John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.
Warning: These videos will most definitely make your ears ring.
For more than half a century, San Francisco has gathered its cable-car operators to throw down at a bell-ringing contest. This year’s event took place Thursday, and by the time the bells stopped clanging the city had crowned a new winner: tinnitus.
No, actually it was Byron Cobb, seen here clutching his well-earned trophy:
PHOTO: The winner of the 52nd Cable Car Bell Ringing contest held in San Francisco’s Union Square is Byron Cobb! pic.twitter.com/qpd1cfMWJd— ABC7 News (@abc7newsBayArea) July 9, 2015
Contestants were judged on rhythm, style, and originality. Cobb’s captivating, frenetic beats pushed him ahead of second-place winner Trini Whittaker, despite that two-time champ’s funky, double-handed, at times on-his-back moves. And for anybody who’s carping, “It’s just ringing a bell,” listen up to the words of this retired champion: “[N]ot every bell is the same. You have to play according to the bell.”
The city’s Municipal Transportation Agency provides a little background on this unusual tournament:
According to Muni historian Bob Callwell, the very first contest was held in 1949 to select three gripmen to operate cable car No. 524 on a short section of track at the Chicago Railroad Fair. However, the first of the contests as we know them today took place in 1955 as part of a Cable Car Festival to promote the cable cars as a visitor attraction.
While the contest has had its ups and downs and has certainly changed over the years, the brass bell resonating around the square has remained a constant draw. From the days of Cable Car Queens and wild celebrity appearances (like Cookie Monster in ‘77), the event is a little less kooky but no less special and has that real San Francisco flavor.
Here’s runner-up Whittaker doing his thing in grand fashion (thanks goes to MrEricSir for posting these vids):