The El Rey Theatre to come back as a movie palace for a night

Ad for the El Rey Theater in November 1931 in the "San Francisco News"

The El Rey Theatre, the former movie palace that still towers over Ocean Avenue and parts of Ingleside Terraces, is turning 80 next month. To celebrate the anniversary, the Voice of Pentecost, which bought the building in 1977, is hosting a fund-raiser, and the organizers will be showing the same film that was featured during the Moderne theatre’s gala opening on November 14, 1931. This time, the movie, “The Smiling Lieutenant,” starring Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert, will be shown in a digital format on a large screen on the stage.

It should be a fun night. The organizers include the Ingleside Light newspaper and the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse project. The proceeds from ticket sales, which cost $25 each, are going to benefit the Geneva Car Barn project. The evening begins at 7 pm, with a talk given by architect Joshua Aidlin, whose firm Aidlin Darling Design has prepared plans to restore the Geneva Car Barn and Powerhouse, a non-profit youth arts project. The goal is to turn the 1901 building that powered and housed electric street cars into an exhibition and events hall, with classrooms, an auditorium, kitchen and cafe by 2014.

A brief description of the architecture of the theatre, which was one of the last movie palaces designed by architect Timothy Pflueger, will be discussed by yours truly, with a few photos to compare and contrast the El Rey Theatre with other theatres designed by Pflueger at the same time: the Paramount Theatre in Oakland and the Alameda. One unusual feature of the El Rey is its massive stepped tower, which still stands today at 146-feet high. Once glowing with red and green neon tubing, the tower gave the theatre a skyscraper-like appearance that can still be seen from various spots in Ingleside Terraces. As you can see from this old 1931 ad promoting the opening, when the theatre was complete it had a beacon at the top, which was used to warn airplanes of the tower in the fog. The beacon also seems to have served as a built-in klieg light for the surrounding neighborhoods West of Twin Peaks.The El Rey’s big birthday party will be celebrated at the theatre at 1970 Ocean Avenue on Saturday, November 19 from 7 pm til 10 pm, with food, wine and live music. For more info, email info@elrey80th.com or call 415-215-4246.

Don’t miss this rare chance to see a film in the old movie palace again. “The Smiling Lieutenant” was also nominated for Best Production, the early Academy Awards equivalent of Best Film, in 1931.   In addition, authors and theatre experts Jack Tillmany and Gary Lee Parks will be joining me in selling our theatre-related books at special discounts to attendees (Tillmany has written Theatres of San Francisco and Theatres of Oakland, and Parks has written Theatres of San Jose).  A new book that they co-authored,  Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula, recently published by Arcadia with many photos from Tillmany’s collection, will also be available.  All of these theatre books, and my Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger, make excellent holiday gifts.

Sun dial in Ingleside Terraces, with the El Rey tower seen beyond the trees.
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El Rey Theatre blueprints show what’s missing

Drawing of plaster ornament on El Rey's auditorium sidewalls

Architectural historians are like detectives, sleuthing to figure out what happened at the scene of a crime. They use old photos, blueprints, layers of paint and other materials beneath the surface of remodeled historic buildings, looking for clues of the original architect’s intent.

They also try and determine what travesties occurred in the name of modernization.

So a recent discovery of some blueprints of the old El Rey Theatre, at 1970 Ocean Avenue, offers some clues of what elements might have been left out, or what may be missing from the former theatre, now the home of the Voice of Pentecost Church.

The theatre, by architect Timothy Pflueger, was one of three movie palaces designed by the firm in the early 1930s. Miller & Pflueger first worked on the Paramount Theatre for Paramount Publix, which opened in December, 1931, a month after the El Rey, designed for Samuel Levin and San Francisco Theatres Inc. The Alameda was designed for the Nasser Brothers in 1932. The three theatres were the most Moderne of Pflueger’s theatres designed from the ground up.

El Rey blueprints planned for more detailed sidewalls
The blueprints of the original El Rey show that Pflueger intended a series of masks in cast plaster to adorn the sidewalls of the auditorium, amid a series of plain neo-classic columns.

