How An Amateur Photographer Captured The Castro's Big Moments, And Became A Chicago Sports Legend

People will always come and go from the Castro, but few are able to leave their mark on both our neighborhood and the one they leave us for. Jerry Pritikin, however, has done just that.

During his 25 years in San Francisco, the Chicagoan in exile and amateur photographer managed to capture some of the most memorable moments in  Castro history on his camera. He also managed to position himself, amidst Giants fans and the Candlestick Park congregation, as one of Chicago’s most beloved baseball fans.

We got the chance to sit down and catch up with Pritikin himself, who told us some interesting stories about Harvey Milk, Anita Bryant, Jane Fonda, Mary Jane, and a guy known as the Bleacher Preacher.

Castro's Bakery Window Photographer

Jerry Pritikin never studied photography, nor did he aspire to capture important moments in the Castro’s history on his camera. Yet he managed to do just that.

Pritikin moved to San Francisco from Chicago in 1960; a decade later, he migrated to the Castro from his previous home on Lombard Street. At that time, the epicenter of San Francisco’s ‘gay scene’ was shifting from Polk Street to the sleepy nooks and crannies of Eureka Valley.

An elderly woman waits for the bus on 18th Street, amidst a changing neighborhood (1974). | Photo: Jerry Pritikin

According to Pritikin, a number of factors helped to usher in low rents and more gays into the neighborhood in the 1970s. “We were pioneers,” he said. “It was really being in the right place at the right time, because everything was so unbelievably reasonable.” Pritikin was able to rent a two-bedroom house on Duboce and Alpine for $100 a month; even back then, he said, the deal was “exceptional.”

When asked how he got into photography, Pritikin claims it was through osmosis. “I don’t know anything about film or photography today that I didn’t know then,” he said. “But I used to get some interesting pictures.”

Georgiana's Bakery, where Pritikin used to display his pictures. | Photo: Jerry Pritikin

During his time in the Castro, Pritikin used to hang his photos in the window of a bakery called Georgiana’s, which is now home to Marcello’s Pizza. The bakery’s owner gave Pritikin permission to display his photos in the window, which was in an ideal location—right near the bus stop at the Bank of America building on Castro Street.

“I just wanted people to see [my photographs],” Pritikin explains, and while passing the time waiting for the bus, many did. 

At that time, the Castro wasn’t homogeneously homosexual, and Pritikin strived to include pictures that appealed to the diversity of the neighborhood. “I always had a little bit of everything for everybody,” said Pritikin, “because it wasn’t only a gay neighborhood.”

A picture of the first Castro Street Fair (1974). | Photo: Jerry Pritikin

Slowly, Pritikin, who turns 80 next year, began to gain some recognition in the neighborhood for his hobby. One day, when he was hanging up some of his photographs at Georgiana’s, an onlooker approached him and told him about a new camera store that had opened up on the 500 block of Castro Street. Pritikin walked over to Castro Camera the next day, and met Harvey Milk and Scott Smith for the first time.

“It really wasn’t a camera store—it was more of a film drop-off store. I don’t think [Milk] even sold cameras,” he said, laughing. 

But the store became known for more than just photography. “It didn’t happen overnight, but Castro Camera really became a place where people would just sit around and talk,” said Pritikin. “People stopped off to pet Harvey’s dog, talk politics," or simply ogle the “parade of good-looking young men” who seemed to be arriving to the Castro “in trainloads” in the ‘70s.

Pritikin in 2009, with his infamous Anita Bryant t-shirt. | Photo: Michael Lehet/Flickr

One of Pritikin’s highlights as an amateur photographer in the Castro came during a three-week stretch in 1977, when he managed to get three of his photos out of the bakery window and onto national wire services.

The first photo was taken during Anita Bryant’s quest to “save the children” of Dade County, Florida by rescinding a gay rights ordinance. In response, Pritikin designed and printed T-shirts that read, “Anita Bryant’s Husband is a Homo Sapien.” He took a photo of himself wearing the shirt to United Press International, where it quickly swept the country. His shirts were mentioned on the Paul Harvey Show, and he was interviewed by KGO.

Once, Pritikin was wearing the shirt when a little old lady getting off of a bus in the Castro took one look at it and said, “If that’s true, how come she married him?” 

