Archive for the ‘movie palaces’ Category

High hopes for New Mission Theatre plans

March 4, 2012

New Mission Theatre, courtesy Jack Tillmany, circa 1943

Local theatre buffs and preservationists have high hopes for a new project to save the New Mission Theatre, which has been empty and languishing for over a decade.

In mid-February, a Texas group called the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema , and Toby Morris of Kerman Morris Architects, made a presentation at the city’s architectural review committee for the complete restoration and rehabilitation of the old theatre. The plans would restore the space to again show movies, but Alamo wants to convert the New Mission into five “boutique” theatres, a concept that has in the past raised the hackles of many theatre buffs.

Alamo Drafthouse also plans to serve higher-margin food and beer. The company is apparently an institution in Austin, where it serves snacks, food and beer to patrons, and is well known for vehemently enforcing its no texting, no talking policy. The only similar concept locally is the Kabuki Sundance Cinema, where patrons can buy beer and wine and food.

An executive from Alamo Drafthouse and architect Morris were saying all the right things at the city’s meeting. “We are movie fans for movie fans,” said Tim Reed, Alamo’s senior vice president of real estate. “And when you see a gem like the [New] Mission and the ability to go in and bring it back to its heyday and the quality of what it is, it’s very, very exciting. We think what we are going to present to you today is going to be something we can all embrace,” Reed said.

Tortured History

The New Mission is indeed a diamond hidden behind the rough, but it has also had a tortured past. It started out as a nickelodeon called the Idle Hour. In 1915, the owners hired local architects the Reid Brothers, to design a large auditorium and a new lobby, with seats for over 1,700 and a pipe organ that cost $26,000, a massive sum at the time. The theatre opened in 1916 and would become one of many theatres that brothers James and Merritt Reid designed, in addition to their major buildings at the turn of the century, such as the Spreckels Building and the Fairmont Hotel.

In 1932, the theatre’s owners the Nasser Brothers, who also owned the Castro and the Alhambra theatres, hired architect Tim Pflueger to modernize the New Mission, which the Reid Brothers had done in a mostly neo-classical vocabulary. Pflueger added Moderne touches to the main lobby, including some murals in silver leaf, but he mostly left the Reid Brothers auditorium alone. The most pronounced addition by Pflueger is the striking 70-foot high neon vertical, which remains today, albeit in disrepair, and a swank staircase in the main lobby (see photo below).

Pflueger's remodel of the New Mission Theatre, courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Pflueger's remodel of the New Mission Theatre, courtesy Jack Tillmany and the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

In 1993, the theatre was shuttered and in 1998, it was purchased by City College of San Francisco, with the intent to build a new campus in the Mission District. But the only token of the theatre that City College wanted to save in its plans was the striking vertical blade. It planned to tear down the theatre, and a preservation battle ensued, one that got nearly as heated as the unsuccessful fight in the 1970s to save the City of Paris department store from the wrecking ball by Neiman Marcus.

This time around, however, preservationists prevailed. In 2001, the theatre was named to the National Register of Historic Places. Instead of working on an adaptive reuse plan with preservationists, the college decided to sell the building and in 2003, sold it to Gus Murad, the owner of the hip rooftop bar, Medjool, in the Mission. Murad planned to turn the theatre into a performance art space, but his project also included expanding and turning the Giant Value store next door into condominiums. After both of these projects hit too many brick walls with the city, Murad is fed up with San Francisco, and reportedly, has put Medjool up for sale.

The Mission Blog reported that Murad is in contract to sell the New Mission to Alamo Drafthouse, but the company is not commenting beyond a blog post by its founder and CEO Tim League and its committee comments. League posted some photos of the theatre which showed its current delapidated condition, but also showed some of its still-extant architectural features.

Reid Brothers auditorium today, photo by Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse

Reid Brothers auditorium of the New Mission Theatre, photo by Tim League, CEO of Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

It’s not clear how much the major project, which includes a seismic retrofit, will cost.

Morris told the architectural review committee that probably the most signficant aspect of the project is a concept of a “floating balcony,” by extending the lower balcony 15 feet toward the screen. This “floating balcony” is where auditoriums 2, 3 and 4 will be located. “We are going to hold the ceiling of the theatre off of the existing historic ceiling to preserve the interior volume and spatial relationships and to enable visibility of the historic ceiling,” Morris said.

Auditorium 5 will be located on the upper balcony, and the domed ceiling will remain intact. A kitchen and new restrooms will be added on the ground floor.

The plans include keeping and restoring as many of the historic details as possible, such as the Reid Brothers’ ornate plaster work. Where features cannot be saved or restored, molds will be made to help the architects and builders recreate the work. Sadly, the Pflueger lobby, also described as the promenade lobby, was described as needing “reconstruction” because of water damage and brick walls which have to be reinforced. The lobby is the oldest part of the building, and the Reid Brothers auditorium is at least made of reinforced concrete. The goal is to save as many of the mural fragments as possible and display them in the Pflueger lobby, possibly in their original location.

