Feelin’ groovy on the time-traveling Magic Bus

What a day for a daydream, indeed.

The Magic Bus takes off in a cloud of bubbles. It’s 1967, the Summer of Love. Our guide, “Gaia,” dressed à là Janis Joplin, welcomes the passengers—some locals, some tourists, some youngish, some gray-haired, a few in vintage tie-dye—to the “tribe” and enjoins us to sing along to the recorded music whether knowing the words or not. Most of us know the words.

This alt-tour bus was created by founder-artistic director Chris Hardman of the 35-year-old nonprofit Antenna Theater in Sausalito. It offers passengers a two-hour time-traveling excursion into San Francisco’s storied hippie past by way of Antenna’s trademark layered soundscape: a piped-in mash-up of ’60s rock, ambient noise, period radio news broadcasts and commercials, narrative by Hardman himself and voices of real people telling us about their wild cityside youth.

It is also a visual experience: Passengers sit back to back on long benches, facing the windows. San Francisco drifts slowly by as the bus lumbers from Union Square to Golden Gate Park’s Conservatory of Flowers and back again—traversing Chinatown (“representing the awakening to the aesthetics of the East …”), the Financial District, North Beach (the Beat generation!), the upper and lower Haight and more—as the street scenes take on the dream-like quality of little tableaux.

Intermittently — timed to the bus’ actual location at the moment — retractable screens unfurl to cover the windows, and passengers watch an artful video collage of vintage TV news broadcasts and other images of the era.

Hardman bought this bus, now painted in psychedelic colors, in 2008, and first created the audio component of a magical mystery tour that he envisioned. In 2010, micro video projectors were invented, and his concept coalesced. He launched the Magic Bus, tweaking route, script and concept periodically. The transcendental trip you take this year will be slightly different than the one you took last year.

Gaia points out landmarks: the house where the Jefferson Airplane lived; the Fillmore West on Market Street, now a Honda dealership; the “Electric Church of Jimi Hendrix” and more.

The Summer of Love eventually morphed into the “winter of our discontent,” as Hardman narrates; gliding past City Hall, we’re reminded of the dark side: the assassinations and the murders that were to come in the 1970s.

But the ride ends on a (ahem) high note. Groovy.

IF YOU GO

Magic Bus
Where: Start at Union Square, Geary, between Stockton and Powell streets, S.F.
When: 10:30 a.m. most Fridays-Saturdays (no rides Christmas and New Year days)
Tickets: $60
Contact: (855) 969-6244, www.MagicBusSF.com
Note: Options to add (at extra cost) a ferry ride to Alcatraz are available.

Jean Schiffman
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Jean Schiffman

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