Many early and mid-20th century San Francisco movie theaters have sadly not survived unlike larger performing arts venues and auditoriums. Their decline was not however caused by earthquakes, as was the fate of performing arts centers built pre-1906, but economics.
These are some of my impressions and recollections of “going to the movies” in San Francisco. I wrote a similar blog post a couple of years ago on the history and locations of minor league baseball parks in San Francisco. The difference is that those ballparks have completely disappeared, whereas only some of the 20th century movie theaters have closed; the rest have been transformed.
Much of my research for this blog post comes from the San Francisco Theatres website, including the images which can be credited to Bill Counter and Jack Tillmany.
In my own neighborhood, the Inner Sunset, the Irving/Sunset Theater at 830 Irving Street was built in 1913, a small silent movie house. Below is the original drawing (credit to Gary Goss) of the front architectural elevation (left), as well as a current day photo of the same building (credit to Gary Parks), which has been converted into a grocery store called the Irving Market (right). I have been a patron of the Irving Market for 20 years and had no idea it was one of the original movie theaters in San Francisco until now.
In 1935 the Irving Theater became the Weiss Market after a bigger Irving Theater up the street took away most of its business at 828 Irving Street.
In 1950 there was a grand opening of the 828 Market (below). Charles Haig whose family took over the market commented, “This was the opening day in March of 1950 of our family’s market at 828 Irving Street…My father Haig Kazarian told me that the store was at one time a movie theater. We ran it until 1965” (from the San Francisco Theatres website).
There are still remnants left of the original 1926 new Irving Theater mixed-use complex that was demolished in 1962, four blocks west of the original Irving Theater. The original proposal was a block long mixed-use structure at 9th Ave and Irving Street, as noted on architect Mark Jorganson’s aerial rendering below, but the theater was actually constructed at 14thAvenue, just west to where Andronico’s Super Market now exists.
The left photo below is a late 1920s view of the Irving Theater block, while the right photo is a present-day view from the same spot showing all that is left. The theater at the far end in the left photo was demolished and replaced with housing in 1962, as shown in the right photo.
The Irving Theater was certainly a magnificent movie theater and a significant addition to the neighborhood.
Before the Inner Sunset, I lived in a neighborhood close to the Alhambra Theater on Polk Street, a theater that architect Timothy Pflueger (one of my favorites) designed in the 1930s. He of course also designed the famous midrise 1930s PGE building on New Montgomery and the well-known Castro Theater on Castro Street.
While the Castro Theater is still showing movies and some live performances, the Alhambra Theater has been converted to the health club Crunch Fitness as seen below. I have seen many movies at the Alhambra (American Gigolo for instance) when it was the great neighborhood theater with a magnificent interior, within walking distance of my apartment at the time. Alhambra failed financially in the late 1980s or so, at least to my memory, and remained vacant for a while. It was a facility that the firm I was working for at the time looked at to convert into an architect's office. I remember looking at it and coming up with ideas that would suit us, but in the end, it did not meet our needs. The theater was taken on eventually by Crunch Fitness, who catered to the young pedestrian crowd in the neighborhood (yes, I was young when I remember it as a movie theater).
The exterior restoration is true to the original theater. Below is a side-by-side comparison of the original Alhambra Theater in 1926 (left) and its current restored condition (right).
While the interior has been remodeled to a health club and gym (right), it is still very reminiscent of the beautiful original theater and has kept its design.
Architect Timothy Pflueger also designed the still active neighborhood Castro Theater with a rich and ornamental interior.
The Alexandria Theater on Geary Blvd deserves a mention here, as it was a leading theater in San Francisco for first run features. In fact, Star Wars, which was not initially considered to be a first run motion picture by the distributor, would have opened there instead of the Coronet Theater (more on the Coronet to come) because the Coronet was considered a venue for second tier openings. At the time, the Coronet became known amongst those in the know as the place to see Star Wars in 70mm, one of only eight screens in the country to premiere the movie in that format. The movie that preempted Star Wars at the Alexandria was The Deep.
There are a couple memories that come to mind at the mention of the Coronet Theater having frequented it over the years. The first is on May 25, 1977 while traveling along Geary Blvd in a car with friends and saw the lines outside the theater with Star Wars on the marquee.
None of us had heard of Star Wars (maybe the cool one amongst us had), but apparently everyone else on the planet knew about it. The Coronet was only one of eight theaters in the country that was showing the Star Wars premiere in wide screen 70mm. It was Gary Meyer, the booking agent for Universal Pictures, who got Star Wars to the Coronet, a lucky break for the theater.
My other story is a short one; the Coronet is where my wife and I had our first date.
In 2005 the Coronet was sadly demolished to be replaced by a senior housing project. More to come in Part 2 of The Neighborhood Movie Theaters of San Francisco.
Blog post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.