Imagine walking into the Avenue Theater and settling in to watch Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance, Humphrey Bogart search for the Maltese Falcon, and Judy Garland and her dog journey from black and white Kansas to technicolor Oz.
That allure is what made grand movie houses like the Avenue Theater so popular, according to Katherine Petrin, an architectural historian and advocate for theater restoration in the Bay Area.
“In those days there were ushers that would take you to your seat; they were dressed in uniforms,” Petrin says. “They would have games and shows or before the movie started they would have raffles … you could go every week and get a different piece of china and collect a set of dishes.”
You could rely on a day of entertainment, including the latest newsreels, cartoons, and comedy. The entry fee? About 25 cents.
“The idea was to suspend your imagination… walk through these doors.. and into these plaster palaces. You were meant to be transported to another space and time,” says Petrin.
“I was probably going there in the early 50’s and it was a hub of the neighborhood,” says Paul Giannini, the retired owner of a neighborhood auto repair shop. He’s lived in the Portola for more than 65 years.
But those magical movie days have been over for years now. The Avenue Theater closed in the mid 1980’s. Trash and old leaflets are gathered at the front door. The facade looks worn out. The marquee is falling apart. And it looks like the pigeons have had their way with the building.
Plans are underway to revitalize this space and make it an anchor in the Portola neighborhood once again. That’s going to take a bunch of money.
“When you look at an asset like that – a cultural neighborhood asset – you know that an investment in a space like that means something,” says Joaquin Torres. He works with the city of San Francisco’s Economic workforce and redevelopment agency with a program called the “Invest in Neighborhoods” initiative. They are hoping to make some improvements.
“One of them is repainting it,” Torres says. “Adding neon so you can see it from the the horizon. A place you should have on your mind as a place you can go to and support.”
About six months ago, Katherine Petrin, the theater restoration advocate, was invited to tour the inside of the Avenue Theater.
She says, “I was amazed to walk in. It felt like the 1920’s all over again. It is really elegant and beautiful. It accommodates about 800 people . . . a lot of the original features are still there.”
No matter how beautiful it is inside, the Avenue Theater won’t necessarily become a theater again. Many of San Francisco’s great movie houses have been transformed. The Alhambra Theater on Polk Street has been replaced by a Crunch Gym, although the historic interior remains intact. The Red Vic on Haight street is now an event space called “The Second Act,” which hosts several pop up restaurants. Times, neighborhoods, and needs change.
Back in the Portola, corner store worker Ray Gattis wants the theater to return to its original purpose. “Bring it back to a theater of some sort,” he says. “Live shows, comedy, movies, anything just to bring people down to San Bruno Avenue.”
Retired car repairman Paul Gianinni thinks they could split the difference and make it a mix-use building. “They could do movies, it could be a jazz club, it could host events of any kind. It is a phenomenal piece of real estate that is waiting to be developed.”
Luke Spray with the Portola Neighborhood Association has heard a variety of viewpoints from residents and merchants. “Maybe a restaurant component, or do a little bit of theater and have a community art space, and maybe have lectures as well as showing movies on certain nights.”
Some movie palaces like the Avenue Theater are still around in San Francisco: The Castro, The Balboa. And the recently revived New Mission theater, which is now called the Alamo Drafthouse.
Historian Katherine Petrin calls those theatres “Unlikely survivors,"
"We are really lucky to have the quantity that we have in SF, so I would urge people to keep going to your neighborhood theaters and keep the doors open,” she says,
In San Francisco’s heyday, there were about 100 of these grand movie houses. Most have been demolished to make way for new businesses. But more than 20 remain. Some may be vacant or blighted but, like the Avenue Theater, there's the possibility of a renewed purpose for these buildings, instead of just tearing them down.