According to Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, there were over 70 movie theaters when Hitchcock’s Vertigo came out in 1958. Now, only a small fraction of those same theaters are currently operating — nine (soon to be ten), to be exact.
Just in February 2014, the Bridge Theatre on Geary shuttered its doors and sold for $2 million. Its fate? A conversion into a baseball training school for the San Francisco Baseball Academy — a far cry from the cinematic house it once was.
The massive decline in independent movie houses began in the 1950s; the advent of the television, video rentals, and large movie multiplexes gradually shrank the demand for small house cinema in a slow, linear extinction of historical relics.
According to SFGate, the problem with limited-screen theaters is that they “don’t have multiple screens to fall back on if a movie bombs,” and “even if they get a runaway hit, they don’t have the flexibility to extend the run because they’re locked into a schedule with distributors.”
Watching a film in an intimate, one or two-screen theater is an experience I argue everyone should experience — Solnit notes that these movie houses even used to be called “dream palaces.” There is a charm that is stripped away when one enters a massive movie theater complex, funneled into one of a dozen of cookie-cutter screening rooms; it’s a shift from the dream palace of the past to the big-budget visual entertainment of present day.
Now don’t get me wrong, I do think a lot of modern-day movies are often better enjoyed in a top-notch, surround-sound theater. But if you are looking for an experience in a place with history, you should scope out the schedules for these old-school theaters below.
And if you want these historic, pre-1950 places to stick around, you know what to do — actually go and watch movies. Oh, and buy popcorn. It’s always better than the big multiplexes.
4 Star Theatre
CinéArts at the Empire
New Mission Theater (currently under construction)
3630 Balboa St in the Outer Richmond | Opened in 1926
Built by Samuel H. Levin, this theater first opened on February 7th, 1926 and was originally a single-screen theater; in 1978, it was renovated to become a mini-multiplex with two screens. The building was designed by James and Merritt Reid
, the same architects who designed the Cliff House, Fairmount Hotel, and the Spreckels Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park.
The Levin family operated the theatre until 2001, when they asked Gary Meyer (co-founder of Landmark Theatres) to take over.
Today, the theatre screens a mix of old films titled Balboa Classics, various themed series, and both first-run and second-run films. As far as size goes, the theatre is quite small: Auditorium 1 seats 307 and Auditorium 2 seats 226.
In 2007, the projectionist Jim Cassedy found a program from 1928 (pictured below) in the ceiling of the theater — it features all silent movies.
Check out what’s playing now here
Sources: Cinema Treasures, Balboa Theatre
2200 Clement St in the Outer Richmond | Opened in 1913
Opened in about 1913 under the name La Bonita Theatre, it remained under that moniker until 1927 when it changed to simply Star.
It wasn’t until 1946 (or perhaps 1947, records have conflicting information) that it was deemed 4 Star Theatre, which implied “an improvement in programming and an overdue cleanup of what had become a pretty rundown venue,” according to the Western Neighborhoods Project
Threatened with many closures in the past, the theatre faced what seemed to be a permanent closure in 1990 — luckily, a purchase by Frank Lee (of Lee Neighborhood Theatres) in 1992 gave it another chance at life. The theatre still continues to struggle to stay open.
The small and narrow theatre shows a mix of offbeat independent films, Hong Kong movies, and extended runs of popular modern-day films, as well as a multitude of double features.
Check out what’s playing now here.
Source: The Western Neighborhoods Project, Cinema Treasures
85 West Portal Avenue in West Portal | Opened in 1925
Officially opened as the Portal Theatre on December 26th, 1925, it was renamed Empire on October 1st, 1936 — today, this theater is now under the domain of Cinemark.
The architecture was designed by Garren and Morrow (Morrow was the consulting architect for the Golden Gate Bridge), and used to look much more Mediterranean than it does today; many of the details have been removed throughout the years.
While it is small, it supports 3D movies and screens both first-run blockbusters as well as indie and less popular movies. It houses three screens, seating 295, 158, and 152 people, respectively.
Check out what’s playing now here.
Sources: SF History Encyclopedia, Cinema Treasures, The Western Neighborhoods Project
3290 Sacramento St in Pacific Heights/Presidio Heights | Opened in 1910
According to property records, the Vogue Theatre is the second oldest operating cinema in San Francisco — it opened in 1910 as the Elite Theatre, was briefly renamed the Rex Theatre in 1919, the Plaza in 1927, and finally settled on the current nomenclature in 1939.
The San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation notes that the theater is known as the city’s “most popular venue for Woody Allen Films,” as well as for screening The Gods Must Be Crazy
for 70 weeks in 1984-1985.
Seating an audience of 240, the theater today offers daily first-run movies as well as special events. Check out what’s playing now here.
Sources: Vogue Theatre, Cinema Treasures, SFNTF, San Francisco Theaters, Cinemas, Dancehalls, after 1906
2340 Chestnut St in Marina/Cow Hollow | Opened in 1937
First named El Presidio Theatre, this spot opened on July 1st, 1937 as a last-run movie house — they dropped the Spanish definite article in 1953 in favor of simply Presidio. After a brief stint of screening pornos, the theatre switched to a first-run movie house in the 90s.
