Sign Finds | Misson Street Marquee Mile
Walking down the Mission District end of Mission Street it’s hard not to notice the number of vacant theatres peppered along the strip. As far as sign finds go, old theatre marquees are among some of the biggest, boldest and most extravagant examples you’re likely to see, so finding five early 20th century marquees on the one street was teetering on a signage overload. Seeing so many in such a concentrated strip was almost eerie. They’re huge structures and have some real presence, especially in the case of the Cine Latino and the New Mission Theatre which are set on opposing sides of the road, the two huge signs towering over the relatively small street below. I ran out of light and time to photograph all of them as thoroughly as I would have liked, but what I did shoot has gone some way to capturing that walk through the Mission.
A little miffed by the state of all five theatres I set out to find some background to their current condition, turning up some great archive shots and history in the process. Over time as in other cities, the popularity of TV and home entertainment in the 50’s started the decline of the boom years of America’s cinemas with these grand theatres gradually becoming redundant, unprofitable and as attendance declined were inevitably forced to call it a day. Understandable that as times change, a city and its businesses have to adapt and evolve to suit, it’s just a shame these showy examples of a Golden Age for both cinema and signage haven’t been put to better use - be it restored, respectfully re-purposed or at the very least maintained the for the sake of the city’s local history. Having now survived to an era that should recognise their historic value, it’s madness to not preserve what’s left. A quick look at the list of closed cinemas (not counting demolished) in San Francisco alone is mind blowing.
My rabbit-hole of Googling took me to a wide range of websites, blogs, archives and library sites, with Cinema Treasures again proving to be an invaluable (and impressively well ordered) resource for digging into the fading face of America’s booming cinema years. I’ve included a list of links and references at the end of the post if you’re keen for a dig.
From 19th to 23rd and Mission we have what’s left of the El Capitan, Tower, Cine Latino, New Mission and The Grand. Between them represents a period of cinema spanning from as early as 1913 to as recent as 1998. All are shown below with all archive shots courtesy the SFPL.
El Capitan Theatre
At one time the second biggest movie theatre in San Francisco, the El Capitan Theatre was demolished in 1961, with only the Mexican Baroque facade left standing. The 2000+ seat auditorium was completely levelled with a budget outdoor parking lot now left in its place. With the huge facade and only the shell of the foyer still in tact, the El Capitan is the grandest and as equally depressing entrances to a crappy car park you’re likely to find. Peep your head in and check out what remains of the foyer interior.
First opening as The Majestic Theater in 1912, the Tower Theater was remodelled in a Streamline Moderne style in 1937, majority of which can be seen decaying away today. I’m not sure at what point the vertical TOWER typeface changed to the serif style seen today but from the photos I have found you can see the original style was in use at least until 1975. After closing in 1996, the theatre was used as a church up until 2005 and is currently up for lease. Let’s hope those interior murals are still in tact.
What now stands as the Cine Latino originally opened as the Wigwam Theatre 1913. With two name changes in between (New Rialoto Theatre in 1935 and the Crown Theatre 1947-74) this workhorse of a movie house has paid its dues, playing host to Latin and Mexican cinema throughout the 70’s until its closure in 1987. With humble beginnings and origins dating back to the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, the Wigwam deserves more than to be left to rot. Hidden amongst the the Cinema Treasures listing for the Cine Latino, a visitor comment outlines the origins of the Wigwam as starting literally as a wigwam to entertain the displaced people of San Francisco in the wake of the massive earthquake that shook majority of the city to the ground. From this small canvas tent grew a bigger tent, then a wooden theatre and then finally the building that now stands on Mission Ave. I’m keen find out more about that evolution from tent to theatre and dig up some more shots of the Wigwam as it grew. If that account checks out it’s an amazing story and in itself a huge reason to revive or at the very least preserve or restore what is left of the signage/facade. The Cine Latino sign is still an eye catcher and with the New Misson directly across the road it’s an interesting pocket of the Mission.
The Grand Theater opened in 1940, operating primarily as “unpretentious third run neighbourhood house” up until its closure in 1988. Described as a mecca for b-grade, horror and sci-fi movies, the Grand Theater in the late 60’s/70’s sounds like my kind of place. With triple features the norm, no doubt a few Corman masterpieces would have graced the big screen here.
Some more Googling turned up some some slightly off topic but interesting info on the cult horror cinema scene in SF. Outlining the horror movie history of the Grand on Cinema Treasures, August Ragone is also the author of a killer book on Eiji Tsuburaya (creator of Godzilla and Ultra Man among a mirrade other things) and a purveyor of underground film events in San Francisco. With the Grand now a cheap import store there’s little chance of the ‘gory’ years of the Grand making a rise from the dead, but it’s great to see the spirit and impact of its years as a gore and sci-fi haunt still kicking in some shape or from. More on August at http://shock-it-to-me.com and http://augustragone.blogspot.com
New Mission Theater
Built in 1916 and fully renovated in a balls-out Art Deco style in 1932, the New Mission Theatre with its sky high marquee is impressive even in its present day state. Like many of these theatres, the New Mission has seen its share of controversy and proposed plans since its closure as a theatre in 1993. Playing horror flicks throughout the 80’s and finally closing in the 90’s due in most part to dwindling attendance, The New Misson’s closure and deterioration is a familiar story. Maybe in part due to the fact the impressive theatre interior is relatively in tact, the New Mission seems to be the most likely of the theatres in the area to have any hope of a complete and deserved restoration. Overcoming the San Francisco City College plans to redevelop/demolish the building as campus space in the late 90’s, preservationists have been working to give the New Mission Theatre a new lease on life for over 10 years. Finally achieving landmark status in 2004, plans for a redevelopment of the theatre for a re-purposed/mixed-use space have been off and off since.
While putting this post together, new info on the New Mission’s future has been made public and from a brief read it’s looking like good news for once. Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin-based cinema chain (with a theatre etiquette policy and public relations approach that should be given a standing ovation) - have prosed a restoration and reopening of the theatre in 2013. More details here. Amazing if all goes to plan. Hopefully next time I’m back in San Fran that towering marquee will be up in lights. With this news, I also came across some recent pics of the theatre interior posted up on the Alamo Facebook page and some Flickr shots here. Great to see the level of detail and fairly in-tact state of the interior.
As a flip side to historical value and preservation, I’ve always had an interest in abandoned buildings and spaces and looking at the those Flickr pics it’s no wonder the Mission Theatre has played host to a free party two in its time. Possibly the ideal progression for America’s grand theatres - the Golden Years, the decline, the non-damaging free party era and the all important restoration. As much as it would be amazing if all of these theatres were still thriving and cared for, the fact is they’ve been left behind and left neglected due to lack of funds, lack of profitably and changing times. It’s the free market that built them, and seemingly the free market that will destroy them. The decline, the free parties, the rotting signs as they stand today as are much a part of the history as the ornate foyers an lavish entrances. In the case of the New Mission at least, history, present day commercial interests and nostalgia may find a workable balance.
What started out as some casual research into the background of this epic strip of busted out signage soon spiralled into a knee-deep dig into the fact and fiction behind San Fransisco’s old school movie houses. This post couldn’t have come together without the below reference and resources. Some great stuff in there if you have a spare week or two. Enjoy!