The Captain expertly steers the vintage fire truck through the streets of San Francisco

San Francisco Tour Rings My Bell

Story and photos by Kath Usitalo

This story, with photos, first appeared in the St. Petersburg Times

After bouncing along for a good 30 minutes I realize that I’ve been grinning the entire time. A quick check confirms there are no bugs in my teeth.

People we don’t know are pointing cameras our way and I find myself waving back, parade princess-style. Soon the world will see our motley crew perched aboard a vintage open-air fire truck, set against the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“When you’re on a 1955 Mack fire truck, make sure no one’s wanted (by the law) because everyone’s taking your picture!” says a smiling Marilyn Katzman, a.k.a. The Co-Captain, who tends to speak in exclamations.

She and The Captain, husband Robert Katzman, founded San Francisco Fire Engine Tours & Adventures almost by happenstance over a decade ago. It started when they welcomed a friend’s fire truck into their home, which is a restored 1896 firehouse they share with their Dalmatian, Sadie LaFlame.

Whenever the Katzmans — he’s an artist, she’s a professional entertainer and tap dancer — took the vehicle for a spin around the City by the Bay, they got such a positive reaction from passersby they decided that fire truck tours had business potential. Robert located a 1955 Mack, restored it with the help of retired firefighters, and their business was born.

The trim Co-Captain often breaks into song during the tours, as she mixes facts and personal observations about San Francisco from her seat next to Captain Robert, both spiffy in their red jackets and black caps. Passengers decked out in firefighting gear sit in the rear, former home of the water tank, pump, and hoses.

At the start of the tour Marilyn covers the basics:

1. The ride will be bumpy because the truck has no shocks. “On a fire-engine tour, you use all of your senses!” she declares. “You get the sights, the sounds, the smells, and you really get the feel of it!”

2. There are no tourists in the 13 upholstered seats on the fire truck: We are crew members and, according to the Co-Captain, “Once a member of the crew, always a member of the crew!”

3. We will learn the theme song, a lively little ditty that I now think I will carry with me the rest of my days. Written by Marilyn, it goes something like this:

(Bell clangs) “The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine,
“The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine,
“The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine,
“We’re off to the rescue now!” (two honks of the horn).

We crew members have ample opportunity to sing it and many other tunes during the 75-minute tour, which typically departs from the Cannery near Fisherman’s Wharf, cruises the Presidio, crosses the Golden Gate Bridge, crawls along Sausalito’s main vein, heads back across the bridge and rolls over hilly residential streets. As Captain Robert deftly wheels the truck through traffic-clogged streets Marilyn decides it’s time for a sing-along.  “The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine…”

Although traffic jams and the occasional street fair may affect the route, it seems that nothing can dampen the spirit of the tour.  “If we get stuck in traffic, who cares?” the Co-Captain asks, as we inch our way through a bottleneck. “We’re sitting up in a shiny red fire engine!”

Marilyn thrusts her microphone in front of Captain Robert’s snow-white beard for a chorus of “California here I come, right back where I started from…”

Midway across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Co-Captain recalls the thrill of tap-dancing high in the 746-foot south tower of the landmark. That, she says, topped the time she clicked her way across the bridge’s 4,200-foot span with the dance troupe Rosie and the Radiators.

Marilyn instructs us to breathe deeply, because, she claims with infectious enthusiasm, “Fresh air on the Golden Gate is the Fountain of Youth!”

It apparently works for her, so I inhale until I almost pass out. In my lightheaded state I can almost picture the Captain and Co-Captain in the 1970s, when they traveled the country in a van, selling their sculptures of exotic burlwood and bromeliad plants under the name “Lizards of Oz.”

I realize that my cheeks are aching from all the smiling.

We return to the Cannery before my grin gives out. As the Captain maneuvers the truck into its place at the curb, from a passing car a gray-haired man shouts, “Robert! Marilyn! Can we have THE SONG?”

Traffic forces him to move on before the Co-Captain can hit a note, but it’s clear he is a fellow crew member because as he pulls away he belts out, “The Big Red Shiny Mack Fire Engine…”

Marilyn and Robert pose with their signature “thumbs up”

“It’s a smile machine, it really is,” says Marilyn as she and Captain Robert prepare the ’55 Mack for the next tour and adventure.

I double-check my teeth; no bugs.


San Francisco Fire Engine Tours depart daily at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. from The Cannery at Fisherman’s Wharf on Beach Street at the foot of Columbus Avenue. Tour length is 75 minutes.

Reservations are required.

Tour tickets are $50 per person.

Charters and Specialty Tours are available.

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