by Ana IriartbordeHistory of the Birth of the San Francisco Basque Cultural Center
Since I first came to America in 1962, I heard said that the Basque Club was looking for a piece of land to build a pelota court.
The Old Cancha:
Until the 50s there was on Pacific Avenue a "cancha” that was torn down in 1957 to build an apartment house.
Basque Club’s Project: Basque Club members worried when this pelota court was demolished and numerous meetings were held to foresee the future. The ones interested in our traditional handball game wanted to build a new fronton. Over the years various projects had been discussed, but in the end none materialized. Representatives of San Francisco City Hall offered to the Basque Club an opportunity to purchase a suitable building site at the northeast of Geary and Fillmore Streets. The majority of club members voted against this purchase. Meanwhile our pelota players, who were a strong group then, drove back and forth to Stockton where they could use the "left wall.”
Later those players obtained authorization to play against the back wall of an apartment building on a tennis court at the Helen Wills Playground located at Broadway and Larkin Streets. However, this authorization was for Sunday mornings only. The owner of the building gave them permission to raise the existing wall higher and to put a net around it. Every Sunday morning, despite the chilly winter cold, pelota players met there in great number to play or in turn watch the successive games. They organized handball tournaments by age or level, as well as challenge games among themselves or against Bakersfield or Chino players. On those occasions, the surrounding atmosphere came very close to the one reigning in Basque Country village frontons.
Always Frederic Fuldain arrived first to unlock the gate. He was also the one to keep the score and, at the end, the one who picked up towels and clothes left behind by dreamers. Finally he would lock the gate.
Following the games the crowd, including women and children went to lunch at the Des Alpes Restaurant that Ganix and myself were operating at the time. The atmosphere was getting even closer to Basque Country Sunday life. Personally, among all these Basque people, I was feeling so much "back home” that I did not mind the long working hours. The afternoon was dedicated to the traditional card game called "mus.” Later when dinner service was over, Ganix would prepare the garlic soup called "mozkor salda.” Then everyone would go home to rest before starting a full week of work on Monday. But for us, Monday was a day off.
Helen Playground Fronton Torn Down: In 1979 the temporary fronton wall was torn down for building reconstruction and once again our "pelotaris” were without the indispensable court to play the traditional game. The situation was more dramatic than before because these very determined players had trained numerous youngsters. It was bad news, but Ganix was surprisingly optimistic saying, "Maybe it is not so bad because that could push us to build our own fronton.”
The President of the Basque Club, Franxoa Bidaurreta, assembled a special meeting to discuss the situation and get some feedback from the membership. Once again the vast majority did not see the need for a fronton.
A very determined Franxoa Bidaurreta, together with Jacques Unhassobiscay, Guillaume Irola, and Jesus Arriada organized a meeting opened to all interested people. Eighty men, pelotaris and fans, attended that assembly. Franxoa addressed them saying: "For the past 20 years we in the Basque Club are discussing the project of building a fronton but no concrete consensus can be reached. Now, independently, we are looking for a piece of land. Let it be known to all who want to join.” Of course! Those attending unanimously expressed their agreement to join toward that goal. Soon after, Jean Gorostiague found in the industrial zone of South San Francisco ( 599 Railroad Avenue ) a lot large enough to build a fronton at a cost of $265,000. Almost 200 persons spontaneously offered to pool money to make a down payment.
Newborn Corporation: As soon as we found out the cost of building a fronton, it seemed wiser to shelter also under the same roof a restaurant that could raise money to reimburse the necessary loans. To achieve that goal, the revised project was now to build a fronton, but also a banquet room, a kitchen, and all the facilities necessary to host our feasts including wedding and anniversary parties. A corporation was created for men only in the beginning, but soon after women were also accepted to join. Each member bought a $1,000 dollar share. We were still far from the funds needed for construction, but enthusiasm was high.
The mandatory building permits took a whole year to be granted. The original estimates approximated $600,000, but the delay before starting the construction work was the time when construction materials greatly increased. Consequently the final cost would be higher than first estimated. Around us the critics were loose. They mockingly said They will go bankrupt!” To tell the truth, fear started to erode for a moment the morale in our ranks, but finally courage and endurance prevailed.