Katherine Petrin, an architectural historian at Architectural Resources Group who is also on the board of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation, said the proposed project is “a rehabilitation that is very exciting.” “The San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation is in full support,” she said, adding that ARG is the historical consultant to Morris and had been working on various projects to restore the theatre for years.

As Morris noted in his presentation, “the devil is in the details,” and there may be some obstacles bedeviling this project. Theatre historian and author Jack Tillmany is not as sanguine about the prospects for the New Mission, nor for ACT”s plans to renovate the old Strand Theatre in the Mid-Market area.

“I believe a lot of people get emotional about saving old theaters without considering the economic and social reality of the times, particularly their locations,” Tillmany said. “The unwelcoming – to put it politely – surroundings and deterioration of business life along both Mission Street and Market Street are an often uncommented upon factor that had a lot to do with the demise of both these sites years ago, and, continue today with little sign of immediate or significant improvement.”

But, it would seem that the gritty location of the New Mission is a good fit for the Alamo Drafthouse, which started its first theatre in a warehouse district in Austin, Texas. League brings hope in his blog, noting that he was born in Berkeley, and that San Francisco is his favorite city in the world.  “We still have many permitting and planning hurdles ahead of us, so we don’t have even a target date to get this done,” League said.

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

October 31, 2011

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.

Castro Theatre gets a fab exterior makeover

March 17, 2010

The Castro Theatre, architect Timothy Pflueger’s first movie palace from 1922, is showing off a fabulous new exterior coat of paint.

Castro Theatre neon glows at night

Now highlighted are the Spanish Baroque details of the exterior. A repaired hidden spotlight, when lit, illuminates the shell motif above the centerpiece mullioned window.

Combined with the repairs in the late autumn of 2007 of the signature neon vertical, which was architect A.A. Cantin’s 1930s contribution,  the theatre is looking quite de-lovely. The vertical sign and the marquee were repaired and painted for Gus Van Sant’s Academy Award winning movie, “Milk,” in which Sean Penn won the Oscar for best actor his portrayal of one of America’s first openly gay politicians, Harvey Milk. Many scenes were filmed in the neighborhood. During the filming, there was a security guard stationed at night outside Milk’s former camera store, Castro Camera at 575 Castro, which was restored to 1970s retro perfection for the movie. You can read more about the filming in early 2008 here in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Freshly painted Castro Theatre by day

Here is a daytime look at the freshly painted theatre. Events producer and manager Bill Longen said the goal of the project was to stay as close to the theatre’s original colors as possible.

It’s quite a contrast to a few years ago. Churrigueresque details now stand out amid a darker and more pervasive beige.  A deep red brings out the neon vertical, marquee and shops.

The photo below shows the theatre in the summer of 2007 when Tom Paiva and I (I was the assistant!) were shooting photos for our book Art Deco San Francisco.

What a difference a paint job makes!

Castro Theatre, 2007, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

El Rey Theatre blueprints show what’s missing

February 26, 2010

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.

Next talk on Pflueger to be in a Pflueger

November 15, 2009
Alameda Vertical renovated

Renovated Alameda Theatre

This is a tad early for a save-the-date notice, but a special lecture is coming up next year. 

In January, I will be doing a talk on architect Timothy Pflueger for the Alameda Architectural Preservation Society. As a special treat, the lecture will take place inside the Pflueger-designed Alameda Theatre, resplendent since its $15.2 million restoration in the heart of downtown Alameda.

The lecture will cover Pflueger’s humble beginnings as a son of working class German immigrants to his rise as one of the city’s most prominent architects of the 1920s to the late 1940s.  Many of Tom Paiva’s gorgeous photos from our book Art Deco San Francisco will illustrate the evolution of Pflueger’s work — from his early training in the Beaux-Arts style to the exotic movie palaces such as the Paramount and Alameda, to more streamlined work of the Great Depression, to the first inkling of modernism in buildings like the Transbay Terminal.

Because of the special venue at the Alameda, which was dark as a movie theatre for nearly 30 years before its grand 2008 reopening, the slideshow presentation will include some discussion of the restoration project. The nearly $40 million project included building a new cineplex connected to the historic theatre, constructing a parking garage and the restoration of the 1932 theatre.

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Alameda interior

Alameda Architectural Preservation Society members are free. Non-members are welcome for $5.00, and books will be available at a discount.

Please come to the talk on Sunday, January 24 at 6:00 pm, especially if you have not yet been inside this incredible theatre, which can again be called a movie palace. 

If you can’t wait until then, there are plenty of first-run movies playing now. In addition, the Alameda Theatre is offering a classic film series in the historic theatre, starting off this week with “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Other films in the series include “The Bishop’s Wife” and the holiday  favorite, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”


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