"You're either on the bus or off the bus" is a 1960's motto, which the Magic Bus Experience has adopted as its own. The quote, attributed to Ken Kesey, refers to "Further," the bus made famous in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. My interpretation is that if you are aware you will always be able to find your way, and one way of becoming aware is by learning more about the history of your surroundings. Which is why I was attracted to Antenna Theatre's Magic Bus Experience, a weekly trip through S.F., and across space and time. This cutting-edge multimedia tour features counter-cultural highlights of the '60s and '70s, and reflects on the transformative period when San Francisco was a magnet for all things alternative (on that score, not much has changed). The Magic Bus acts as a time machine taking its riders back to a period of peace, love, and various revolutions. The tour visits iconic San Francisco locations, and brings the British Invasion, the Beat Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and the Summer of Love to brilliant, multi-media life.
The journey starts at 10am in Union Square. Artemis, an eccentric and upbeat woman who will be our guide for the day, greets the group. She is dressed from head to toe in Hippie garb, her body adorned with jewelry, red-tinted John Lennon glasses, and a multi-colored peasant skirt. A vintage school bus painted in blue, orange, purple, and green with puffy letters that read "Magic Bus," appears to get brighter and brighter as it comes down the block. It looks like something straight out of Yellow Submarine, with a stream of bubbles trailing from its rear window. Celebrating its 2nd year anniversary, the bus has booked a full tour with a crowd comprised of adults, teens, children, locals, and out-of–towners. Jens-Peter Jungsclaussen, a Berlin native, introduces himself. He is the co-founder of the Magic Bus Experience, as well as our driver for the day.
Once onboard, an epic journey begins with images and archival footage projected onto retractable screens that periodically cover the windows. The first topic is the British Invasion. Beatle's clips and commentary about the band's influence on U.S. culture are displayed, while participants join together in an "All You Need Is Love" sing along. Artemis encourages us to adopt new personas for the day, and provides name tags on which we scrawl the names of our alter egos. Mine reads "Flower Child." I feel like part of a tribe, learning about an incredible period in history. This feeling is reinforced by the openness of the group. Shyness is quickly overcome as we chat among ourselves and take photos of one another. Artemis pins daisies behind our ears; a burly man in a 49ers jersey wears his gladly.
The first stop is Chinatown, filled with eclectic shops, booths, and a delectable aroma. Chinatown represents San Francisco's diverse cultural history, turbulent labor history, and the very strong connection to the East that has been present since the city's birth. The journey includes Beat era hot spots like City Lights Bookstore and The Purple Onion in North Beach. City Lights, owned by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is home to Beat writers like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The Purple Onion still functions today as an iconic comedy club and theater in S.F., where artists like Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, and Phyllis Diller left their mark. We pass a Honda dealership that once was the site of the legendary Fillmore West, where numerous '60s music icons like Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Carlos Santana got their start.
Upon reaching The Haight one can be awed by the classic Victorian homes that still stand today. This neighborhood was one of the few areas left unharmed by the 1906 fire and earthquake. The Haight in the 1960's was considered "the center of the universe" for the Flower Children, and one can spot sites like Bound Together, the anarchist bookstore, which holds onto its past as the site of the San Francisco Oracle, an underground newspaper that acted as a chronicle of the Summer of Love.
Photo: courtesy Magic Bus Experience.
I won't spoil the entire tour for you, but these along with an outdoor pit stop at Golden Gate Park's Conservatory of Flowers, City Hall, multiple Grateful Dead sites and more are all things to look forward to. The Magic Bus offers the full experience using innovative technology, an interactive crew, classic tunes, great people and an overall groovy time. The experience really brought San Francisco's history to life for me, providing a rare glimpse into the significant cultural and political events that continue to define the city's culture and vibe today.
For more information and to book a tour visit magicbussf.com.