It was not so quiet at the Jack Tar Hotel across town, renamed since then as the Cathedral Hill. Three thousand Latinos were doing the rhumba, the salsa, the meringue and the samba in the Grand Ballroom on that Saturday night of the Labor Day weekend. A song-and-music group, famous in Latin America at the time, was scheduled to arrive for a midnight performance. Admission tickets were expensive. The dancers were in an extravagant and festive mood.
Eighteen years old in 1977, the Jack Tar, in its first years, had never been quite welcome on the San Francisco scene. One of a small group of mostly resort hotels in the United States and the Bahamas owned by Charles Sammons of Dallas, Texas, it was the first of contemporary design in The City, which was not considered a plus by tradition-bound local society.
People were used to the Manhattan ambience of the St. Francis on Union Square, to the Beefeater doormen of the Sir Francis Drake on Powell, to the British understatement of the Clift on Geary, to the French intimacy of the Huntington on Nob Hill, to the Old-Guard grandeur of the Fairmont, also on The Hill, and to the subdued elegance of its neighboring Mark Hopkins, which had attracted generations of lovers to its Top-of-the-Mark Lounge for cocktails and a romantic view of The City by the Bay.
Despite the disdain San Francisco felt for the Jack Tar--a chain named by a 12-year-old girl in Galveston, whose winning entry in a name-the-hotel contest was the British term for a sailor ("jack-tar")--the establishment earned a First-Class rating from the Hotel Association. It was the first major hostelry in Northern California to feature universal air-conditioning, the second to come equipped with a swimming pool (the Fairmont had closed its popular pool to swimming years before), and the only one with an ice-skating rink, now converted into a glassed-in meeting room.
Others in its class soon followed suit. Refrigerated-air units were installed in hotels all over the city. Then came the Hilton and the Civic Center Hyatt, both with pools, and the modern Fairmont and St. Francis towers, and so forth and so on until San Francisco became glutted with new or renovated hotels.
Having set a pace, the Jack Tar stayed on to become venerable, as the Cathedral Hill, and to be tolerated, if not wholly accepted, by the resident population. That made no difference to the out-of-towners and conventioneers who continued, as always, to flock through its doors. TV's Lassie once stayed there, in a cozy poolside suite with his (or her) trainer, and especially enjoyed the trees and grass on the fourth-floor patio. Lassie was only one of many stars who chose the Jack Tar.
But a problem arose on the night in question, September 3, 1977. By the time it became the 4th of September at midnight, and then moved on to 1 o'clock, the anxiously awaited singing group had yet to arrive. Latin temperaments, seasoned with rum-and-Coca-Cola and tequila sours, began to shorten into tempers.
Certain rowdies decided to take command. "Get me the manager!" they demanded.
Eddie D'Trinidad, in charge of the banquet department, exerted a healthy measure of his Nicaraguan charm , but to no avail. The angry patrons insisted on seeing the boss.
"Bring him here!"
They found him to be an Anglo who greeted them with a beaming, if wary, smile. "This is Mr. Morris," D'Trinidad introduced him. "He is Spanish-speaking."
They fired away in their native tongue. Sympathetic, but unhelpful, Morris informed them he could not produce the singing stars out of thin air. As he attempted to placate them, he noticed that the space between him and the wall behind him grew smaller. Next he found himself pressed against it, held there by a knife to the throat.
Grinning wanly, he told them he would see what he could do. At the back of his mind ran the thought that there was an armed security man on duty, but where was he when needed most? Probably trampled to a pancake on the fringes of what had quickly become an angry mob, Morris feared. Then he caught sight of his savior, D'Trinidad, waving what Morris knew to be an unloaded pistol under the knifer's nose.
The ruse worked, and the crowd dispersed.
Had they been drinking men, the two hoteliers would have retired to the bar, but they were not, and so decided to indulge themselves later in a regular after-hours pastime: late supper at the Golden Dragon Restaurant.
"Eddie, call them when you get a chance and tell them to save some duck noodles," Morris said. "If we get out of here alive tonight, that's where we go."
Everything went wrong that night. The singers never showed up, and the dancers refused to go home at the proper time. Finally, almost ready to leave the hotel at 2:40 on the morning of September 4th, Eddie D'Trinidad made his call.
A few minutes later, he went looking for Morris. "Hey, Brock, the Golden Dragon doesn't answer," he said. "They must be busy as hell!"