A Bear and a Bull and a Restored Movie Palace
By Thomas Downs
I took a walk in the Mission District the other night, on my way to meet up with Al Barna and Randall Homan for a drink at the New Mission Theater. I hadn’t been in the neighborhood for several months, and with things going as they have been, a visit after so long often turns into an appraisal of recent changes – old shops and restaurants shuttered, buildings demolished, construction projects underway, discernible shifts in demographics, and so on. These clinical observations aside, the Mission remains one of the country’s most vital and interesting neighborhoods to just wander around in.
On the block between 21st and 22nd streets, I was quick to spot a major recent development – the New Mission Theater’s five-story neon sign, pointing skyward, freshly painted and sporting a new set of neon tubes that actually work. I knew the sign would be on, as that is partly why I was in the neighborhood, but it was nevertheless mildly astonishing to see it for myself. I had never before seen its neon tubes glowing.
When Star Wars the Force Awakens opened here last December, it was the first time a movie had shown at the New Mission since 1993. At the time of the theater’s demise, Mission Street had become a graveyard of old cinemas, their statuesque signs, now peeled and busted, looking like headstones placed directly on the spots where theaters had died or were dying. Across from the New Mission was the Cine Latino, one block south was the Grand, and a block north was the Tower Theater. All of these theaters closed in the late ’80s to the mid ’90s. For architectural preeminence on the strip, none outclassed the El Capitan, two blocks north of the New Mission. Its baroque façade is a city landmark, but the theater closed in 1957 and shortly after that it was gutted and turned into a parking garage. You can drive right in beneath the marquee.
I always saw these old theaters as the denouement of earlier times, the last warm embers of somebody else’s fire. I found them beautiful in a temporary sort of way, to be enjoyed while they lasted, knowing that unchecked deterioration gathers momentum, and that people who invest in real estate have little appreciation for arrested decay in the inner city. Sometimes preservationists intervene and make the old and crumbling sparkling and new again. But preservationists have to choose their battles, and in the 1990s, Mission Street was not yet a battleground.
In Al and Randall’s book, San Francisco Neon: Survivors and Lost Icons, there is a black and white photo of the Tower Theater’s sign and marquee, taken by Al in 1978. The photo is dark and atmospheric, with a figure in silhouette who appears to be hovering in front of the theater’s marquee; it is too dark to see the ladder or lift he must be using. The silhouette is obviously putting up lettering for Spanish language films that will screen in the theater in the days ahead, which alludes to a future that the Tower currently does not have. (“We lived in the neighborhood, and it was pretty rough then,” Al once told me, in uncharacteristically ominous tones. “If you went out at night, you had to be sure to let people know where you were going, in case you didn’t come back.”) At this writing, the Tower is disintegrating in super slow motion; every time I walk by it I am reminded of archival footage of a bi-plane shedding its siding mid-flight. The Cine Latino has been shorn of its façade and something entirely new is about to become of the building’s empty shell. The Grand has been given new life as a creative technology entertainment and education space.
Two Views of the Tower Theatre
Meanwhile, the newly restored New Mission gleams over Mission Street like a freshly waxed Cadillac. It is strange how bringing back a very old landmark, especially one as big as a movie palace, with a huge illuminated sign that can be seen from a mile away, can transform a city street, signifying big changes and uncertain futures, just as it must have done a century ago, when the theater was actually new. For the New Mission, this is at least the third time it has arrived on the scene. In the 1930s, Timothy Pflueger remodeled the theater, giving it the art deco panache that no doubt made the theater particularly worth saving.
Make no mistake, the New Mission is big. Entering it may give you an idea of what it’s like for a krill to swim into the mouth of a baleen whale. The marquee overhangs the sidewalk and the entryway is deeply recessed, and a bit dark, and the outside world seems to slip away before you have even entered the building. Once inside, you may well estimate that the theater’s lobby could hold approximately six to ten multiplex screening rooms. Its extravagant size is just part of the jaw-dropping plan, though. Molded plaster details make the lobby feel like an inside-out wedding cake – on a scale that would suit Goliath and his blushing, plus-plus-plus-plus-plus-sized bride. You could easily forget for a moment why you came. No ticket counter, no ushers, no concessions to be seen. Anyone without a ticket can wander in and have a look-see. There are some stairs with no signs indicating where they lead to, and at the very end of the long hall, beneath the stairs, a passage leads to the main theater and, off to the right, between a large statue of a bear and a large statue of a bull, is the entrance to the bar, where I found Al sitting by himself.