The theatre closed briefly in 2003 for remodeling, in which the previous single screen theatre was renovated into the four screener it is today. According to Cinema Tour, the theatre was transformed by “creating two 100-seat auditoriums in the former balcony and adding a small screening room to the side.” The original screen remains in the former orchestra seating section, and the theatre now has a seating capacity of 828.
Today the theater is owned by Lee Neighborhood Theatres, a company that also owns Four Star Theatre and Marina Theatre; it screens a mix of first-run blockbusters and smaller, independent films and documentaries.
Check out what’s currently playing here.
Sources: San Francisco Theaters, Cinemas, Dancehalls, after 1906, Cinema Tour, Cinema Treasures
2141 Chestnut St in Marina/Cow Hollow | Opened in 1928
The Marina Theatre opened on September 21st, 1928 as a second-run movie house — in the late 50s/early 60s it was renamed Cinema 21 and showcased first-run films, including exclusive runs of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf
and Rosemary’s Baby
The theatre closed almost exactly 73 years after its opening on September 20th, 2001 due to the competition from multiplexes; however, it reopened on May 2nd, 2008 after being bought by the Lee Family. Today, the ground floor is a pharmacy and the former balcony level is divided into a 254 seat auditorium and a 88 seat screening room.
Built on the grounds of the Panama International Exhibition, the architecture was initially of elegant Moorish design (unfortunately I cannot locate a photograph), but then, according to Cinema Treasures, it was remodeled in February 1952 to “the plans of architect Vincent G. Raney, with little of the original design remaining on the exterior or interior.”
A not-so-attractive marquee is present today, which hardly alerts a passerby that the theatre has been around since 1928.
As mentioned previously, the Marina Theatre is owned by Lee Neighborhood Theatres, a company that also owns Four Star Theatre and Presidio Theatre. It currently screens lesser known films, which you can see here
Sources: Cinema Treasures, SFNTF
429 Castro St in the Castro | Opened in 1922
Perhaps the most famous of old theaters in San Francisco, the Castro opened on June 22, 1922 by the Nasser Brothers.
From 1922 to 1976, the theatre screened first and second run films — but in 1976, the theatre was leased to Surf Theatres and then later to Blumenfeld Theatres, airing repertory cinema, foreign films, film festivals and special presentations.
In 1977, the theatre was named a City of San Francisco Designated Landmark, meaning that the city has special protection of the theatre from alterations.
Designed by architect Timothy L. Pflueger, the building was modeled after a Spanish cathedral. The decor of this stunning theater is “decorated in the Spanish Renaissance style, with Moorish Tent, Oriental Zodiac, and Art Deco touches throughout,” according to Cinema Treasures
. The lavish interior wall murals were created from a rare wet plaster process called scrafitto.
According to the Castro Theatre, the “glazed tile street foyer, ornate tent-like box office, and the wooden doors” are all from the early 1920s, while the iconic marquee and vertical neon sign were added in the late 1930s.
The tradition of a pre-show organ player still remains — however, the original old Conn organ was replaced by a Wurlitzer in 1982. David Hegarty has been the organist since 1978.
Today, you can expect a roster of current films, independents, old classics, film festivals and special screening events at the 1,400-seat theater.
Sources: Cinema Treasures, Castro Theatre
2261 Fillmore St in Pacific Heights | Opened in 1910
As one of the oldest movie houses in the city, Clay Theatre was built in 1910 and has been owned by Landmark Theatres since 1991. Initially called the Clay, it was rebranded in 1935 by Herbert Rosener as The Clay International — at that time, it exclusively screened foreign films.
In the 70s, the ownership shifted over to Surf Theatres (who were also leasing the Castro), and in 1972 the Clay was home to the first midnight movie in San Francisco — a premiere of John Water’s controversial Pink Flamingos
The style of the building, like most old-school movie houses, is a blend of art deco and Greek decor.
After facing a closure in August 2010, the Clay had another chance at life thanks to the support of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation.
Currently, the Clay hosts special events, screens smaller independent films and foreign flicks, screens the of Rocky Horror Picture Show
monthly, and maintains a Midnight Madness series that screens classics at — you guessed it — midnight. Check out what’s playing now here
Sources: Cinema Treasures, Landmark Theatres
3117 16th Street in the Mission | Opened in 1909
The 280-seat Roxie is San Francisco’s oldest continually operating movie theater and the second oldest in the world. Throughout its 106 years, it has held a myriad of different names. Ready for them?
It first opened in 1909 under the name C. H. Brown Theater, and then shortly after that, from 1912-1916, it was known as the The Poppy Theater and operated by local jeweler and watchmaker Philip H. Doll. Then it was The New 16th Street from 1916-1920, The Rex from 1920-1926, The Gem from 1926-1930, The Gaiety from 1930-1933, and The Roxie from 1933 until today.