In the beginning of 1981, a groundbreaking ceremony took place and construction work began immediately. Jean Baptiste Jauretche was given charge of this huge and delicate project. He had around him many volunteer workers but most were untrained for the work. Among the trained professionals there to help were Jean Gorostiague, Bill Etchegoin and Joe Castanchoa.
Little by little the membership grew. Because the corporation was new, the banks did not want to give us credit, but determination prevailed. Many of the members were resolute to lend money without thinking about the chance of its return. The first installment was $3,000 with no interest. Members who were able to loan this amount were offered a 6% interest – insignificant compared to the current interest rate of 17% in banks. Everyone realized it was a critical moment and an exceptional and unanimous effort pulled us together. Bills continued to pour in and the funds were low.
Benefactor Jean Pierre Elissondo: All of a sudden, a light pierced in the tunnel. A new member from "Xubero,” Jean Pierre Elissondo, little known in our community but friend of Jean B. Jauretche and Marcel Durquet, joined the corporation donating $10,000. Later he loaned the lump sum of $200,000 at 10% interest compared to the current 17% offered by banks. This act of generosity on his part saved us. The construction work moved steadily. There was an unbelievable enthusiasm among the members who donated their time during the week to realize the dream of their own clubhouse. At the end of 1981, the walls and fronton were raised up and we had a roof. Impatient pelota players could not wait for scaffolding to be pulled down so they could throw some balls against the walls.
There was a big banquet room, a spacious kitchen, and a lounge with bar. On the second floor there was a meeting room/library and an office. The hallways gave access to the bleachers. The Basque Center was created as the clubhouse of a private association to host members’ activities on weekends.
Most of the dream was being realized. We now had a building we must give a heart to it. However, despite all the donations and loans received, there was still a flow of bills. What could we do?
Restaurant Will Be Open To The Public: At this point the Board of Directors made the move to open the Basque Cultural Center restaurant to the general public. The Basque Club voted to make a renewable loan of $50,000 at 6% interest. We also obtained a liquor license. What we needed now was to find a manager able to organize and operate the entire establishment. As a member of the board, Ganix was repeatedly pressed to accept that position. Despite our negative response several times, there were continued attempts at persuasion. I felt a stirring in my heart. I saw that many members, including Ganix, worked hard during the construction period, while I was not able to participate. Was it now the time to do my part? But the responsibility was too heavy. On the other hand, my mother was very sick in the Basque Country and I needed to visit her while she was still alive. The future is not ours! Finally Ganix and I decided to open and manage the Center until summertime when we would leave to see my mother. This would give time to hire someone. Our conditions were accepted. We rushed to complete the indoor construction work, the kitchen, and a nice tile was laid in the lobby, bar and restrooms.
Storm in January 1982: In January 1982, strong storms flooded our Basque Center . A thick mud covered the beautiful tile. Water reached 10 inches in height and we were fortunate the wooden floor was not yet laid in the banquet room. Like ants, a crowd came to the rescue. Sand bags were filled to prevent more water from flowing in and the cleaning began.
The opening of the Center was scheduled for the 14th of February 1982 . We arrived one week earlier. Construction workers were rushing madly to finish the work on time. The kitchen was ready. Chef Gabriel Elicetche and Ganix were busy ordering the necessary supplies for "D Day.” The rest of the space was an unbelievable mess. On the morning of Friday, February 12th, the lobby and the court were still full of timber boards, sheet rock, pots of paint and all kinds of construction materials. Some gardeners, carpenters and painters drove in with pick-up trucks to vacate and clean the entire building in a few hours. While these trucks departed with their loads of debris and material, other trucks were anxiously waiting at the gate to deliver groceries, meats, wines, liquors, dishes and glasses. Tables and 700 chairs were delivered earlier. On the morning of Saturday, February 13th a group of volunteer young ladies arrived accompanied by their husbands. While the men mounted tables and chairs, the women unpacked and washed the dishes, glasses and silverware. Thanks to these dynamic and energetic teams, the tables were set for 420-430 persons for the next day’s meal.