Bear Vs. Bull turns out to be what the bar is called, which I’m guessing many people will assume is either an out-of-context stock market reference or an awkward attempt to attract gay and lesbian patrons. But as it turns out, according to the New Mission’s web site, the name alludes to some arcane history about historic animal fights in the neighborhood. Al and I ordered a couple of Evil Twin Femme Fatale Noir Brett IPAs (our interest piqued by yet another mysterious name), and we were soon joined by Randall, Julie Lindow, and Katherine Petrin. A round of introductions: Julie Lindow is the editor of Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theaters (which features photos by R.A. McBride). And Katherine Petrin is an architectural historian and a founding member of Save New Mission, a group that made good on its name. Katherine also contributed a chapter to Left in the Dark.
Randall and Julie ordered negronis and Katherine a glass of water. The negronis, when they arrived on the table, had that Campari glow, hinting at alcoholic alchemy and luminescent inert gases, and to my eye were perhaps a little light on Italian vermouth. Katherine said she couldn’t stay long. She struck me as a serious but cheery person, clearly enjoying the re-opening of the theater. Not one to toot her own horn, she mentioned the names of a dozen or more people who all played critical roles in the theater rescue campaign. She seems to enjoy certain privileges in the theater, including right of passage through some of the building’s secret passageways and hidden stairways – she and Randall and Julie had joined us a little late after an impromptu tour. We hadn’t been seated long when the manager of the theater, Mike Keegan, stopped at our table to say hello to her.
Katherine shared a well-structured narrative, beginning with an origin story, followed by various setbacks and near defeats, leading to a triumphant conclusion. In 2000, after San Francisco City College bought the property with plans to demolish the theater, Katherine and another concerned citizen, Will Shank, attended a public meeting, and because their interest was in saving the theater rather than in the college’s plans, they were kicked out. “This was a public meeting!” Katherine emphasized, still astonished. Save the New Mission was born.
If a Hollywood film were made about this, the ensuing story would probably be embellished a little, with our hero, played by Reese Witherspoon, chaining herself to the theater as a wrecking ball heaves itself towards her. But that only happened in a figurative sense. Katherine talked mostly about a lot of meetings, and things people said, and subtle shifts that tilted the momentum in one direction or another. The goal was to obtain landmark status for the New Mission, but landmark status brings with it obligations and limitations that sometimes conflict with the more profitable ambitions of a building’s owner. And people who own valuable real estate often have friends in high places. You sense Save the Mission exerted relentless pressure against some weighty foes. City College eventually gave up and built its Mission Center on Valencia Street, and the subsequent owner also similarly sold out as it became clear that Save the New Mission was not going away quietly. (You can get a more detailed timeline, along with history and photos of all of San Francisco’s legacy theaters, on the Friends of 1800 website.
As the battle over the future of the New Mission was waged, the theater served for a time as a furniture store. Much of the grand lobby was obscured by dressers and futons, while the auditorium was closed to the public and used for storage. Katherine recalls a time when it was “a thing” to go into the furniture store and sneak back for a look at the theater. One can imagine an Indiana Jones like sense of rediscovery for the urban explorer who ventured beyond the mundane current function of the building, arriving at an indifferently preserved monument to a lost civilization.
When the furniture store closed, the New Mission really went dark. According to Julie, her friend McBride gained access inside the theater for some discrete photography. “When they came in to photograph the space there were mushrooms growing on the carpet, and pigeons had nested in the upper balcony area. The red seats were covered in pigeon poop,” she said, before adding: “They were actually really beautiful photos!”
The pigeons had colonized the space above a suspended ceiling with ornate plaster work, which Katherine clearly considers to be the showpiece of the theater’s pre-Pflueger decor. “The theater was in a sorry, sorry state by then. Around 2006 or ’07, some kids broke in, in the middle of the night, and had a party. They were very well organized. They had bands on the stage. They painted graffiti all over the interior and they threw the fire hose over the balcony and they were swinging from it, shearing off all of the plaster detail there.” Katherine recounted this with a certain amount of lingering horror, but I also detected a note of humor in her voice. As a preservationist, the image of the plaster flying off the balcony must have been shocking, and yet you can also imagine that, for the kids, it must have been a hell of a party, which Katherine went on to say lasted until about 5 a.m., when the cops chased the kids out of the building and on down Mission Street. Katherine pointed out that some of the graffiti from that night has been preserved in the lobby area, as a tribute to that part of the building’s history.
