The timeline of San Francisco theater history gets a new entry at the end of the month when ownership of the iconic Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters changes hands.
Ambassador Theatre Group, a U.K.-based live entertainment juggernaut with offices in London, New York, Sydney and Cologne, and venues across England, in Germany, and on Broadway, this week announced the acquisition of the Orpheum and Golden Gate theaters, along with the Fisher Theatre in Detroit.
The theaters join a growing U.S. portfolio that includes the Saenger in New Orleans, the Majestic in San Antonio, and, as of 2017, a 40-year lease on the Colonial in Boston, the historic pre-Broadway try-out venue.
No motivation for the sale was offered by former owner Robert Nederlander, who said in a news release that is he “confident that the ATG team will continue to look after the strong foundation that we have created with these theaters in their respective communities and to take them into this next decade with great success.”
Nederlander still operates the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts and the City National Civic of San Jose.
ATG, which bundles content, venues and ticketing and services across its holdings, was founded by the married couple Sir Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire. It maintains strong relationships with theater-makers as part of its strategy, including one with Sonia Friedman Productions, the vision behind the immersive play “The Jungle” staged at the Curran Theatre in spring 2019 and followed soon after by the two-part spectacle “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which has spent the last year on a COVID-inflicted hiatus.
With the majority of live entertainment in the U.S. on indefinite hold, in answer to a question about the timing of this transaction, ATG spokesman Rick Miramontez of the New York agency DKC/O&M said, “ATG feels that the theater landscape will be back in full force, so they are continuing with their master plan of acquiring theaters around the country as they have done in Europe.” He adds, “They also love the San Francisco market. It’s a destination and an important one.”
DKC/O&M also is the national representative for the Curran, owned and operated by Carole Shorenstein Hays, the former principal partner with Nederlander in SHN-The Best of Broadway, the predecessor to BroadwaySF.
Miramontez, who offered no comment about the Curran in connection with the Orpheum-Golden Gate acquisitions, did however, confirm that “Potter” will reopen as soon as safety protocols allow, and that there are no planned changes for the local management of BroadwaySF, which is promoting a 2021-22 season with some dates starting in July for the tour of the Tina Fey musical “Mean Girls.”
Theaters started as movie houses
Opening in 1926, the now 2,200-seat Orpheum Theatre on Market Street near Hyde Street — originally called the Pantages like its sister theater in Los Angeles — was home to the soon-waning days of vaudeville and silent films. By the stock market crash of 1929, it had been sold to RKO Studios, renamed, and became a showplace for first run cinema. A few blocks away at Market and Taylor streets, the 2,300-seat Golden Gate Theatre is a few years older but with a similar history.
Both venues suffered degradation in the 1960s as moviegoing habits changed. After the heyday of the widescreen Cinerama craze, the Golden Gate was a victim of the “twinning” trend that divided large theaters to accommodate more screenings. It went dark in 1972.
The Orpheum revived as live entertainment venue in the 1970s with a nine-month production of “Hair” that fit right in to the sketchy mid-Market scene. A few years later the Civic Light Opera Company moved in, renovated it and kicked off in 1977 with Debbie Reynolds in “Annie Get Your Gun.” They folded in 1981.
By the late 1970s, Carole Shorenstein Hays, daughter of a well-known San Francisco real estate developer, and the much senior James Nederlander, a scion of the legendary Broadway management family, joined forces to create the producing and presenting entity Shorenstein-Hays-Nederlander offering “The Best of Broadway.” They purchased and renovated the Golden Gate in 1979 and the Orpheum in 1981 and leased the Curran Theatre on Geary Street. All three have undergone subsequent major renovations, most recently in 2018 for both the Golden Gate and the Curran.
Starting with “A Chorus Line” in 1979, SHN presented nearly every Broadway hit touring the country. Some productions “sat down” for long periods including the record-breaking five-year run of “The Phantom of the Opera” which began at the Curran in 1993. Shorenstein Hays became a Tony-winning producer for “Fences” in 1987 and continued to expand her presence on Broadway. (She’s made seven more trips to that podium since.) The relationship with Nederlander became strained over the proverbial “creative differences” and a lawsuit to sever it was initiated but aborted in 1991.
The partnership did finally end in 2014 with Nederlander retaining the Orpheum and Golden Gate, and Shorenstein Hays assuming full operations of the Curran and retaining a non-operating ownership stake SHN. Lawsuits claiming violations of non-compete clauses followed, and the case was finally settled in 2019 when Shorenstein relinquished her part of SHN, which rebranded itself to BroadwaySF. The Orpheum and Golden Gate are now owned by British-based Ambassador Theatre Group and Shorenstein Hays retains ownership of the Curran.