Obituary: Al Nalbandian Star of Old-Time SF, Bit Player in Films, Departs City He Loved

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By Carl Nolte

SAN FRANCISCO (Chronicle) — It is not the big and famous things that give San Francisco its special flavor. It’s not the thousand-foot-tall buildings, or even the glorious Golden Gate Bridge. It’s the people, the San Franciscans, the man at the corner store, the lady who watches out for the neighborhood community garden, the barista who remembers what kind of coffee you like, the security guard who gives you a surprise smile on a blue Monday. They make the city what it is. And what it was.

One of them left us last week. He was Al Nalbandian, who ran the sidewalk flower stand at Stockton and Geary streets. He died Tuesday, May 9, at the age of 95. He was one of those old-time San Franciscans, born and raised in the city, a living landmark. He was on that corner for more than 70 years, working every day, even into his old age.

In his last years, Al was bit slow and stooped, but he still knew his way around flowers, knew how to make a bouquet, how to get a customer to smile. His last day at work was April 21. He became ill that day, was admitted to a hospital, rallied a bit, and then faded away quietly.

Al Nalbandian, who ran a sidewalk flower stand for more than 70 years, also had bit parts in movies and on TV shows.

“He was a San Francisco institution,” said Elise Kazanjian, who was a lifelong friend. “He knew everybody, and everybody knew him.”

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“Dad was part of the folklore of the old city,” said his daughter, Louise. “He was part of a family flower business that goes back more than a hundred years.”

“That little stand was a fixture on the corner, like an island in between a river of humans and an ocean of cars,” said John Lavette, who worked at the flower stand for 35 years. “Or 35 Valentine’s Days, which is how we counted the years.”

Stores closed and new ones came and went, but Al was always there and you could count on him. “He loved the street,” he said.

“He took energy from it,” Louise said. “When he was there, it was like he plugged in to the energy and pulse of the city.”

Running a sidewalk flower stand sounds easy, but it wasn’t. “As an employee and on the street, I saw that running a business in that chaos was an art form,” Lavette said.

Al and his flower stand were landmarks, and people counted on seeing him at the stand.

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“People would come who knew him their entire life,” Lavette said. “Visitors to the city would make a point of stopping to see Al because they thought of him as part of San Francisco.”

And he was. Albert and Harvey Nalbandian and their sister, Louise, were born in San Francisco, the children of Paul and Ardemis Nalbandian, who fled after the Armenian Genocide. Paul opened a sidewalk flower stand at Powell and Market streets in 1915. Harvey took over the Powell Street flower stand after his father died during World War II.

But Al had become stage-struck during his college days at the University of San Francisco. He worked in local theater and, after the war ended, tried to get into the movie business in Hollywood. He had some success, mostly bit parts.

In all, Al appeared in 20 movies and in TV shows, such as “Day in Court,” “Traffic Court,” “Divorce Court” and “The Streets of San Francisco.”

He was in several films set in San Francisco, including “Pal Joey,” “The Conversation” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He also had roles in “So I Married an Axe Murderer” and “American Graffiti.” He had a speaking role in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” and played a drug pusher in “Once a Thief.”

He always kept his hand in the sidewalk flower business. After World War II, he bought the Geary Street stand from Mike Egian, an old-timer and a relative. “It’s family pride that keeps these things going,” Al said.

There was more to Al Nalbandian than flowers and movies. He was a serious scholar and collected books printed in the Armenian language. He was honored for his collection by the Book Club of California in 2013.

“He had a passion for his people,” Lavette said.

Al made more than 20 trips to Armenia when it was still part of the Soviet Union, bringing gifts and medical supplies. “There was risk involved sometimes,” Lavette said. “He was a tough guy.”

He was also a kind one. Friends who stopped by the stand always left with an armful of flowers, no charge.

Albert Nalbandian is survived by his wife, Aida; his daughters, Louise and Elizabeth; and two grandchildren, all of San Francisco. His sister, Louise, a professor at Fresno State University, died in 1974, and his brother, Harvey, died in 2014.

Funeral services were at St. John’s Armenian Apostolic Church, San Francisco on May 12.