George Costanza Ate Here: How Pop-Culture Sites Become Tourist Traps

More

Fans make pilgrimages to Tom's Restaurant and the house from Full House. But some places don't embrace the crowds.

lufkin_poplandmarks_post.jpg
AP Images

In the upscale San Francisco neighborhood of Pacific Heights, there's a gray, two-story Victorian house nestled on Broderick Street. It's simple. It's pretty. And millions of Americans who watched TV in the '90s have seen it before.

Full House premiered on ABC 25 years ago this month. The show's light humor and happy endings made it a hit for seven seasons—at its peak, Full House had an audience of nearly 16 million viewers. During the opening credits, the theme song "Everywhere You Look" played to sunny, sweeping shots of San Francisco, showing the characters picnicking in Alamo Square and cruising down the Golden Gate Bridge in a red convertible. Episodes usually started with an exterior shot of the house in Pacific Heights, the home of the Tanner family. On Broderick, you'll often find a few diehard fans posing outside the house, taking pictures. They're diehard because tracking down Michelle Tanner and Uncle Jesse's abode requires some sleuthing.

The owners of the house aren't exactly welcoming to visitors, however. They've roped off the front stairs, preventing gawkers from walking up to the front door. A door that's also designed to repel tourists. The iconic red door from the Full House shots was sold to a neighbor a few houses down and replaced with a black one.

This is true of other pop culture landmarks in the city: Go to Haight-Ashbury, the hub of the hippie movement in the '60s, and you'll see the ornate, purple Victorian the Grateful Dead once called home, and you'll find curtains drawn, blinds shut.

Despite owners' attempts to keep visitors out, famous houses are a big tourist draw. Rick Spear, owner of Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel, referred to the Full House house's location on his blog back in 2007."It's my most popular post by a long shot," he says. Spear says his clients ask to see lots of pop culture landmarks in San Francisco: not just Chinatown or Coit Tower, but also the house in Mrs. Doubtfire (also in Pacific Heights), or where the car chase in Bullitt was filmed.

"For a destination, it's a real blessing to have them," says Laurie Armstrong, a director at the San Francisco Travel Association, on visitor-fetching pop culture icons. "Because we can't make that stuff up. We can find it, throw a spotlight on it, and promote it—but we can't make it." That's where the magic of Hollywood comes in. Armstrong says that spots featured in TV and film benefit the city because tourists often use them as launching points to explore surrounding neighborhoods.

San Francisco isn't the only city with places made familiar by TV and movies. The coffee shop in Seinfeld is an actual late-night diner in Manhattan called Tom's Restaurant, and the Bull & Finch Pub in Boston was used as the bar exterior in Cheers. (The Pub, which sells Cheers mugs and shirts and whose menu includes Sam's Starters and Rebecca's Fish and Chips, actually changed its name to Cheers Beacon Hill.) So why are some places so excited to be immortalized by show biz, and why do they fascinate tourists?

"American culture is still relatively young, so we have these things to rally around—like The Brady Bunch house or the real-life Field of Dreams," says pop culture and travel writer Chris Epting. He's the author of a series of books on the subject, including James Dean Died Here, an encyclopedic guide of over 600 pop culture landmarks and roadside Americana. "I have literally visited thousands of these sites." A sampling of Epting's catalogue: the prison used in The Shawshank Redemption, the diner in the film Diner, and the Philly freight elevator in which Daryl Hall and John Oates met.

Unlike the Full House house tenants, some landmark-owners do cash in on their pop-culture treasures. There's the Seinfeld eatery and Cheers bar, but the owner of the house used in A Christmas Story outdoes them all. A superfan of the 1983 holiday film (who made a pretty penny selling "leg lamps") bought the Cleveland home, remodeled the interior to resemble the set from the film, and opened the made-over abode to the public as a tourist attraction. There's a flagpole out front where patrons can copy the scene where a triple dog dare gets Flick's tongue frozen to the metal. The place has also expanded to include a gift shop. And Ian Petrella, the actor who played kid brother Randy, was paid by the owner to actually live in the house for a few weeks, taking photos and giving tours.

"People have visceral connections to pop culture," says Kyle Ryan, managing editor of The Onion's A.V. Club. He produces Pop Pilgrims, a webseries that takes visitors across the U.S. to entertainment points of interest, like Bob Dylan's birthplace or where The Wire was filmed in Baltimore. "It's the kind of shared experience that transcends political or social divisions."

And in the DIY age of the web, fans are documenting their own pop pilgrimages (like this one who snapped a Breaking Bad tour of Albuquerque) or creating online communities around a passion. Blogger Julia Sweeten, for example, runs HookedOnHouses.net, a website about the architecture and design of the home. She says her posts about TV and movie houses are "perennially popular," and that her post about the beach house in Something's Gotta Give is one of her top 10 most-read posts each month. "If you mention a movie like Father of the Bride or Gone with the Wind, most people remember what they looked like. The houses sometimes become as famous as the actors." That may explain the success of the Christmas Story establishment, why tourists comb the net for ways of finding the Full House house while in the Bay Area, or why the internet went abuzz when the Home Alone Georgian went on sale last year.

While the Big Lebowski bowling alley may not teem with the same gravitas as Mt. Rushmore, pop culture enthusiasts defend their interest in these hot spots. Kyle Ryan says the landmarks' pull is "the same attraction that drives people to visit historic locations." Chris Epting considers them "touchstones that reflect our culture, and our memories of growing up." They boost a city's profile and tourism dollars. They build vibrant online communities and discussion. And if you live in Pacific Heights, they lure swarms of strangers with cameras to your front door.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Bryan Lufkin is a writer based in San Francisco. His work has appeared in Wired and Entertainment Weekly.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In