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Cheering, booing, hissing, laughing, clapping

mural-1.jpg (32381 bytes)may 1, 2000. I came to San Francisco in the early 70’s, after the heyday of the movie palaces. The late, lamented Fox had already been razed, and replaced by another anonymous high-rise. The Golden Gate struggled on as a second-run house. The Palace, not yet the Pagoda Palace, was home to the outrageous live midnight shows of the Cockettes. Only that Upper Polk Moorish fantasy, the Alhambra, carried on.

But this was also before the advent of cable and the home VCR, so movie-hip San Franciscans had a wealth of specialized single-screen theaters from which to choose.

As a fan of the Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s, my favorite was the Richelieu. This small theater in the basement of the Richelieu Hotel on Van Ness and O’Farrell fed my passion for Old Hollywood with rarely seen, imaginative tributes & double bills of films from that era. Often, they were chopped-up, 16-millimeter television prints, but it didn’t matter. Where else would I be able to see two early 30’s Bette Davis rarities like "Three on a Match" and "Cabin in the Cotton"? When the Roxie had its "Forbidden Hollywood" festivals a couple of years ago, I realized I’d already seen most of these obscure films at the Richelieu.

The Cento Cedar, nearby on Cedar Alley, alternated between revivals and foreign films, and had a cafe in the lobby. The Taraval, a labor of love of a San Francisco State Film professor, also showed revivals. I owe my wide-ranging knowledge of classic American film to these theaters.

I introduced a sexy English boyfriend to sexy Bogart & Bacall at a double bill at the Interplayers, across from Aquatic Park, down the street from the Buena Vista. I remember coming out of the theater, having just seen "Dark Passage," set in San Francisco, to see the same romantic vistas that Bogey and Betty had seen in the movie.

Just down the street was the Ghirardelli Cinema, a first-rate, first-run house with great fresh popcorn. The Cannery also had its own theater. At the time it was a first-run house, and later, briefly, a revival house.

The Times, on Stockton & Broadway, in the heart of Chinatown, was a second-run house. Every day it showed a different double bill, two movies for a dollar. At those prices, there was always enough money left over for a huge portion of chow mein in one of the numerous inexpensive restaurants in the neighborhood. I believe the family who ran the Times now owns the 4-Star on Clement, one of the city’s last bastions of imaginative film programming.

The best place to see foreign films was to journey on the N-Judah streetcar almost out to the ocean to 46th Avenue, to the Surf. Somehow, the foggy, windswept neighborhood was a perfect setting for the existential dramas of Bergman and Godard. The theater’s lobby cafe was always crowded with intense, Gauloise-smoking cineastes, wearing black, drinking espresso, and discussing the latest Truffaut or Fellini. Willie Brown must have gone there, too, since he suggested recently that theaters have cafes, an idea pioneered at the Surf. The Surf was the beginning of Mel Novikoff’s theater empire. His crown jewel, the Castro, still thrives. In those days, the Castro was a fine second-run house. When the Castro changed its focus to a revival house, I was — and still am — a devoted fan. Castro audiences are wonderful — cheering, booing, hissing, laughing, clapping — and singing along as the organist plays "San Francisco" just before the lights go down.

The Larkin, now a porn theater, and the Music Hall also showed foreign films. There was an international bookstore across from the Larkin, where I often went after the movie to soak up the European atmosphere and browse the elegant French and Italian fashion magazines, continuing the mood of the films I’d just seen. Also in the neighborhood was — and still is — the Edinburgh Castle, a Scottish pub, with an adjacent fish-and-chips shop. It was an evening’s worth of European ambiance in a two-block stretch.

That was one of the great things about all those neighborhood theaters. As a newcomer to San Francisco, I was able to explore new neighborhoods, try new restaurants, and learn the Muni routes, all the while meeting fellow film fanatics and theater owners who really cared about film as an art form and not just as a business. That’s something you don’t get at today’s multiplexes, or by renting movies at Blockbuster.

Margarita Landazuri