February 14, 1982 : Finally the 14th of February arrived. It was the most beautiful day of our lives. "Our own place” opened its doors to its members and families. It is difficult to describe the joy and emotion shown on the faces, provoking some tears to roll down them. The dream that persevered 20 long years finally came through. We, Basques in America , had our own house "Gure Etxea” with a fronton. It was a marvelous feeling. That day we first served 115 meals to children. Their mothers took care of serving them. Then they cleared the tables and set them again for the adults. The volunteers from the previous day returned to wait on tables and they even paid for their own meals. There were so many that I will not take the risk to forget some while naming them. Angele Goyeneche, who specializes in making our traditional "Basque Cake” donated her time and baked enough for 500 persons at home in her family stove oven. It is remarkable how so many people worked in such harmony and with all their heart. The day ended in good humor, everyone delighted. Judge yourself by the total income of $13,000 in a single day. Monday we returned to clean up. Except for 2 or 3 private parties, the Center was closed for the rest of the week.
Restaurant Opening: The opening day of the restaurant and bar to the general public was supposed to be on Monday, February 22nd. The dining room had only 4 naked walls. There was not a single shelf, drawer, nor counter. The only decoration was an impressive fireplace with a wood mantel on which was sculpted the coat of arms of the 7 Basque Provinces . The entire chimney was designed, constructed, mounted and installed by Frederic Fuldain. He is without doubt a real artist and his work was profusely admired at first glance by each visitor. Pierre Etcharren made the cast iron piece, and Yvette Urruty painted a few pictures, one of which was the Tree of Guernika, to decorate the naked walls. But more was needed to operate a restaurant. At my first request Jean B. Jauretche donated and installed some bar shelves with a beautiful mirror at their center. Jean Gorostiague donated a small counter with shelves and drawers. There was only one telephone behind the bar and access was difficult. Immediately reacting to my comment about this, Noel Goyhenetche donated another terminal for the entrance of the restaurant. Great! Things looked a lot better already.
One More Worry: Being a new business, we did not have any established credit with either the Board of Equalization or suppliers. No one wanted to take a risk. Before opening, any new business must deposit an estimated tax amount of $30,000. Obviously we already were in the red tape with many debts and no money in our treasury. I called our personal accountant, Henry Sante who was familiar with our past credit as operators of the Des Alpes Restaurant and Sea Captain Motel. He assured us that he could obtain credit towards a business of our own (Ganix and myself) but he warned us saying: "I discourage you to take such a risk because if the business is not successful you could lose all your savings. It is too dangerous!” Disregarding his warning, not thinking about negative prospects, we asked him to prepare the necessary documents that both Ganix and I were prepared to sign. Mr. Sante was still hesitant and asked, "Are you sure?” Yes! Positive! So we signed the paperwork. All week long salesmen of many companies came like flies on honey to propose their supplies but they would not wait until the end of the month to be paid. One of the only exceptions was Golden Gate Meat Company where Michel Arduain and Jean Acheritogaray had been working for many years. The company trusted their Basque employees and we got all the meat we ordered. The produce market treated us the same too, thanks to Basque employees like Dominic Arotzarena, Jean Leon Ocafrain, Michel Marticorena, just a few who spoke for us. Once again, taking advantage of our credit history at Des Alpes and Sea Captain Motel, we signed all applications for credit. I comment on these details, not to boast but rather to demonstrate the trust and confidence Ganix and I had in the Basque community. For emergency orders I paid cash with a personal check which Treasurer, Leon Franchisteguy reimbursed promptly. Mr. Sante was a tremendous help to us setting things up so we could get credit to operate a new business and he made arrangements with the State Board of Equalization so we could pay later instead of the $30,000 they required upfront.
Friday, the 19th of February: We were preparing the dining room for the Basque Club banquet to take place on Sunday, February 21st when two city hall representatives confronted me saying: "We read in the paper, the Center’s opening announcement we want to inform you that you cannot serve food to the public without a permit.” O’ my God, what is this now! Speechless and in panic I called our President Jean Gorostiague who knew some South San Francisco City officials. He told me "Go to the city hall and explain our case and I will go there myself soon.” Nervously I arrived at the city hall. Some gentlemen read the documents on the Center and said: "Your Center is supposed to house activities for members only to serve food to the general public you need a special permit.” Disappointed, I got in the old pick-up loaned to us by Jean Gorostiague for material transportation. When I turned to enter the Center parking, the vehicle behind hit me and bent the front bumper. The driver stopped but he was without insurance. My body was trembling when Father Cachenaut arrived on the scene and tried to calm me. Momentarily Jean Gorostiague arrived and reassured me saying. "This is nothing to worry about.” To show that he meant it, he sat at the wheel and deliberately fronted up against the wall. That was a real demonstration of an efficient do-it-yourself instant body repair. Amazingly, the bumper was straightened.