From the photos of the theatre’s interior today, it appears that Levin, the owner, might have decided on a less exotic look, sans masks, for the auditorium. But another possibility exists. Perhaps some of the missing ornament was removed when the theatre was closed or sold, a frequent occurrence. Stunning light fixtures were said to once grace the lobby. Murals, including one depicting  modes of transportation, adorned the mezzanine, now an office, and were painted over by new owners.

From news stories in November, 1931 when the theatre opened, the El Rey was described with “rich decorative details” a place where movie goers could escape their economic woes. A “gallery of mirrors” adorned the lobby.

This is what the auditorium sidewalls look like today. The shape of the original plaster face is the same, yet instead it has a floral pattern and fan instead of the above human visage:

El Rey auditorium sidewalls today (c) Tom Paiva Photography

While we many never know if any of the faces or masks made it onto the sidewalls of the El Rey, Pflueger returned to the idea a few years later, in his detailed Lucite ceiling for the Patent Leather Lounge in the St. Francis Hotel, completed in 1939 and ripped out in the 1950s. (the bar was located in what is now the spot for Michael Minna’s restaurant). Two of the masks saved from the original ceiling can today be seen, painted gold and framed in the bar of the Tia Margarita restaurant on 19th Avenue and Clement Street.

This bit of ornament can still be found in the remodeled El Rey interior, based on these pictures taken by Tom Paiva for our book, Art Deco San Francisco. This is a drawing from a blueprint, followed by a photo from 2007 of the auditorium’s interior.

Detailed drawing of plaster ornament of El Rey Theatre
El Rey Theatre mezzanine ornament (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Another interesting revelation from the blueprints is a set of drawings of the tower and chimney. The top of the tower, which still stands today, was originally highlighted by red and green neon. The glowing tower beckoned evening crowds to the theatre in the frequent fog of the neighborhood.

Blueprints for the El Rey’s tower indicate Pflueger intended a big swirling letter “R,” made of neon, at the structure’s bottom.

But from an exterior photo of the theatre in 1931, it appears that this extra neon remained on the drawing board of Miller & Pflueger’s offices. The cost for additional tubing required for the curving “R” was perhaps seen as unnecessary. Instead, a photo in the San Francisco Chronicle at the time of its opening, shows the tower with simple block letters spelling out EL REY, possibly outlined in neon.

El Rey theatre blueprint of neon and chimney

News stories at the time mostly focused on the “flaming beacon” at the top of the tower, also used as an airplane beacon for planes flying into the airport, known as Mills Field at the time. So it does not look as if the signature “R” made it into the finished tower.

The disappearing sky room

News of the impending closure of the Carnelian Room, the city’s highest sky room atop the Bank of America building, has saddened many San Franciscans and visitors alike.

GG Bridge view from Carnelian Room
View from the Carnelian Room

From its perch in the middle of the Financial District, the restaurant is known as a place to celebrate special occasions and for schmoozing VIP business colleagues. The 52nd floor restaurant is better known for its spectacular views of the city from the main dining room and various salons with names like Tamalpais and Coit, than for its cuisine.

Bank of America Center
Bank of America Center

It’s not clear yet what the future holds for the Carnelian Room, but sadly, the era of sophisticated cocktails and dining as city lights sparkle beyond increasingly seems like a vestige of the past.

With the building’s current owners, which include real estate magnate Donald Trump, anything is possible. The Carnelian Room’s last hurrah is on January 1, 2010. After that,  its East Coast-based owners will determine its fate.

Trump became the minority stake owner in the BofA building when it was sold in 2007. After San Francisco-based Bank of America merged with NationsBank of Charlotte, N.C., its iconic headquarters building was eventually sold. In 2007, the BofA building, officially known as 555 California, was sold to the Vornado Realty Trust, which owns a 70% stake, and Donald Trump, who owns the remaining 30%.

Carnelian Menu
Drinks at sunset

A spokeswoman in New York for Vornado of Paramus, N.J. said the owners of 555 California are looking at all their options.

But if the fate of the Carnelian Room mirrors that of other sky rooms, the future is not promising. This past summer, the most famous of sky rooms, New York’s Rainbow Room, which opened in 1934, closed, citing the economy and other issues. A new operator has not yet been named. When it was restored and reconstructed in 1987, Paul Goldberger in the New York Times  called the revamped Rainbow Room “one of the finest evocations of the 1930’s yet created.”

