The marquee at the Clay Theatre in Pacific Heights which closed its doors after 110 years. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SF Lives: The changing mood of SF’s Fillmore Street

The Landmark Theatre chain was tight-lipped about The Clay’s abrupt closure

The mood went dark on Fillmore Street three weeks into January as locals took in the news that their cinema, The Clay Theatre, would be closing without a fight or fanfare before the month’s end.

A fixture between Clay and Sacramento streets for over 100 years, “The Clay is a pillar, a cornerstone of the neighborhood,” said Fred Martin, stationed behind the counter of Browser Books, one block down. Noting its great projection and offbeat programming, “there has to be some way to keep it. If they could do it with The Vogue, they can do it here,” said Martin, referring to another historic theater, just a few blocks west.

“This is Pacific Heights. There’s money here.”

The Landmark Theatre chain was tight-lipped about The Clay’s abrupt closure; its press announcement cited “the changing theatrical landscape and challenges to independent exhibition.” But Martin notes, the independently owned and operated Vogue seems to be doing fine, despite the challenges in film markets.

Longtime employee Toni Maher helps a customer at the Clay Theatre in Pacific Heights on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, two days before the single-screen movie house closes its doors after 110 years.
Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner

A single screen theater even older than The Clay, The Vogue was acquired in 2007 by the San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation, a non-profit seeking to preserve The City’s last remaining neighborhood cinemas. The theater’s day to day operations are overseen by Cinema SF, which operates and also owns The Balboa in the Outer Richmond. Both entities have helped sustain the vitality of two grand theaters with the support of local patrons and the film- loving community at large.

“It harkens back to an earlier time,” said Adam Bergeron of CinemaSF. His experience shepherding The Balboa back to life is a glowing demonstration of what local theaters bring to a neighborhood.

“There’s a vibrancy provided by the neon signs,” he said. “Not only that, the family friendly and all-comers aspect of a theater brightens the life of a neighborhood in a way that’s almost irreplaceable.” Ask anyone who remembers The City’s now-defunct theaters, The Alexandria, The Coronet, The Bridge, The Lumiere, The Parkside, The Alhambra — to name but a fraction of our missing screens —- and how less inviting the surrounding storefronts and activity became when those neighborhoods lost their cinemas.

“Each theater has a distinctive personality which is a reflection of the neighborhood,” explained Bergeron, pointing to the virtues of The Clay.

(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

“It’s a true arthouse. Everyone knows that’s where the midnight movies happen. It’s an institution.” Bergeron said The Clay chose the right films for its audience. He remembered when the love it or hate it drama, “Whiplash,” screened there for 12 weeks in 2014.

“It’s a perfect example of a word of mouth, arthouse movie, appropriate for the neighborhood,” he said.

The flavor of the commercial strip of Fillmore where The Clay sits has traditionally been geared to high-end, designer tastes, catering to upper income needs, from clothes and home interiors to therapists, lawyers and realtors . But the preponderance of salons and beauty bars blending bespoke lipstick tones and fragrances exist harmoniously with your average pizza and beer joints, coffee spots, next-to-new shops and reasonably priced restaurants like Le Méditeranée. There is even an on-duty fortune teller to see. All these businesses, including The Clay and the bordering-on-precious Nest, are distinctly San Franciscan and cosmopolitan. But when a street’s magic recipe starts losing key ingredients, the whole mixture feels off-kilter. Sure, Upper Fillmore is about luxury, but sometimes luxury looks like leisurely sipping cappuccino at a cafe, or slipping into a theater for a bargain matinee.

As one of The City’s central arteries, Fillmore offers a straight shot by car from The Marina to Duboce Park. As anyone who rides the 22 knows, the line passes through several distinct neighborhoods on its route from Bay to Third Street. Adjacent access to several bus lines and surrounding neighborhoods make Fillmore, a unique crosstown street.

In the last few years and even in the last few months, I’ve observed longterm and shortterm tenants alike fleeing the scene, whether its the recently-closed stationery shop Papyrus, or the one brick and mortar outpost for online ModCloth, which fits clothes for all shapes and sizes.

A fixture between Clay and Sacramento streets for over 100 years, “The Clay is a pillar, a cornerstone of the neighborhood,” said Fred Martin. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The rapid changes got me thinking how today’s Fillmore Street contrasts with the decades when Leon’s Bar-B-Q and The Elite Cafe were reliable destinations to eat and drink; or when Marcus Books, the country’s oldest black-owned bookstore in a regal purple house down the hill, still served as ambassador to the neighborhood’s cultural heritage as the Harlem of the West. And what about that proposed Jazz District? The only sign of jazz on these streets is the annual outdoor festival and a few flags depicting musicians in silhouette.

The street’s latest marketing strategy suggests “Feel more in the Fillmore,” but all I feel is sick everytime I pass by yet another shuttered storefront or a new one with a singular name selling basic shirts costing more than dinner and a movie.

The commercial stretch of Fillmore on the other side of Geary has carried the burden of redevelopment for decades following a bulldozing and the notorious agency’s bogus vouchers which did not make good on the residents right to return. The district’s dishonorable history reaches back to at least World War II when thousands of Japanese Americans were sent packing to internment camps. Trained eyes and historians recognize the placards and other signs of a past life, but the average seeker of dinner provisions doesn’t miss Hats on Fillmore. It’s no wonder neighborhood spirit is teetering: What’s next?

The street’s latest marketing strategy suggests “Feel more in the Fillmore.” (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Time will tell if the new wave of businesses on the highwater blocks, like Gwyneth Paltrow’s frivolous Goop, and Samovar, home of the five dollar chai, will be able to make a go of it. Longtimers like Browser (recently acquired by Green Apple), and Peet’s (which is, well, Peet’s) are anchoring the community as it awaits news of the fate of The Clay property.

Rambling around Fillmore, I ran into Rita LaForce who told the story of her San Francisco life to me for this column in 2018. We talked about this and that before I pounced on the chance to ask a true local what she thought of the possibility of The Clay flaming out forever.

“It’s devastating,” she said. “That’s a place of dreams.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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