Jane Fonda at a pro-gay rally at Oil Can Harry's (1977). | Photo: Jerry Pritikin

A couple of weeks later, at a pro-gay get-out-the-vote fundraiser, Pritikin convinced Jane Fonda to pose for him—wearing the same Anita Bryant T-shirt. This time, Pritikin called up the Associated Press, and his photo of Fonda also spread across the country.

The following Tuesday, when Bryant’s forces emerged victorious in Dade County, the amateur photographer struck gold again. “When we knew here in San Francisco that we had lost Florida, I grabbed my camera and went down to the Castro,” said Pritikin. Approximately 5,000 other people had the same idea.

Harvey Milk and his bullhorn (1977). | Photo: Jerry Pritikin

That’s when Milk showed up with a bullhorn at the Most Holy Redeemer Church on 18th Street, and led an impromptu march to Union Square. “When I took the picture of Harvey with the bullhorn, he more or less was saying that if this could happen in Dade County, it could happen elsewhere, and it could happen here," Pritikin said. "It was a battle cry.”

Pritikin’s picture of Milk with the bullhorn again hit big with the Associated Press, and it ended up on the front page of the Examiner, as well as newspapers across the country. With three photos in as many weeks attracting national attention, "that really was my claim to fame at the time,” he said. 

The San Francisco Origin Story Of Chicago’s ‘Bleacher Preacher’

Even though photography was Pritikin’s claim to fame in the ‘70s, he’s arguably much more famous for something completely different. He’s one of the most well-known Chicago Cubs fans in team history, known to many as the "Bleacher Preacher." 

The Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series title in 107 seasons; even the most avid fans need a heavy dose of faith and chutzpah, and Pritikin has both. A "baseball nut" since he was eight, Pritikin carried his love for the Cubs with him when he moved to San Francisco.

Pritikin at Wrigley Field. | Photo: Jerry Pritikin

Although he never hid his love for Chicago baseball, it wasn’t until 1980 that Pritikin got his first ‘at bat,’ so to speak.

On a hot Sunday afternoon in August, Pritikin decided to relax by smoking some marijuana and watching television. A KQED program popped onto the screen, showing Wrigley Field. Pritikin had stumbled across a 1979 taped performance of the play Bleacher Bums, which follows the story of Cubs fans watching a baseball game from the bleachers.

“I started watching it, and I had no idea what I was about to start watching, or how long it had already been on,” Pritikin said. But he was quickly so enthralled by the PBS special that he “raved and cheered” as if he were sitting in the bleachers himself.

Pritikin with the Cubs' Don Zimmer. | Photo: Jerry Pritikin

The next day, Pritikin saw an ad for the play’s debut in San Francisco. “They were looking for actors, so I made some calls and told them that I’m a crazy Cub fan, and that I can get a lot of Chicagoans to come to the play.” He was so convincing that he was brought onto the production as a publicist and consultant, training the actors to act like “real Cub fans.”

According to Pritikin, the play was supposed to run for six weeks in San Francisco, but because of the baseball strike that year and the media attention he was able to drum up, it sold out of tickets for its first three months, ultimately running for a year and a half.

“I used to go to this play every night, and the same ending would happen every night,” said Pritikin. “The Cubs lost—but they were still hoping to get into the World Series. But this is how I got known by the San Francisco media as a Cubs fan.”

Bleacher Bums is set to return to Chicago this fall, with Pritikin once again consulting. 

During his time in San Francisco, Pritikin enjoyed going to Giants games at Candlestick Park. But it wasn’t until he moved back to Chicago in 1985 that he was truly able to embrace his Cub fandom.

He began regularly attending games at Wrigley Field, where he took on the persona of the Bleacher Preacher, a charismatic fanatic who attempted to convert people in the bleachers to Cubs fandom. His “ten cub-mandments,” voodoo doll dressed in the visiting team’s uniform, and stadium antics have made him one of the most beloved fans in Chicago sports history.

Pritikin, who was honored with a HILDA Award for distinguished service in baseball fandom in 2014, is now consulting for an upcoming revival of Bleacher Bums in Chicago.

“If I didn’t smoke that joint in San Francisco, the Bleacher Preacher may have never been. That’s my real claim to fame.”

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