Those in the hotel business in San Francisco are anything but surprised by the recent trend. In the last 10 years, the tough economics of running these sky-high rooms has taken its toll. There are now far fewer bars where we can enjoy the city’s stunning views.

Pyramid from Carnelian Room2
Another stunning view from the Carnelian Room

“It’s money driven,” said Howard Mutz, conference services manager at the venerable Palace Hotel, celebrating its 100th birthday this year. “Costs are so high and labor is so high.” Mutz said it is easier to run these ethereal spaces as special banquet rooms, rather than have the fixed cost of being open on a nightly basis, especially during tough economic times.

Sky room closures

Over the last 10 years, San Francisco has lost several sky bars. The St. Francis Hotel, where Mutz used to work and was also the hotel’s historian, was ahead of the trend. It closed Victor’s, a fine dining restaurant atop the St. Francis Tower in 1995. It then closed the bar and disco, called Oz, in 1997.  Now those rooms are used for private functions and corporate parties.

“It’s what a lot of hotels have done,” Mutz said. Other closures in recent years include the Equinox Room at the Hyatt Regency, and its revolving bar. It is now a private key access Regency Club. Some of the best guest rooms are now also on this top floor.

Last year, the Hilton on O’Farrell closed its Cityscape Bar and Restaurant, with its 14-foot high windows, which had been open since 1986. Before that, it was Henri’s at the Top, with bird cages and go-go girl dancers.  The Fairmont Hotel closed its Crown Room as a bar and restaurant about 10 years ago. It can now be reserved for private parties and is open to the public on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.

“Dining with a view is a dying thing,” said Al Mak, who works at the Fairmont.

Three sky bars left in Baghdad by the Bay

When the Carnelian Room closes, there will be three bars with a view left: The Top of the Mark, designed by architect Timothy Pflueger, at the Mark Hopkins Hotel;  Harry Denton’s Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake;  and The View bar at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, known locally as the Jukebox. The Top of the Mark, at the crest of Nob Hill, seems to have the best unfettered view, but it’s worth a revisit.

Top of the Mark small view
Top of the Mark, circa 1939, Mark Hopkins Hotel

While the Top of the Mark has changed from this early photo, the bar is a San Francisco institution. One hopes it will remain the granddaddy of the city’s sky bars, even though it was not the first.

During World War II, it was a tradition for those in the military passing through the city to stop at the Top of the Mark. In the 1940’s, Life did a photo spread of service men in uniform with their sweethearts, lined up in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins, for a teary farewell at the top. Soldiers bought a bottle at the bar and left it with the bartender for others in their company or squadron. Whoever finished the last sip, bought a new bottle.

San Francisco’s first sky room

The first sky room in the city was at the top of what was then called the Empire Hotel on McAllister Street. The hotel, initially called the William Taylor Hotel, was commissioned by the Temple Methodist Episcopal Church, who first hired Pflueger to design the odd combination of a church on the ground floor of the stepped skyscraper, and a hotel.

William Taylor Hotel, 1930
William Taylor Hotel, 1930

The William Taylor Hotel opened in 1930, and its design was credited to architect Lewis Hobart, after Pflueger was fired in a dispute. The hotel then suffered during the Great Depression. It re-opened as the Empire Hotel, and in 1938, the hotel turned the 24th floor into a swank cocktail lounge, called the Sky Room. Architect & Engineer said in its April, 1938 issue that the Sky Room “has no prototype west of New York.”  The skyscraper, the most prominent building in the Tenderloin, is now owned by U.C. Hastings College of the Law, for student housing.

The Top of the Mark opened just a year later, and soon eclipsed the Sky Room in popularity. More details about the creation of the bar, from its origins as a penthouse apartment at the Mark Hopkins leased by copper baron Daniel Jackling, can be found in my book, Art Deco San Francisco.

All this nostalgia makes me think it’s time for some visits to the city’s remaining sky rooms, to see where the best views (and beverages!) can be found. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote in 1939 after the Top of the Mark opened: “Crazy ambition, to drag all the mildly-stewed characters away from the bar in the middle of the Top o’ the Mark, haul them to the windows and make them look at the most magnificent view in the country.”

Sounds like a good idea to me.