Celebrated local theatre marks its 100th birthday

Golden Gate Theatre honors a century of hoofers, crooners and Broadway stars

Throughout its 100 years, the Golden Gate Theatre staged everyone from Josephine Baker to Frank Sinatra and Sting while it operated first as a vaudeville house, then a major movie theatre and finally as a performing arts venue.

“The Golden Gate has served as an anchor, bringing millions to enjoy entertainment under its iconic four-story neon sign, giant stage and ornate lobby,” said BroadwaySF Managing Director Rainier Koeners. “It has served as a home for touring Broadway shows now for more than four decades and its future is bright.”

Designed by G. Albert Lansburgh, the 2,300-seat venue opened in March 1922 with a silent feature starring Gloria Swanson and a seven-act vaudeville show. Back in the day, The Examiner equated the theater to being as “spacious as the outdoors.”

The racial integration of workers, performers and audiences served as a distinction for the theater. Baker, who refused to play in front of segregated crowds, became the venue’s first performer to have her shows extended by popular demand.

In 1948, billionaire Howard Hughes bought RKO Pictures, the company that owned the Gate, and alternated between live performances and movies.

Live shows gradually were phased out and the Golden Gate soon was converted into a Cinerama theater, where images from three synchronized 35mm projectors were displayed on a giant wraparound screen.

To accommodate the screen, the lobby’s giant marble staircase was removed and drop ceilings were installed.

Facing stiff competition from other movie palaces, the Gate was split into two separate theaters and the mezzanine was rechristened as the Penthouse Theatre.

By 1970, the Gate’s owner went bankrupt. At the time, Sam Perlman, the venue’s manager, told The Examiner, “There are no more good pictures to show in them anymore. The so-called fine arts pictures which are mostly concerned with sex and mental aberration have taken over the market.”

The theatre shuttered in 1972.

BroadwaySF purchased the venue in 1979, removing the false ceilings as well as the escalator. The stage was updated to accommodate modern productions that toured in San Francisco.

The Golden Gate reopened to the public on Dec. 29, 1979 with the musical “A Chorus Line.”

Over the years, productions such as a revival of “The Music Man” starring Dick Van Dyke and a national tour of “Hello, Dolly!” starring Lowell High School graduate Carol Channing made pit stops in The City.

Since its reopening, the theater has welcomed productions including a national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof,” starring Harvey Fierstein and a touring production of “Pippin,” starring Lucie Arnaz.

The theater has also held several world premieres, including the Broadway tryout of “Legally Blonde The Musical.”

Refurbishments were made to the theater in 2017. New additions included customized light fixtures as well as upgraded electrical and air conditioning systems. Burgundy stage drapery and a red and gold carpet were also installed, with elements including scrolling leaves and flourishing rosettes.

Though digital signs were added to the theater’s exterior, its iconic 4-story marquee remained intact and will soon be flashing upcoming productions like “Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles,” “Oklahoma!” and “Cats.”

jsalazar@sfexaminer.com

Traffic flows past the Golden Gate Theatre’s iconic marquee. (Claudine Gossett)

Traffic flows past the Golden Gate Theatre’s iconic marquee. (Claudine Gossett)

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