paced and frenetic, part house of horrors, part dinner theater, part open-mike night at the improv. This much is certain: You won’t be bored. It’s as if the script was written by and for the ADD-afflicted – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

You begin by being greeted by the leering Col. Jack Gamble, who lures you into a creaky mine-shaft elevator – “The Box of Doom” –and warns that “The San Francisco of old can be a dangerous place.” What, as opposed to the San Francisco of today, where thieves yank the iPhones out of your hands and rob you by charging $45 a hour to park?

In any event, the elevator ride bumps and grinds its passengers (a foreshadowing of the 1906 quake, perhaps?) until, with piped-in screams and a grinding noise, it lurches to a halt at the “Lost Mines of Sutter’s Creek,” circa 1849. A severely limping gold prospector, suitably stubbly-faced and grungy, gives you the evil eye and growls, “You want gold? Ain’t got no gold,” before clutching his bag of gold nuggets and leading you through a mirrored maze of distressed-wood mine shafts, clearly not OSHA-compliant, but then, that was a different time.

Bereft of gold, you find yourself back on Kearny Street, where Barbary Coast gangs reigned. Snarling at you is the leader of the Hounds, Sam Roberts, in full vigilante dress uniform and sporting a bushy mustache not seen since the ’70s on Castro Street.

“We rule these streets,” he said with a sneer. “I hope none of you were sent by the vigilance committee to spy on us.”

Well, of course, he found one or two spies in the crowd, tossed one behind bars and subjected the other spy to the enhanced interrogation techniques of the mid-1800s, with “tools of the trade.” He put a “branding iron “ into the “fire” and then separated the prisoner from his tongue. Roberts aimed quite a bit lower, if you get my drift, with the next implement of torture before the knock of the vigilance committee saved him from enforced circumcision.

On to the court of the honorable Judge Mead (slogan: “Give ’em a fair trial and hang ’em high”), who bore the visage and mien of character actor Steve Buscemi and intimidated one of the group, Brittany from Florida, into admitting she was the notorious “Sweaty Betty” who assaulted a man with a whiskey glass before dancing a lewd jig “with nothing but a smile on her face.”

Naturally, the next stop was the infamous Miss Piggotts Saloon, where the eponymous owner hawked a tobacco plug across the room and right into a spinning spittoon. She suffered no fools and seemed almost pleased when her partner, Shanghei Kelly, takes her customers for a wild boat ride. Once back on land, you’ll wish were were back at sea, as you pass through the plague in Chinatown, where it’s always Year of the Rat, and you’ll get an up-close look at the state-of-the-art surgery instruments of the period.

Eventually, of course, you wind up where every San Francisco tourist does – Alcatraz. Back in the 1800s, it was a military prison where most prisoners were sentenced to life without the possibility of life … for very long. The ghosts of murdered inmates past emerge, as the lights go out and the special effects ramp up to such a pitch that it would make Michael Bay blush.

Quite a show, an over-the-top bravura performance featuring every crook and scoundrel short of state Sen. Leland Yee and “Shrimp Boy” Chow … oops, wrong time period.

“We could’ve done four dungeons, there’s so much (material),” Smith said. “In our European dungeons, we do a lot of medieval history, so we have the Inquisition torture in that show, but we don’t know the guy’s name or who the head inquisitor was. The beauty of San Francisco is that it’s all documented history. We can really flesh them out.”

Here’s hoping for a sequel, featuring Willie Brown, Barry Bonds, Diane Feinstein, snotty dot-com millionaires in Google buses, those naked dudes in the Castro and those aggressive panhandlers that accosted me on Jefferson Street after I emerged from the erstwhile lawless San Francisco.


Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.

Read more articles by Sam McManis



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