The Emperor's Bridge Campaign



Emperor Norton Days, 1989

A couple of days ago, Ron Quintana, a dealer of rare and vintage records, books and collectibles in Grass Valley, Calif., posted to his Facebook page the following image:

The image appears to be of a flyer for an event called Emperor Norton Days.

As it happens, I came across some newspaper listings for this event, a few years ago. But, I didn’t scratch far enough below the surface to write anything up about it. So, I’m delighted to have this fresh reminder as a prompt to dig a little deeper.

Emperor Norton Days was a 4-day carnival that took place in Civic Center Plaza, San Francisco, from Thursday 13 July to Sunday 16 July 1989. It appears that the event took place that one year only. It was organized by — and produced as — a benefit for the San Francisco Police Activities League.

The SFPAL — founded in 1959 and celebrating its 60th anniversary this year — is a nonprofit that seeks to build community by providing young people with mentoring and leadership development opportunities through athletic and educational programs led by active-duty and retired police officers.

This item from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat of 6 July 1989 provides the best overview of what was planned for the event:

“The Emperor’s new carnival,”  Santa Rosa Press Democrat , 6 July 1989.  Source:

“The Emperor’s new carnival,” Santa Rosa Press Democrat, 6 July 1989. Source:


The Emperor's new carnival

July 13 to 16 are the days to look back and laugh during the Emperor Norton Days Carnival in San Francisco's Civic Center Plaza. The old-fashioned carnival honors Joshua Norton, San Francisco's eccentric self-proclaimed monarch, whose idea to build a bridge spanning the bay proved not as it seemed.

Just as in 1849, Emperor Norton will be on hand to issue goofy proclamations and depose politicians. Festivities include a midway with rides, games of skill, and carnival side shows with The Fat Lady, Killer Rat Show, a five-legged cow and a famous flea circus.

Featured performers are comedian Michael Pritchard and musicians Jesse Colin Young, Pete Escovedo, and the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra.

Admission is free; fees for rides and refreshments. Hours are 3 to 11 p.m. Thursday; 3 p.m. to midnight Friday; noon to midnight Saturday and Sunday. Proceeds benefit the San Francisco Police Activities League.


Here’s an ad that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle — when it was being published as the San Francisco Examiner — on 2 July 1989:

Ad for Emperor Norton Days,   San Francisco Chronicle  (published as the  San Francisco Examiner ), 2 July 1989. Source: San Francisco Public Library.

Ad for Emperor Norton Days, San Francisco Chronicle (published as the San Francisco Examiner), 2 July 1989. Source: San Francisco Public Library.


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Emperor Norton Days took place in the midst of an escalating conflict between the City and the group Food Not Bombs, over FNB’s non-permitted distribution of food to those living in a homeless encampment in Civic Center Plaza, where the carnival was taking place — as well as over FNB’s charges of civil rights abuses against the homeless by the SFPD.

In an 18 July 1989 article, “Radical Group Sues Agnos, S.F. Police Over Civil Rights” (pdf), the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

One bright spot in the midst of the Food Not Bombs controversy has been Emperor Norton Days, the carnival sponsored by the Police Activities League and situated smack in the middle of the Civic Center Plaza.

Intended to raise money for children's recreation activities, the fair attracted 80,000 people during the weekend, due in part to the publicity generated by the Food Not Bombs confrontation.

"The publicity has been unbelievable," said Ron Exley, director of the Police Activities League. He estimates that the group made more than $20,000 last weekend and should make even more if the carnival continues for another week.

So far, Exley and his crew have put 118 homeless people to work at carnivals around the Bay Area, including 40 in San Francisco, and they have turned out to be an unexpected bonus, he said.

Exley has asked the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution extending the fair through next Sunday so that they can form "a training program to hire other homeless," Exley said.

Supervisors Wendy Nelder and Terence Hallinan said yesterday that they will introduce a resolution extending the fair through next weekend.

The carnival was extended, through Sunday the 23rd — albeit under a compromise agreement in which most of the vendors and rides were moved from the plaza to a parking lot across Larkin Street.

Here’s a photograph that ran in the Chronicle on Saturday the 22nd:

Photograph of Emperor Norton Days on 21 July 1989.  The carnival had been relocated across from Civic Center Plaza for an extended second weekend.    San Francisco Chronicle , 22 July 1989, p.2. Source: San Francisco Public Library.

Photograph of Emperor Norton Days on 21 July 1989. The carnival had been relocated across from Civic Center Plaza for an extended second weekend. San Francisco Chronicle, 22 July 1989, p.2. Source: San Francisco Public Library.

A Spin in the S.F. Sky

Revelers enjoyed a carnival ride yesterday evening at the San Francisco Civic Center, across Larkin Street from the plaza. The ride, with City hall in the background, is part of the Emperor Norton carnival, which was granted an extension to run through tomorrow.

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In early 1990, the San Francisco Police Department Juvenile Division applied to the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department for permission to use Civic Center Plaza for a second Emperor Norton Days carnival, to be held from Thursday 12 July to Sunday 15 July 1990.

This time, the event was to be a benefit for the “Police Athletic League.” A distinction without a difference, as “Police Athletic League” was the original name for the Police Activities League, which sponsored and produced the original event.

On 19 April 1990, the Rec and Parks Commission passed a resolution approving the request.

But the approval came with a caveat. In 1989, the Police Activities League had violated a rule against setting up and operating mechanical rides on park property. The Commission’s resolution “reinforced” this point — and assurances were provided that there would be “no mechanical rides” in 1990.

The Commission’s minutes and the resolution are here (point 8).

As late as July 1990, the newsletter of the San Francisco Police Officers Association carried an ad — on page 15, here — for the planned second Emperor Norton Days.

But, if the event took place, it appears to have gone unnoticed and unnoted by the city’s newspapers.

Any memories or photographs of this apparently one-time Norton-themed carnival that took place exactly 30 years ago, last weekend and next?

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