Now Jean Gorostiague went to the city hall and returned to say, "We will have a hearing next month but we can’t wait until then to operate. So let’s take a chance and open without a permit.” He is optimistic, but I am scared. To distract my thoughts, I plunge into the preparation for the Basque Club banquet. Despite the detailed preparation, the day ended in a fiasco. 100 persons more than anticipated showed up, expecting to be served the same menu as those with reservations. These people should have accepted the last minute course arranged to accommodate them. No way! Loud dissenting and criticism arose and ruined the previously good atmosphere. Chef Gabriel Elicetche was personally confronted by angry persons and consequently gave a week’s notice of job termination. This blew my mind without a dependable cook I felt lost and disoriented.
Monday, February 22nd: This was opening day to the public for lunch and dinner. We had no idea what the response would be. There were few personnel: in the kitchen, Chef Gabriel and husband Ganix Jose Gestas tended the bar waiting tables were Marie Helene Azcona, Marie Jose Zabala and Jose Mari Pagola dishwashers were Guy Jeffroy at lunch and Hipolito at dinner. I took charge of the cash register and was available to help here and there as needed. From the first day, the business boomed. People poured in and the crew worked double shifts. This was too much. At lunch some customers complained of slow service. We hired more personnel: Jean Pierre Minaberry for the kitchen, Jean Leon Cuburu, Isabelle Lesaffe and Mercedes Gestas to tend tables. Mercedes brought her newborn baby Christele in a wicker crib, which was put in the supply room where she could see and check on her easily while she worked. Annie Goni worked as a waitress weekends and a cute youngster, Mark Azcona worked as bus boy. In the meantime, to our relief, Chef Gabriel decided to stay on. Later we hired Patrick and Henry Poyrimou as reliefs. All weekends are already reserved for communion, anniversary, and banquet, etc. parties. Working in the banquet room were bartender, Robert Lafitte waitresses – Victoria Berrueta, Josephine Curutchet, Isabelle Echaide, Isabel Laxague and Mayte Ocafrain – always ready to help, even at a last-minute call from me. Bernard Iribarren and Leon Lucu also came on weekends to help in the kitchen. Mary Curutchet was always around doing volunteer work helping with a variety of tasks such as cleaning and setting tables, collecting glasses left in corners, and even cleaning showers and restrooms after the ball players. Everyone cooperated beautifully. Not a single employee ever told me "this is not my job,” or "this is not my job description.” Of course the situation was not always "rosy.” Sometimes the pressure was so heavy it made the situation tense. Mistakes and sometimes inter-personnel relations became difficult, but in the end we found solutions for each problem. We were not deaf to burning remarks indirectly addressed to us, but the attitude of most of the members was comforting. We could feel trust and appreciation and this encouraged us and warmed our hearts.
March 27th and 28th, 1982: These were the upcoming important dates: the inauguration of the Center. Such an event had to be prepared in detail. For the opening ceremony, the Mayor and officials of the City of South San Francisco were present. The "Klika” (bugle corp) resonated their instruments for the parade. Dancers in great number (smaller then taller) marched in front followed by the "Elgarrekin” singers, the "txistularis” (flute players), and last the "Yoko Garbi” pelota players who had come from the Basque Country. All the performers, in their respective colorful uniforms, circled the parking lot. Franxoa Bidaurreta in his "makilari” costume, slowly and solemnly raised both tri-colored American and Basque flags while the spectators sang both national anthems with great joy and pride. The atmosphere was so respectful, emotional and deep that tears rolled down many faces. Speeches were pronounced by the Mayor, Marcel Biscay and President Jean Gorostiague who then cut the red ribbon in the midst of warm applause. The Klika played some favorite tunes and the dancers executed their most beautiful dances accompanied by the txistu and accordion to the public’s delight.
