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Just something that everybody did

may 1, 2000

Jack Tillmany managed Bay Area movie theaters for many years and has an extensive collection of photographs and information that illustrate their history. The Call asked him what it was like to attend a show in the pre-multiplex era.

I grew up when going to your neighborhood theater (before television) was a weekly (or more often, if you were lucky) experience. The Richmond District was my home ground, and the Four Star changed three times a week, the Alexandria once a week, the Coliseum once or twice a week, and the Balboa twice or three times a week, so we always had plenty of films to choose from. Two features, a newsreel, a cartoon, and previews of coming attractions for 50 cents (55 cents for one feature at the Alexandria), and 20 cents for kids. It was just something everybody did, like going to school, going to church, or going to the grocery.

Back in the 1930s some of the neighborhood theaters had a letter writing contest, in which patrons were invited to describe their neighborhood theaters, or something like that. This was before my time, but I happened to come across the screen ads with the second and third place letters spelled out. As I recall, judging from the addresses of the winners, one of the theaters must have been the Alhambra, and I think the other one was one of the Mission Street ones. They seem pretty saccharine today, of course, but that's the way it was.

You must also consider that a great number of people didn't have cars; during the 1930s it was the depression, and they didn't have any money; during the 1940s, no new automobiles were manufactured between 1941 and 1946 because of the war, and for the same reason, gasoline and tires were severely rationed. Even if you did have a car, at best it was an old one, the tires were bald, and there was very little gas in the tank. So walking two or three blocks to your neighborhood theater was the easiest way to latch onto a little celluloid escapism.

An interesting sidelight that you may not be aware of: Your typical neighborhood theater up to and through the 1930s did not advertise in the newspaper; they printed a giveaway program which you picked up at the door, and pinned to the wall when you got home. Around 1938 or so, the SF Chronicle started a promotion whereby the theaters would advertise the Chronicle on the screen, and in return receive a four line listing free of charge in the (then new) movie guide in the daily newspaper. The Chronicle supplied the screen ads free of charge also, and changed them at frequent intervals, so everybody benefited and no money was spent.

I also have some of the old screen ads on videotape; they run about 30 seconds each, and are quite good. For example, there is one showing Herb Caen, promoting his column. Eventually the other papers picked up the theater guide idea and charged a minimal fee for the listings, but some of the very smallest theaters only kept their free listing in the Chronicle, which is the only clue left today as to what they were showing, or even to their existence.

You may be surprised at how many larger neighborhood theaters (800 1,000 seats or more) have disappeared since the 1950s and are now almost completely forgotten. Have you ever heard of the Noe (24th Street at Noe), the Irving (14th Avenue & Irving), both closed and torn down in the 1950s; the Midtown (Haight & Fillmore), the Harding (Hayes & Divisadero), both closed in the 1950s and now churches? The list goes on and on. Some of the small ones lasted amazingly long; the New Potrero at 18th & Connecticut was still going in the late 1950s; the building's been converted into offices, I think; the Cortland (later Capri) made it into the 1960s; it's now a church.