Neighborhood Movie Houses Going the Way of Model T—35
single-screens have closed since ’80
San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, 2000
Coronet Theater To Be Torn Down
San Francisco Examiner, July
july 31, 2000. The recent acceleration in the demise of
single-screen movie houses has me doing an unusual thing: writing a
eulogy for a movie theater that closed eleven years ago. The
Coliseum on Clement Street closed in 1989, knocked out by the Loma
Prieta earthquake before inevitable economics could do it in.
If you grew up in San Francisco twenty years or
more ago, then you probably had your movie theater: the
neighborhood palace in walking distance whose swirled carpet
patterns and chipped gilded accents you knew intimately.
The big green Coliseum acted as the centerpiece
for many of my childhood adventures. I passed it on my way to school
every morning and short-cutted through the alleys around it to get
to Woolworth's. In the summer the Coliseum hosted a children's film
festival of sorts: a different movie shown every day, usually two or
three decades old. I can still remember the sculptured relief of a
woman with flowing hair on the ceiling, riding what looked to me
like a surfboard, high above the always-closed balcony (sneaking up
there one day with my friend ranks high in childhood triumphs).
The Coliseum wasn't the Richmond District's first
theater. Fishers’ Theater opened on Sixth Avenue and Clement in
1907. Anita Day Hubbard reminisced about Fishers’ in the San
Francisco Bulletin back in 1924: "The admission was five cents.
The place was very small and dark, and the screen waved in the
draughts, and the pictures were pretty bad."
Fishers’ moved up the street to a better
building on Seventh Avenue and the old venue switched hands to
become the Palm Theater. The district and the movie industry both
grew, and by 1913 the Clement had risen for a short existence on the
corner of Nineteenth Avenue. Farther out, on Twenty-third Avenue, La
Bonita opened. Current residents know La Bonita now as the 4-Star,
still holding on despite a few threatened closures.
The Lincoln Theater, on Sixth Avenue between
Clement and Geary, was in Anita Day Hubbard’s words "the
first pretentious house to be built" in the area. One longtime
Richmond District resident remembers weekends at the Lincoln:
"Adults couldn’t go to the matinees because of the number of
screaming excited kids. It was just a madhouse."
The Coliseum opened in November 1918 with a Mary
Pickford film ("Johanna Enlists"), a Mack Sennett comedy,
and a newsreel on the bill. The dedication drew Mayor "Sunny
Jim" Rolph and all the dignitaries the neighborhood could
muster. A little over a year later the house was expanded to handle
the "theatrical demands" of the district. A thousand seats
were added to bring the capacity to close to 3,000. The owner,
Samuel H. Levin, assured the public, "I shall endeavor to
maintain in the redecoration the same homelike atmosphere that has
made the Coliseum unique among picture theaters, by using only soft
neutral shades, luxurious carpets, and an indirect lighting system,
eliminating all startling colors and over-ornate decorations, so
often found in the theaters."
In 1929, the Coliseum welcomed sound to the
movies. Vitaphone and Movietone equipment were installed, making it
a "talkie" house. Al Jolson’s "The Jazz
Singer" inaugurated the new technology at the Coliseum in
February of that year.
Defining the neighborhood
To get an idea of how a movie theater could define
a neighborhood, one need only look at the names of some local
businesses in 1937 — Coliseum Bakery, Coliseum Beauty Shop,
Coliseum Furrier. And on and on: a haberdashery, a market, a
pharmacy and a shoe store. You won't see an AMC Dry Cleaners these
Most of the Richmond’s theaters found a way to
hang on. The 4-Star and the Bridge became art houses, offering
independent and foreign films to attract audiences from the whole
city. The Balboa hit on a good formula, showing second-run films as
double features for a reasonable admission price. The Alexandria,
whose Egyptian motif was highly acclaimed in the 1920s, had to tear
its magnificent screen into bits and become a mini-multiplex.
Now the mighty Coronet, renovated just a few years
ago, is on shaky ground. If a blockbuster showplace like the Coronet
is in trouble, the end of all these palaces seems grimly inevitable.
On October 17, 1989, there was a 5:45 show
scheduled at the Coliseum. The Giants and A’s were about to start
Game 3 of the World Series, so there may only have been a handful of
folks preparing to see the film when the earthquake hit. Soon after
the upheaval, United Artists talked of repairing the Coliseum
quickly. But it never happened.
The last movie to play in the great green house
was "Field of Dreams." You may remember the film featured
a disembodied voice that promised Kevin Costner, "If you build
it, they will come."
For seventy years they did. ■
Steve LaBounty. An
earlier version of this article appeared as part of the Western