Neighborhood Movie Theaters of San Francisco (Part 2)

Senior Architect David Tritt shares his impressions and recollections of “going to the movies” in San Francisco in Part 2 of Neighborhood Movie Theaters of San Francisco

Neighborhood Movie Theaters of San Francisco (Part 1) left off with my fond memories of the Coronet Theater. My second favorite theater after the Coronet is the 1967 Northpoint Theater that featured an interior screen and wall to wall and floor to ceiling drapery. Now a Goodwill Store, the Northpoint is where George Lucas premiered Star Wars on May 1, 1977 for invited guests and staff. Lucas believed the Northpoint had the best screen and sound of any theater in California.

Northpoint Theater, present day

While I unable to find any interior photos of the Northpoint, below is the invitation to the Star Wars preview screening. I miss the Northpoint for its unreal sound and plain jane simplicity of the interior floor to ceiling drapery unfolding to reveal the biggest screen in San Francisco.

May 1, 1977 Star Wars preview screening (shared by Brian Martin)

Like how Star Wars was shown at the Coronet, Gary Meyer recounted a similar story about booking the film American Graffiti in 1973. Universal thought it was absurd when he told them it should be booked everywhere, so in the end, it was only booked at the Northpoint Theater.

Along with the 1923 Alexandria mentioned in Part 1, the Reid Brothers Architects also designed the Royal Theater on Polk Street in 1916.  It was later remodeled by Timothy Pflueger in the 1930s. In 2003, the Royal Theater, where I saw Pulp Fiction, was demolished and replaced by a six-story housing project.

Royal Theater, 1916 (left) and 2003 (right) 

The Clay Theater on upper Fillmore was a favorite for viewing independent films and located within walking distance of my previous neighborhood. The theater has since closed its doors; the building itself still exists but has been sitting dormant for several years now.

Designed in 1913 by Rosseau Architects, it was called the Regent Theater up until 1920. During the days that I patroned the theater, it was the oldest continuous use movie theater in San Francisco, or at least it relied heavily on that reputation. Below are a few photos of the Clay in its glory days over 20 years ago.

Clay Theater, 1975

Another vacant theater is the El Rey on Ocean Avenue and was designed by, again, Timothy Pflueger in 1931.  It was operational as a movie theater up until 1977 when it was purchased by the Pentecostal Church and used as a church until 2016. The well-known theater was also the site of the original Gap store in 1969,when the front street portion was used as a mixed-use facility. There have been moves to place it on the National Register of Historic Places. The interior has been splendidly restored.

El Rey street façade (left) and restored interior (right)

Two other Reid Brothers designed movie theaters (in addition to the 1923 Alexandria and the 1916 Royal) are the Metro on Union Street and the Balboa near 38th Avenue on Balboa Street. The Metro was originally the Metropolitan and built in 1924.

Metropolitan, 1924

However, its image was modernized in the 1930s by Timothy Pflueger. This remodeled interior and exterior is how I remember it and remained until 1998 when it was converted into a fitness club called Equinox.

Union Street Metro interior (left) and 2014 (right) 
Equinox group exercise room with the original 1924 Reid Brothers columns

The Balboa on the other hand remains a movie house but after a fire in 1978, the theater was twinned, reopening on April 21, 1978. Below is the original Reid Brothers 1926 rendering of the theater.

Balboa Theater, 1926 (left) and 2010 (right)

There was some minor controversy concerning a mural painted on the back of the theater in 1981. The mural was on the west façade, which in the rendering above is the left-hand facing façade. It has since been painted over.

The mural that was painted on the back of the Balboa Theater in 1980 or 1981 by David Warren and others

The last of the neighborhood movie theaters I have attended over the years in San Francisco is the Marina Theater on Chestnut Street. It was originally designed in 1928 in a Moorish motif as seen in the rendering below by architects O’Brien Brothers/Jack Tillmany collection.

Marina Theater, 1928 (left) and current day (right) 

The theater was further renovated in 1952 by Vince Tainey Architects, and again in 1965 by Cinema 21 as seen in this 2002 photo below by John Rice. The first floor now is a Walgreens with a new entrance on the left side, and a second street entrance at the right side to a second level multiplex of small movie theaters.

Cinema 21 (left) and Walgreens (right) 
Metro Theater original front elevation (left) and building sections (right) 

Sadly there are only a few movie theaters left in my life in San Francisco or that remain in conditions that add value architecturally to the quality of city life. Understandably movie theater businesses cannot survive, so adaptive reuse is a viable option. Still, I can’t help but I feel some nostalgia as I look back on how they have changed. I use streaming services at home now and have admittedly not been to a neighborhood theater since before the pandemic. As I reflect, I realize I am too the one who has changed.

Blog post written by David Tritt, Senior Architect.

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