Repertory cinema houses. That’s another thing the Internet pretty much took out.
At least half the rep houses in San Francisco have shut down in the 20 years since I covered this evening at the Werepad. I remember working at the Bay Guardian and data-entering movie times into the theater listings for the paper, marveling at how many opportunities there were in San Francisco to see classic, important, and cult films on the silver screen.
Read the Bay City Beacon‘s write-up of the state of cinema in 2018 San Francsico below.
This is the 37th entry in my “twenty years ago this week” project from when I was a nightlife columnist at the Bay Guardian, once the country’s largest family-owned weekly newspaper. These “Dilettante” clips, compiled on my portfolio page, create a serial portrait of San Francisco culture at the turn of the century (1997-2001).
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Reposted from the Bay City Beacon: A Year In Bay Area Movie Theaters, by Caroline McNally and Mike Enge:
2018 was a pivotal year for the Bay Area’s historic movie theaters. While the region has seen a late film renaissance, theater attendance continues to decline, leaving the future of its silver screens in limbo.
In August, the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland was purchased by its longtime leaseholder, Alan Michaan. Michaan has committed to getting the theater on the National Register of Historic Places to give it landmark status, make major improvements, and continue showing movies.
The theater was built in 1926, and the lease was taken over by Michaan in 1980, who spent $3.5 million at the time on renovations. Built in Neoclassical and Art Deco style, the theater has an iconic rooftop sign (the largest rotary contact sign west of the Mississippi River), and the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ still plays on Friday and Saturday evenings. Michaan paid $3.74 million for the building this year.
Although Michaan intends to keep Grand Lake open as a movie theater, San Francisco has seen a trend of historic movie theaters being repurposed for novel uses.
A Future for Theaters Past
Union Street’s Metro Theater in Cow Hollow was converted to an Equinox gym. The Metro, which was built in 1924, was the original home of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the oldest international film festival in the United States. It closed in 2006 and was designated a historical landmark in 2009 before becoming Equinox in 2014. The inside was completely remodeled, but the original facade and some of the art deco murals remain.
Gyms have become popular alternatives for community theaters, because they can often utilize the large, awkward space. The historic Alhambra Theatre on Polk Street was a bit ahead of the trend—it closed in 1998, two years after receiving landmark status, and was converted into a Crunch Fitness in 2001.
Another creative use for a movie theater space: a baseball academy. The Bridge Theater in San Francisco’s Richmond District, which was once a single-screen theater, is now the San Francisco Baseball Academy. At the SFBA, players age seven and up can take private lessons, group classes, attend baseball camps or take advantage of cage rentals and open hitting hour. The facility has four hitting tunnels, one bullpen and a lobby where guests can watch a baseball game on large, HD TVs. It is also open for birthday parties and corporate events. This historic theater also changed hands in 2014.
Not all old movie theaters have had to give up on their roots, however. In San Francisco, nonprofit groups have led the way in keeping historic and repertory cinemas up and running. Perhaps the most high-profile success has been the Mission District’s Roxie Cinema, which famously lays claim to the title of America’s oldest continuously open film venue.
“Keeping an arthouse cinema like ours thriving is more challenging now than it has ever been,” said the Roxie’s Executive Director, Elizabeth O’Malley. “Plainly stated, tickets, concessions, and community rentals do not cover what it costs to run a historic cinema in San Francisco. Working out of a 100 year old building with continuously increasing rent and operating costs, makes what we do a challenge.”
The Roxie’s recipe for survival has been to double down on its signature ouvre—a cutting edge mix of independent and world cinema, with regular focus on work from the Spanish-speaking world, reflecting its Mission roots. These are combined with value-added experiences such as artist conversations and live performances, along with regular screenings in 35mm film format, which has become increasingly rare as most theaters now rely on digital projection.
“As I am sure is the case for other local theaters like the Grand Lake, Vogue and Balboa, our main competition is national chain theaters and streaming services. We survive by setting ourselves apart from the rest and offering something more than movies,” said O’Malley.
The nonprofit San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation and CinemaSF acquired the Vogue Theater in 2007 and the Balboa theater in 2011. The Vogue Theater, which opened in 1910 in Presidio Heights, is the second oldest operating movie theater in San Francisco.
The Balboa, which has been open since 1926, is located in the Outer Richmond District. Both theaters have continued to show films since they opened about 100 years ago, a true testament to the value of neighborhood theaters. The San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation’s website states that its mission is: “[an organization] dedicated to preserving historic movie theatres. We believe that historic theatres contribute to the unique character of neighborhoods and enhance the quality of life of City residents.”
Nonprofit organizing has shown that, while these theaters may not be profitable on their own, they are an integral part of the history of San Francisco and the Bay Area.
Unfortunately, some historic theaters are still living in limbo and have not yet found new lives. Avenue Theater in Portola closed in 1984 and was abandoned, its historic beauty falling away to graffiti and decay.
In 2015, the community, led by the Portola Neighborhood Association, came together to raise $250,000 to renovate the iconic neon sign. The agreement was that once the sign was restored, the owners would support the search for a tenant who would finish restoring the theater and re-open it. Churn Urban Creamery, a pop-up creamery founded in the Outer Sunset, is eyeing the space for its first brick and mortar location, but first it has to finish working out some kinks.
“The process has taken longer than expected, due to many reasons including the current state of the space and negotiations with the ownership,” said Rica Kwan, the owner of Churn Urban Creamery. “In the part of the theater that was formerly Johnson’s Barbecue, we plan to open up a creamery/bakery, specializing in farm fresh flavors made from scratch.”
Kwan hopes that once the space is open, it will be a family-friendly community hub. She also wants to host other pop-up businesses in her space, similar to what businesses did for Churn in its beginning stages. //