Planting The Oak Tree: The most moving moment of the event was certainly when Carlos Urrutia brought in his wheelbarrow a young oak tree that he made sprout from a seed cropped from the Gernika oak tree. He planted it at the corner of "Euskal Etxea.” Everyone sang in unison the national anthem "Gernikako Arbola.” In a festive mood, we entered the fronton to watch the handball games respectively bare hand, with chistera, and paleta cuero. Immediately after the last game, a group of strong men set tables and chairs on the court to seat 900 persons. A BBQ steak dinner was served and afterwards in the banquet room a ball began featuring the local orchestras of Alain Erdozaincy/Robert Iriartborde, and Alain/Maurice Negueloua with happy yells from the youngsters who danced non-stop. Meanwhile volunteers were busy organizing the court for the next day’s Mass.
Sunday, March 28th: The Klika, singers, txistularis and pilotaris all in uniform were ready and on time for Mass, as well as a large number in attendance. A beautiful parade entered the fronton with the blazing sound of bugles and trumpets. The crowd was in deep silence for the Mass offered by Father Cachenaut. Father Feringo, the pastor of the French church Notre Dame des Victoires concelebrated with him. After Mass the volunteer workers, well trained by now, set tables again for 900 persons and once again an excellent BBQ buffet was served. During the meal Basque songs fused from everywhere in joyfulness. Coffee was served and the court cleared and cleaned again for the folkloric show and for the ball games – "mano,” "yoko garbi” and "paleta.” Late that afternoon, I couldn’t take it anymore! I went upstairs to the business office to be alone for a few moments. I was lounging on an old armchair and soon I began to hear the voices of Leon Sorhondo and Gracien Goyhenetche. I was not sure if I was dreaming or if I had become crazy from fatigue. This unforgettable weekend ended in total success and despite the deep fatigue, we were happy and proud of a job well done. Leon Sorhondo and Gracien Goyhenetche, in charge of the money for the weekend, announced a grand receipt of $43,000. That was great.
The Next Day: Despite fatigue, the next morning volunteer workers were back for the general cleaning. Since the restaurant was closed to the public, Ganix prepared a well-deserved family-style lunch for all the workers. Tuesday we continued the weekly routine with its ups and downs, but business was good. The restaurant operated at maximum, especially on weekends serving an average of 190-230 dinners and 50-90 lunches. Meanwhile the permit to serve food to the public was granted. At last I felt relief. The South San Francisco city hall had been very good to us.
Mother’s Day: I will never forget Mother’s Day was the biggest and busiest day at the restaurant. We had 150 reservations for 5:30PM and the same number for 7:30PM , and still more people came wanting to eat without reservation. After serving 330 a la carte meals, we had to stop food service because we ran out of supplies. The shelves were literally empty. So many members could not be fed making one feel guilty for the huge error of provision.
First Wedding Reception: The first Basque wedding at the Center was the marriage of Monet and Roger Bonson. To the disappointment of the groom’s father, Henry Bonson, the couple had chosen a buffet reception, which was a style new and not yet adopted by the Basque milieu, especially for weddings. But the father, who wanted everything to be perfect, was pleased in the end because Chef Gabriel invested his best professional skills and, with the help of a complete crew, prepared an exquisite buffet. The atmosphere was at a climax. It was a memorable day to be talked about for a long time.
Next Management: We ended our term on June 1st, 1982 . A new manager, Mr. Kaiser, a very educated and distinguished-looking Dutch gentleman replaced us on June 1st. We committed ourselves to be present and help him for two weeks before our departure for the Basque country. Realizing quickly the huge responsibility he would face as manager, he lost courage and wanted to quit the first week but he had to respect the contract he signed for a month’s duration. When we left the Basque Center on the 15th of June 1982 , we paid all the outstanding bills of the restaurant. At that time, there was $50,000 left in the general checking account at the bank, and the inventory (wine, liquor, food) was value at $12,000. This was encouraging for the future success of the business. It took another month to find a replacement. Jean Pierre Espil acted as interim substitute, neglecting his own business to help out. Jean Baptiste Saparart and Jean Leon Cuburu assisted him as much as they were able.
Handyman: On weekends, every Saturday Joe Castanchoa, with his tools hanging from his belt, donated time to repairing broken tables and chairs, and rendering other emergency services to alleviate our burden.
July 1982: After we left Broadway, I missed that ambiance we had for several years, but at the Center I found it all again and more. Ganix and I left in July to visit my bed-ridden mother. Those were not what you could call happy vacations. On the contrary, some moments were rather sad. But that is life. We returned to San Francisco safely. The Center was successful and busy. The new manager took charge. We continued to enjoy our "Euskal Etxea” and go there often for many occasions.