Noe Valley Voice March 2009

Rumors Behind the News

By Mazook

CANDLE IN THE WIND: It was front-page news in the February issue of the Voice, Corrie Anders' story about Father Tony La Torre of St. Philip's Church urging his parishioners to boycott Just for Fun for displaying that "saint" Obama candle in its front window. La Torre's statement that the 24th Street store sold items that "mock and ridicule the Catholic/Christian faith" and that the shop's owner "happens to be Jewish" (not true) created a storm of controversy, first in Noe Valley and then around the world. (See Letters, page 7.)

When the San Francisco Chronicle got wind of the neighborhood's icono-clash, it dispatched columnist Andy Ross (of Matier & Ross fame) to 24th Street to investigate. Ross wrote a piece for the Chron's Feb. 15 (Sunday) paper, which was immediately duped on the sfgate website. By the following Tuesday, the story was being reported worldwide--by everyone from Fox News to the Huffington Post, NBC News Bay Area to World Net Daily, the Turkish Weekly to a church website in Arkansas.

"The response was incredible," said Just for Fun co-owner David Eiland, who with Robert Ramsey has been selling stationery, games, toys, wrapping paper, and irreverent gag items and cards in Downtown Noe Valley for 23 years. Eiland said that within 24 hours of Ross's story hitting sfgate, more than 200 comments from around the globe had been posted in response. Then KPIX Channel 5, Telemundo (14), and Fox TV sent news crews to Just for Fun, and to St. Philip's as well, and put the story on their evening news.

"We got a call from the David Letterman Show about the controversy, and then the producers from Ron Owens' KGO radio show called," said Ramsey. Ron Owens was trying to have Father Tony and the Just for Fun owners participate in a live discussion, with people calling in questions. "We said fine with us, but we never heard back," Ramsey said.

"This neighborhood has been incredibly supportive, and this whole experience has been a ton of fun," said Eiland, "and I was somewhat surprised at how many priests have come in with words of support. Even John Conley, the retired assistant pastor of St. Philip's, came by with four priests, one of whom I was told was from Rome. He was buying a candle for his friend who is the head of the Franciscan Order, which I thought was very interesting. And then Pastor Bohnert from Mission Dolores came by and bought a candle.

"And then our mail orders for the Obama candle shot up, and we are shipping orders to almost every state in the USA and around the world," said Eiland. "Probably the strangest order was the request we ship six candles to 'Invest Iraq Today' in Baghdad. The candles were $14.95 each with no tax, and the shipping costs were just over $300."

Many of the mail orders, according to Eiland, have been from priests and ministers, "and many of them sent back thank-you notes!"

Father La Torre said in late March: "I have reflected on what I have said, and my feelings are the same. The image on the candle is still an anti-Catholic symbol and [the owners of Just for Fun] continue to be antagonistic by keeping the display in their front window [along with] Jesus breath mints, which [is another] slap to the face of our Supreme Father. The display has been there since before Christmas and is still there. They have never kept any other display in the front window this long," he claimed.

"I offered to meet with [the Just for Fun] owners but they didn't want to meet," said Father Tony.

As for the support Just for Fun is receiving from other priests, Father La Torre said somewhat incredulously, "If that is true, then I feel sorry for those priests. I have received several dozen telephone calls, so many my voice mail became overloaded, and many e-mails in support. I have been able to see the many comments on the Internet."

To keep up with the cyber cyclone over his remarks, he simply Googled his name, he said.

If you Google "Father Tony La Torre," you can keep up with the debate. The February Voice story comes up third in a list of about 27,000 sites chattering about La Torre; a September 2004 Rumors item, about Father Tony's arrival in Noe Valley, shows up on Google's third page. You can also find both articles in our archives at

The last week of February, Chronicle columnist Andy Ross told the Voice he has had a large response to his story. He thinks it is because "it's one of those 'very San Francisco' items that people around the world can relate to, and why San Francisco always finds a way to put itself on the worldwide news map."

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SWAP TALKING: Life became surreal for Noe Valley residents Stephen Fowler and his wife Renee Stephens when they and their children appeared on the ABC reality show Wife Swap at the end of January. Seemingly within hours of its airing on Jan. 30, the show hit YouTube, where the video replays became a worldwide obsession. A website called StephenFowler materialized overnight. The world was evidently shocked by Fowler's behavior toward the Midwestern mom who came to Noe Valley for the husband-wife swap. He revealed himself either as a very mean man or a very good actor.

By Feb. 6, Fowler, who was described by the show's producers as "a British-born environmental entrepreneur," and his wife Stephens, a "life coach and certified weight-loss hypnotherapist," wrote a public apology on Renee's website, "Inside Out Weight Loss."

