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Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. From the collection of J. E. Tillmany.

Popcorn and circuses

may 1, 2000. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it. For the edification of the Call’s readers, I’ve been going to the movies.

In March Supervisor Gavin Newsom held a hearing on the plight of San Francisco’s single-screen movie theaters. It seems they’re not in very good shape. Blame it on TV. Blame it on the multiplexes. Blame it on changing lifestyles. The fact is that the city where movie palaces once adorned every neighborhood has been shucking its theaters at an alarming rate. Thirteen movie theaters — most of them first-run — lined Market Street east of Hyde in 1962. They’re nearly all gone. Thirty-five single-screen theaters citywide have folded since 1980. And many that remain have fallen on hard times.

The problem is actually two-fold. There is, first of all, a preservation question: a number of San Francisco’s finest architectural specimens are in danger of disappearing. Late this summer, the League of Historic American Theaters (www.lhat.org) will hold a convention in San Francisco, including on its agenda a tour of some of the Bay Area’s aging stars. Newsom plans to take advantage of the visitors’ expertise by conducting another hearing on August 4. The Call promises to attend, and to take up the topic then.

But there is also a perception that the movie-going experience has changed, as a number of readers have pointed out. The lore is that going to the movies in the good old days was communitarian and courteous, as opposed to the impersonal and impolite venues of our bad new era, such as the Metreon and the Kabuki. What was it, I wondered, about the earlier experience that cloaked it in such fond memories? Just nostalgia? Or something that perhaps merits encouraging today?

In the interest of scientific research, I visited three old theaters in three different neighborhoods, hoping to capture the qualities of movie-going that attracted people to them forty or fifty years ago. Two of the theaters — the Empire 3 and the Balboa — have been subdivided, losing their single-screen panache. Two — the Empire and the Metro — have been recently refurbished. But none qualifies as a modern multiplex. And none is downtown; they’re all part of definite neighborhoods.

The first night called for a trip to the far southwest, to the urban village of West Portal. I parked in a metered space, right in front of the Empire and wandered up the street to the New Tsing Tao, a pretty restaurant with white tablecloths and brightly colored napkins. Except for the proprietors, everyone was Caucasian. At a table near me, a teenaged girl was showing her parents some photographs she had just had developed. "What are wontons," she inquired. The answer: "Tortellini made with pork." As I left, she and her mother were trying to explain a Weird Al Yankovic song to the befuddled father.

The film was "Erin Brockovich," not a re-run but beginning to get a little long in the tooth by present-day quick-in, quick-out standards. The tiny lobby greeted visitors with a riot of colors — a bright red tiled wall; a row of glass jars containing red, orange, and yellow candies. Inside, the theater was about half full, not bad for a Monday evening. The screen was modest; the seats were banked and comfortable. After a series of trailers for films aimed at an adult audience (no, not porno films), the main feature began. Two and a half hours later, the doors opened. The audience wandered out into the quiet night, rehashing the film as they left.

On the second night, I drove to the Outer Richmond, parking on a street around the corner from the Balboa. It’s a bleak area: trees aren’t fond of the sandy soil. Perhaps out of contrariness, I passed by several Asian establishments and entered Little Henry’s, an Italian restaurant that offers Thai iced tea with its pizza. I was the only Caucasian in a room full of Thai, Vietnamese, and Chinese customers. At a table near me, a grandmother holding a baby smiled and nodded as three young adults joked about the complexities of buying a car.

I entered the theater through a narrow, slightly dingy lobby. The film — "Topsy-Turvy" — seemed an odd choice for the neighborhood, but the audience, which again half-filled the theater, was predominately Caucasian. It was a friendly group. Before the lights went out, one of the women began to look around for a set of missing keys. Before long, most of the people in the theater had joined the search, peering under seats and offering advice on where to look. Then, without a bit of warning, the main feature began. The screen was tiny, reminiscent of the old Studio/Guild in Berkeley. But the film captivated the moviegoers, sending them home in little bunches of excited conversation.

Night No. 3 took me to Union Street. On-street parking is scarcer than a hen’s teeth in this area, and I naively chose a parking garage that didn’t accept validations. Twelve dollars added to the price of the movie made it an expensive outing. The street was a carnival of lights and pedestrians, with horns and laughter verging on cacophony. I headed for Amici’s, a dumbbell-shaped pizzeria near the theater. At one table near me, two young men in baseball caps and a young woman in shorts traded work stories. At another, a long-haired father joked with his small daughter.

The Metro recently underwent a $2 million remodeling, but rumors suggest it’s in financial trouble. A brilliantly lighted snack counter spanned the lobby, hoping to entice moviegoers to spend more on the concessions that are the theater’s lifeblood. Inside, art deco railings wound past banked tiers of seats. The audience clustered in the center third of the space, greeting the somewhat goofy trailers and the film — "Keeping the Faith" — with appreciative laughter. The young men and women seated next to me chortled at every double entendre, and guffawed when their chortles accidentally turned to snorts. At the end, as the credits rolled, a happy crowd walked out into the street, where the carnival continued.

What can one make of this survey? This is still a movie town. If your tastes run counter to the hi-tech multiplexes, booming sound systems, and movies pitched to youthful consumers, you can still find a refuge in the remaining neighborhood theaters. The complaints of the people in the Geneva-Ocean districts ring painfully true: neighborhood theaters enliven otherwise moribund shopping areas. Imagine the difference in Bay View if Magic Johnson Theaters set its sites on a spot there, in addition to the African-American sections of Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston.

But even the existing theaters skate on thin financial ice. Critic Gilbert Seldes pondered the problem fifty years ago in "The Great Audience," observing that movie-makers concentrated on drawing young people to large first-run theaters and ignored the rest of the population: "I confess to a sense of shock at the spectacle of an industry, financed by the shrewdest of bankers, contenting itself with a mere third, or at most half, of its potential income." Seldes urged Hollywood to build a second audience by producing a tier of lower-budget films, more substantial and more satisfying to mature moviegoers, to be shown for longer periods of time at small local theaters.

The problem isn’t simply economic. Popular entertainment by its very nature affects the entire population, and people who decline to partake of it actually aid the purveyors of pabulum by their silence. If Seldes were to visit San Francisco today, he would advise us to demand official encouragement of local theaters and extreme caution in building more multiplexes. "A democracy cannot endure," he would add, "if the forces making for free minds are apathetic and the forces of invincible ignorance are aggressive and brilliantly managed and irresponsible."

Go to the movies. It’s your patriotic duty.