The name Roxie was allegedly a “rip-off of the palatial Roxy Theater in New York City, which had opened in 1927,” according to the theater. The facade is also unique due to the lack of a marquee displaying titles of the films currently playing.
In the 30s, the movie house never listed its programs in the newspapers, as it was chiefly a neighborhood house with locals dropping by in person.
By the 30s and 40s, the theater screened second and third runs of Hollywood films, and in the late 50s and early 60s it screened German-language films. Shifting neighborhoods and the popularity of television resulted in the theatre showing pornographic movies from 1968 up until 1975 — then, in a interesting turn of events, a Russian-American group took over the theater and exclusively screened Russian movies for a few months.
After a takeover by Robert Evans, filmmaker Dick Gaikowski, and others in 1976, the Roxie secured its spot in San Francisco’s cinema scene and premiered movies like Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, Lynch’s Eraserhead, and many more.
The Roxie saw tumultuous times in the early to mid 2000s. Faced with massive debt and trouble with the IRS
, the theater was sold to San Francisco’s New College of California in 2005, but then New College went out of business in 2008
. A board member Rod Holt and his son Alan took over the lease and filed for a 501(c)3 non-profit status, allowing the theater to now operate as a not-for-profit organization.
Today, the theater operates with daily film screenings, festivals, series, special events, co-presentations and educational programs — its proclaimed mission is to “showcase the coolest/weirdest/most-thought provoking films of the past, present and future.” You can see what is currently playing here
Sources: Roxie Theater, The San Francisco Chronicle 
2550 Mission Street in the Mission | Opened in 1916
The massive, 2000-seat theater first opened on May 14th, 1916 and was designed by the Reid Brothers; later renovations by Timothy Pflueger in 1932 turned it into full-blown art deco style.
The long-time closed (since May 4th, 1993, to be exact) New Mission Theater is getting a breath of life thanks to the purchase by Alamo Drafthouse. For those unfamiliar, Alamo is a cinema chain that started in Austin, TX, and is known for their strict enforcement of film-viewing etiquette; rules include no children under six and absolutely no talking or texting. Oh, and they are known for their love of beer. It’s called Alamo Drafthouse
for a reason — they serve over 30 craft beers and microbrews on tap at every theater. That’s not all — they also have a full, multi-course menu to accompany the movie.
Here’s the story: Mission District businessman Gus Murad rescued the theater from demolition in 2003 by purchasing it from San Francisco City College. His plans were to turn the structure into a live-entertainment venue, as well as build condos next door where the Giant Value store was (which is now condos). However, the 2008 financial crisis halted his plans, allowing Alamo a chance at the theater.
Alamo Drafthouse is paying great attention to detail with their expensive refurbishment — they posted to Facebook the following photo with this sentiment: “We were able to find an old remnant of the original carpet from the New Mission lobby (seen here) and are replicating it now. Still a little dusty in there for the carpet installers to begin though…”
You can see a ton of photos of the refurbishment process here on Facebook
. Stay tuned on the official opening date on Alamo’s website
, supposedly happening very soon.
Sources: Cinema Tour, Alamo Drafthouse, Wall Street Journal, Cinema Treasures
Currently Closed or Re-purposed, But Not Demolished:
— Alexandria Theatre: sold in 2014. Proposed plans include a small theater with commercial spaces in the main building, as well as apartment buildings on the back lock. TBD.
— Alhambra Theatre: converted into a Crunch Fitness gym, but the facade and a lot of the interior has been preserved.
— Harding Theater: currently closed and up for sale, but not without efforts from Save the Harding Theater. Rumors say it might become an arcade bar.
— Metro Theater: now remodeled as an Equinox gym, with original facade and parts of the interior preserved.
— Coliseum Theater: inside completely gutted, now a Walgreens with living space above.
— Midtown Theatre: heavily remodeled to become condos (called The Theatre Lofts), but original building is somewhat intact.
— Surf Theatre: heavily remodeled and is now part of the SF Grace Christian Church; the original facade of the once adjoining Cine Cafe remains, except now it is the Ming-Hai Wu School of Ballet.
— Parkside Theatre: original facade and marquee removed, but original building remains.
— El Capitan Theatre: now a public parking lot, the decorative facade and marquee still remain.
— Tower Theater: original building is closed and extremely dilapidated, and it remains up for sale.
— Grand Theater: the company Gray Area purchased a 10-year lease to create an art and technology think-tank, preserving the theater’s facade.
— Cine Latino: currently the entire facade is stripped down to the bare bones.
— Roosevelt / York Theatre: closed in 1993 but reopened in 2001 as the Brava Theater Center, operates primarily as a performing arts center.
— Excelsior / Granada Theatre: some of the original facade remains, but it is now a Goodwill.
— Avenue Theatre: currently closed and extremely dilapidated.
Any information you have about these theaters that you think could contribute to this post is welcome! Post your anecdotes in the comments or send an email firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Featured Image: titanium22 via Flickr]