Neighbors reported a lot of activity near the Fowlers' home, which then got more publicity locally when Channel 7 ran a story on the fury, showing the pair (in a Wife Swap clip) walking in Downtown Noe Valley and having a munch at Peasant Pies.

Rumors that Fowler will be moving to Hollywood to continue his acting career as a bad guy icon are not true. He is now, according to Renee's blog, in therapy.

By the way, the buzz is that the Wife Swap producers recently sent a letter to the San Francisco Motorcycle Club, inviting members and their spouses to contact them, presumably to swap with a Boston lawyer and professor spouse. Geez, if they wanted to get super cutting-edge, why didn't they write a letter to Dykes on Bikes?

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FROM RUSSIA WITH GOLD: Clipper Street resident James Berg has recently given a jewel-encrusted gold tabernacle from Russia to St. Nicholas Antiochian Russian Orthodox Church in Diamond Heights. The icon was reportedly made in the workshop of Alexy II (1929-2008), who was a native of Estonia and rose through the ranks of the Russian Orthodox Church to become the 15th Patriarch of Moscow, around the time of the fall of the Soviet Union. The tabernacle was purchased in the 1990s and brought to--where else?--Noe Valley.

In thanks, Father Nicholas Borzghoi wrote a letter to Berg. "Given these difficult economic times, it is doubtful that we would have been able to acquire such a unique liturgy vessel. It will be a great addition to our altar, where we plan on keeping it."

You can view this stunning icon at St. Nicholas, which is located up on the corner of Duncan Street and Diamond Heights Boulevard.

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SHORT SHRIFTS: It looks like Deep Sushi, closed since Christmas, will be going through a change of ownership, since a Notice of Transfer of the liquor license was posted on the front window on Feb. 27....

Contigo's Brett Emerson sent us an e-mail after we reported he would finally open on Feb. 17. There's been one more delay, but dinner was set to be served to the public starting March 3. This seems to be a reality, since friends and family were attending private dinners at Contigo the last week of February. The Voice will do a Store Trek about Contigo next month....

It does not look like Noe Soup will be opening soon, if at all, in the space on 24th above Castro where B.J. Droubi's office used to be, since nothing has been done since plans were approved last October. Rumor has it that the anticipated costs skyrocketed, and an investor pulled out of the project.

Meanwhile, Basso Steak House is responding to the recession by giving seniors a 15 percent discount. And Cover to Cover is offering free book delivery.

Tom Maravilla, formerly of Mikeytom Market on Church Street, is set to join a Peninsula mortgage brokerage firm....

There were rumors floating around 24th Street that Peet's Coffee was looking for a spot on our main street....

But Noe Valley's Tom Mazzolini announced that his San Francisco Blues Festival would take a leave of absence this year due to the economic blues.

Word comes from some of your favorite Bell clerks who transferred to the Cala/Bell on Hyde and California streets that they are seeing many of you making the trek to the Ralphs chain's last stronghold in San Francisco.

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DRIVING ON: It was a short stay in Downtown Noe Valley for the California State Automobile Association (CSAA). Ribbons were cut at its grand opening last April, and a 12-person staff was there to respond to what AAA said customers wanted: neighborhood offices.

Well, the staff was told at the end of February that Triple-A will be closing its Noe Valley office on March 27. According to AAA spokesperson Jenny Mack, some of the Noe Valley staff will be transferred to other locations and some will be laid off. That will leave five offices remaining in the city.

The reason for the closure, said Mack, was that the company was closing 17 offices in three states based on population and customer use. AAA cut 250 jobs. Mack said that another consideration for closing Noe Valley was the proximity of the Potrero Hill branch, on Potrero and 16th streets. Huh?

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NOE QUIZ TIME: Test your knowledge of your neighborhood's history. Send your answers to our e-mail: All those scoring 100 percent will be listed along with the answers in next month's April Fools Rumors.

1. This 285-foot-long Noe Valley alley was named after one of Noe Valley's first developers, who built many single family dwellings in the neighborhood during the 1880s and '90s.

2. Where was the Noe Theater? And where was the Palmer Theater?

3. Where was Video Uno?

4. How long has Douglass Park been a park?

5. Where did Janis Joplin live in Noe Valley when she started singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company?

6. What was "Bud's I.C."?

7. Where was Dan's Gas and Diesel?

8. What is the name of the neighborhood located between Upper Noe Valley and Glen Park?

9. Who was the last San Francisco mayor to build a house in Noe Valley?

10. How many vacant stores were there on 24th Street between Diamond and Church on March 1, 2009?

That's all, you all. I look forward to all your answers. Ciao for now.