Northside SF
North Beach Beat
Two for the road

At some point in this complicated life, you’ve probably dreamed of chucking everything and running away. I know I have. Running away to the South Seas. To the French Foreign Legion. To the circus.

Well, while we’re waiting to find the cojones to actually pull the trigger, we can live vicariously through RJ Owens. The larger-than-life and extraordinarily talented North Beach magician, actor, and self-proclaimed Helluva Nice Guy recently decamped from these parts to, I kid you not, run away with the circus.

In this case, the circus in question is no less than Cirque du Soleil. RJ, an incredible ham of indisputable charm, was plucked from the cozy womb of North Beach to begin a yearlong stint as the ringmaster of Saltimbanco, Cirque’s acrobatic, sensory-laden, allegorical exploration of the urban experience.

It isn’t every day that a North Beach regular embarks down the path of international glory, so I asked him the obvious question. “Where in the hell did they find you?”

Turns out he was “discovered” while performing at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“At the end of my street show, this little man came up to me, extended his hand and said, ‘I really like your look.’ I was like, great, he’s hitting on me. He handed me a business card, which I didn’t even look at. I just wanted the whole handshake thing to end. He then appeared at my venue show a day later, and I knew I had a stalker on my hands.”

But it wasn’t a stalker. It was a chap named Marc-Andre, a Cirque du Soleil talent spotter.

Long story short, RJ auditioned for Cirque in April 2010. After the grueling cut-down process, he was told by Marc-Andre: “It may be three months ... it may be three years ... but you will be working for Cirque.” A year and half later, on RJ’s birthday, the call came.

Saltimbanco is touring internationally, and RJ’s first stop (after an intensive, if compressed, training session in Cirque’s hometown of Montreal) was Gdansk, Poland. As you read this, the troupe has moved on from both Gdansk and Malmo, Sweden, and should be arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria before the ink dries on this page. From there, it’s on to Bucharest, Bratislava, Graz, Bordeaux, Dijon, Rome, Cyprus, Cairo, Beirut, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, and Jakarta.

Alas, the show does not travel to these shores. But you can follow RJ’s exploits on his website, He’ll be blogging regularly, and he ain’t too shabby a wordsmith, either.

The Beats (finally) go on: It’s been a long time coming, but they’ve finally made a movie of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel that defined the Beat generation. Francis Ford Coppola, who’s been holding the film rights since 1979, at last found the director and the screenplay he’d been searching for, thanks to The Motorcycle Diaries.

Brazilian Walter Salles directed that terrific depiction of the young Che Guevara’s metamorphosis from aspiring physician to dedicated revolutionary, working off a screenplay penned by José Rivera. Coppola hired both men to get On the Road off the ground. They did it, and the film will make its French (and world) premier on May 23, which just happens to coincide with the Cannes Film Festival.

The cast is headed by Sam Riley as Kerouac’s protagonist, Sal Paradise, and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, the thinly veiled alter ego of Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s real-life best friend and chief obsession. Other cast names you’ll no doubt recognize include Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi, and Amy Adams.

The local angle? Well, part of the film was shot here, of course, because San Francisco (and especially North Beach) figures so prominently in Kerouac’s story. But there’s more. Jerry Cimino, who founded and operates the Beat Museum on Broadway, proved invaluable to the filmmakers, providing tons of background material on the life and times of the Beats, who of course extended far beyond the pages of the 1951 novel.

In gratitude, the filmmakers presented the Beat Museum with the gorgeous, maroon-colored 1949 Hudson used in the movie. It’s now on display and well worth checking out. What a beauty, with its wood-paneled dashboard, its column shift, and its classic lines. Built like a tank, too, which is how Detroit used to build ’em.

One caveat Cimino gladly accepted before taking possession of the Hudson: The car must never be washed, thereby retaining all the dust accumulated while on the road in Jack Kerouac’s America.

You’ll find the Beat Museum, with its extensive collection of Beat-era memorabilia, at 540 Broadway, just off Columbus Avenue.

Tony Long can be reached at

March 2012
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