Katherine is delighted with Tim League, founder of the Alamo Drafthouse, which bought the New Mission in 2012. In fact, the theater’s official name is now Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. While other interested investors saw possibilities such as condominiums and snazzy night clubs, League saw a movie house that needed to be brought back to life. Concessions such as dividing the balcony into smaller screening rooms did not interfere with the overall priority of saving most of the interior’s architectural integrity. Food and drink have been introduced into the concept to ensure profitability. The corporate name, while in use on the web site and in other publications, does not appear on the sign overlooking Mission Street.
When he was just out of college League bought a historic movie theater in Bakersfield and tried to rehab it, but the business did not do well and he had to give it up. After relocating to Austin, Texas, he founded the Alamo Drafthouse, which had a hugely successful formula: dinner, drinks, and a movie in a single, non-historic venue. The formula worked so well it became a chain, now numbering about 30 locations from California to New York. But, according to Katherine, he still had a yearning to own a historic movie house, and when he saw the New Mission’s plaster ceiling, still stunning despite having been recently vacated by the pigeons, it was the detail that sealed the deal for him. By all appearances, League’s passion for the restoration is genuine. Inside and out, when more economical solutions may have been available, League chose to spare no expense. The damaged plaster was replicated beautifully. Art deco carpeting was laid. “They restored the sign with green neon,” Randall observed. “Red neon would have been cheaper.”
I enjoyed the stories about explorers sneaking in for a peek, the pigeons, the kids’ sensational party, and I’ll admit I might also be a little over-attached to my own memories of the New Mission and the other dormant theaters on the street during the ’90s, when I enjoyed a slacker’s life on Dolores Street, regularly ambling the neighborhood with my daughter in her stroller. But now the New Mission is lit up, open for business, screening movies that people want to go out and see.
As the cost of living went up in San Francisco, like a lot of people I moved over to Oakland. I live midway between the Grand Lake Theater and the Paramount Theater (another stunning beauty by Pflueger, who also designed the Castro Theater, Alhambra and the Alameda). The Grand Lake and the Paramount were both saved and restored long before my arrival to Oakland. Last December 17, I took my 12-year old son to the Grand Lake to see the new Star Wars movie. It was a good movie and a cracking good crowd; we were genuinely entertained. At the Paramount we have seen Casablanca, Jaws, King Kong, and many other classics. The Paramount seats 3,000 people, and on a night when Hitchcock’s Rear Window screened, it had a full house. We sat midway up in the balcony, because we arrived a bit late, but we had a good view of the screen as well as good reception of the overall vibe in the room. And I can say the vibe was very good. The actors’ voices sounded a little tinny, thanks to the Paramount’s sculpted tin ceiling, and oddly this contributed to uniquely historic electricity in the room. It was a very lively screening. This is a movie from 1954, and a full house can still swing to it, just as a full house can swing to a Star Wars sequel. It was an event, which is what going to the movies is all about.
All photos © 2016 Al Barna except when noted.
There is a murmur at the San Francisco Public Library about the photo exhibit of Neon Survivors and Icons from the Archives. Walk into the main branch at 100 Larkin Street, and look up into the atrium. You’ll see this poster with Mr. Peanut beckoning you from the 4th floor, where the exhibit is on display through October 2016. It includes ten historic black and white images of iconic neon signs (including the Hamm’s neon beer chalice and Mr. Peanut) combined with images from San Francisco Neon. Join the authors for a book/exhibit talk at the main branch at 6 pm on Thursday, September 22.
Randall and Al are excited to conduct a custom neon tour as part of the curriculum for Type Camp’s Neon Typography Workshop. This sounds like a fabulous workshop, led by neon tube-bender extraordinaire, Shawna Peterson, and typography guru Dr. Shelley Gruendler. If you have ever wanted to take a neon workshop, this is a swell opportunity!
Visit Architectural Resources Group’s stunning photo essay of the New Mission Theater.
For information about movies and food visit Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater.
The San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation is dedicated to keeping its namesake cinemas alive and helped with the New Mission Theater project.