Across San Francisco, giant marquees that once announced the latest movies or live performances sit unlit. Some buildings are boarded up, while others are marked with graffiti. But they all represent a bygone era when most neighborhoods in The City provided residents with an intimate place to gather and be entertained.
Now, efforts to put life back into the buildings are gaining momentum, but largely without the projector reels.
From gyms to condos, the San Francisco landmarks have hit a turning point in the past decade. Many efforts to save the theaters have resulted in historic preservation designations, yet others sit empty as victims of opposition to proposed projects. Some are lucky enough to remain cinemas.
“The economics of operating theaters have pushed movies into larger multiplexes,” said Alfonso Felder, president of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. “But it’s not necessarily the way the public would like it to be.”
As many as 36 theaters sprouted up in 17 San Francisco neighborhoods from 1900 to the 1930s. They thrived through the 1950s, according to the foundation, but then their popularity declined with the onset of television and multiplexes.
The Harding Theater, for example, first opened in the 1920s and operated as a single-screen movie house until 1970, when a church took over the venue. A musical theater troupe also called the theater home for nearly a decade in the 1960s. The church owned and operated the building for more than 30 years. When it closed in 2003, the church sold the theater to a developer.
A plan to demolish the theater and build condos has faced years of opposition. Developers had hoped to create 18 new homes as well as parking and retail space, but neighborhood residents mobilized to stop the project.
The building still sits vacant and boarded up.
Amy Weiss, a member of the Harding Theater Revitalization Project and Neighbors Developing Divisadero, said the community would like to see the space returned to a cultural hub.
“Amazing things could happen,” Weiss said, “or at least something other than it being boarded up. We’d like to see music and performance being brought back to the space and some kind of long-term job creation.”
A community effort is now under way to help facilitate those goals.
Balancing the desires of neighbors, property owners and customers is the aim of the Metro Theater’s owners, who plan to turn the Cow Hollow property into a high-end gym that also has space for community organizations. It has already received Planning Commission approval.
Sebastyen Jackovics, the developer of the Metro project, said when the single-screen movie house closed in 2006, an average of 19 tickets were sold per showing; the theater seats 670.
Around that time, Jackovics expressed interest in purchasing the property, but was turned down. Instead, he is partnering with the family that has owned the Metro for 60 years and will renovate and partner with Equinox fitness club to open a gym throughout the majority of the four floors.
“Everyone loves theaters, but no one realistically went,” Jackovics said. “What people say and do are two different things. This space could be condos or office space, torn down or shuttered. This is a great location.”
Jackovics said the marquee, interior murals and historic urns will be preserved.
Not all San Francisco community theaters have seen the writing on the wall. Last year, the Balboa Theatre in the Richmond district, with the help of the Neighborhood Theater Foundation, was saved from closure. The foundation signed the remaining lease to keep the theater open through 2024.
The foundation also helped developers with the New Mission Theater, the twin-screen slated to reopen near 16th and Mission streets.
“These theaters are the vitality of commercial districts,” Felder said. “They’re anchors in commercial districts. Over time, they have served that purpose very well and they bring life to these streets.”
What happened to the movie house?
A sampling of shuttered theaters and others that have dodged the wrecking ball in The City:
- Fox Theatre Closed in 1963, demolished soon after
North Beach, Chinatown, Russian Hill
- Alhambra Theatre Closed, now a gym
- Royal Theatre Demolished in 2003
- Pagoda Palace Theatre Closed in 1990s
Marina, Pacific Heights
- Metro Theater Closed in 2006; purchased by developers and will be turned into a gym and retail space
- Vogue Theatre Purchased by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation
- Coliseum Theatre Closed in 2000
- Alexandria Theatre Closed in 2004
- Coronet Theatre Closed in 2005
- Balboa Theatre Rescued by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation
Haight, Inner Sunset
- Midtown Theatre Closed in 1952
- Red Vic Movie House Closed in July 2011
Noe Valley, Castro
- Castro Theatre Still operating under the Nassar family
Sources: sfntf.org, Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library