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In S.F., some tourists are off their trolley . . .

photo
[Photo: Kath Usitalo]

Pedestrians often snap photos of Robert Katzman — “the Captain” — and his crew as he wheels his 1955 Mack fire truck through San Francisco. Passengers decked out in firefighting gear are the crew.


. . . And joining the Captain's crew to sing and tour the city in a vintage, open-air fire truck.

By KATH USITALO
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 3, 2002


After bouncing along for a good 30 minutes I realize that I've been grinning the entire time. A quick check confirms there are no bugs in my teeth.

People we don't know are pointing cameras our way and I find myself waving back, parade princess-style. Soon, one-hour photo machines across the land will be spitting out images of our motley crew aboard a vintage fire engine, set against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge.

"When you're on a 1955 Mack fire truck, make sure no one's wanted (by the law) because everyone's taking your picture!" says a smiling Marilyn Katzman, a.k.a. the Co-Captain, who tends to speak in exclamations.

She and the Captain, husband Robert Katzman, founded San Francisco Fire Engine Tours & Adventures almost by happenstance nearly five years ago. It started when they welcomed a friend's fire truck into their home, which is a restored 1896 firehouse they share with their Dalmatian, Sadie LaFlame.

Whenever the Katzmans -- he's an artist, she's a professional entertainer and tap dancer -- took the vehicle for a spin around the City by the Bay, they got such a positive reaction from passersby they decided that fire truck tours had business potential.

Robert located a 1955 Mack and restored it with the help of retired firefighters.

The trim Co-Captain often breaks into song during the tours, as she mixes facts and personal observations about San Francisco from her seat next to Robert.

They sit in the front seat, which has no cab, and their passengers sit in seats arranged behind them, where the truck's pump, water tank and hoses used to be. He wheels the truck through traffic-clogged streets on a tour that passes Victorian mansions and Sausalito storefronts.

The passengers are decked out in firefighting gear and are encouraged to sing along with Marilyn, who breaks into song now and then.

At the start of the tour, she fills us in on the basics:

1. The ride will be bumpy because the truck has no shocks. "On a fire-engine tour, you use all of your senses!" declares Marilyn. "You get the sights, the sounds, the smells, and you really get the feel of it!"

2. There are no tourists in the 13 upholstered seats on the fire truck: We are crew members and, according to the Co-Captain, "Once a member of the crew, always a member of the crew!"

3. We will learn the theme song, a lively little ditty that I now think I will carry with me the rest of my days. Written by Marilyn, it goes something like this:

(Bell clangs) "The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine,

"The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine,

"The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine,

"We're off to the rescue now!" (two honks of the horn).

We crew members have ample opportunity to sing the tune, and many others, during the 75-minute tour, which typically departs from the Cannery near Fisherman's Wharf, cruises the Presidio, crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, crawls along Sausalito's main vein, heads back across the bridge and rolls over hilly residential streets.

Although traffic jams and the occasional street fair may affect the route, it seems that nothing can dampen the spirit of the tour.

"If we get stuck in traffic, who cares?" the Co-Captain asks, as we inch our way through a bottleneck. "We're sitting up in a shiny red fire engine!"

It's time for a sing-along and Marilyn thrusts her microphone in front of the Captain's snow-white beard for a chorus of "California here I come, right back where I started from."

Midway across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Co-Captain recalls the thrill of tap-dancing once high in the 746-foot south tower of the landmark. That, she says, topped the time she clicked her way across the bridge's 4,200-foot span with the dance troupe Rosie and the Radiators.

Marilyn instructs us to breathe deeply, because, she claims, "Fresh air on the Golden Gate is the fountain of youth!"

It apparently works for her, so I inhale until I almost pass out. In my lightheaded state I can almost picture the Captain and Co-Captain in the 1970s, when they traveled the country in a van, selling their sculptures of exotic burlwood and bromeliad plants under the name "Lizards of Oz."

I realize that my cheeks are aching from all the smiling.

We return to the Cannery before my grin gives out. As the Captain maneuvers the truck into its place at the curb, from a passing car a gray-haired man shouts, "Robert! Marilyn! Can we have THE SONG?"

Traffic forces the fellow to move on before the Co-Captain can hit a note, but it's clear he is one of the 30,000-plus crew members who have taken the tour. As he pulls away, I hear him belt out, "The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine."

"It's a smile machine, it really is," says the Co-Captain as she and the Captain, spiffy in their red and black uniforms, prepare the '55 Mack for the next tour and adventure.

I double-check my teeth; no bugs.

-- Kath Usitalo is a freelance writer living in St. Calir Shores, Mich.

If you go

San Francisco Fire Engine Tours depart from the Cannery on Beach Street at the foot of Columbus Avenue. Tours are offered daily except Tuesdays, on rainy days (it is an open-air vehicle) and for a few weeks in January. There are no tours on Thanksgiving Day but trips on other holidays available by chartering the whole truck.

The fire truck is sometimes booked for charters, so reservations for the tours are strongly advised.

Tour tickets are $30 per person, $25 for teenagers and those 65 and older, $15 for children 12 and younger. For charter tours and information on the combination fire truck and firehouse tour, call (415) 333-7077 or send e-mail to engineco33@aol.com. The Web address is www.fireenginetours.com. For general visitor information on San Francisco, call (415) 391-2000 or go to www.sfvisitor.org.

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