Monday, November 7, 2011

San Francisco Artifacts in the Richmond District

I stopped by the Balboa to see Tom Wyrsch's latest documentary.

Sutro's: The Palace at Lands End; directed by Tom Wyrsch; documentary; (2011) - Official Website

First, the Balboa & the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation (SFNTF) announced that SFNTF "has reached an agreement to lease the theatre to 2024 - thus securing the future of one of San Francisco's oldest operating cinemas." In his weekly newsletter, Gary Meyer characterized the announcement as "good news...But not good enough news to assure the theater can operate that long." On November 5, the Balboa Theater and SFNTF hosted an open house discussing topics such as "creating a realistic long-term plan for the future of the Balboa Theatre."

I was aware that SFNTF was interested in the Balboa three months ago. I'm not sure why it took so long to finalize the agreement. I did not attend the November 5 open house so I have no idea what was discussed. I've never seen a regular screening at the Vogue Theater, the theater SFNTF's currently owns and operates. My sense is that it is not well attended but for all I know, they are are packing them in every night. I'm more partial to the programming at the Balboa which is similar to the Vogue. They both program select general release films (with an eye towards their neighborhood's tastes) but the Balboa includes more special events or art house films from time to time. Of course, this programming has led the Balboa to the brink of closure so perhaps a change in programming is necessary "to assure the theater can operate."

To be honest, a 13 year lease on an 85 year old movie theater doesn't make much sense to me but bless SFNTF for taking the risk.

Now that the Balboa has "been saved," I wonder if a theater can close down in San Francisco again. Having pulled off this trick twice (with the Vogue & Balboa), I can't help but think that the SFNTF would be expected to save remaining movie theater's from the classic era such as the Clay, Bridge, Castro, 4 Star, Presidio and Marina.

The Red Vic (which closed in July) was formerly a furniture showroom as recently as the early 1990s. It didn't have the label of being a "movie palace" or "neighborhood theater." In other words, the building seems as important as the function. Buildings designed to be movie theaters need to be preserved as movie theaters to allow future San Franciscans to enjoy the unique pleasure of seeing a movie in a building designed to watch movies. At least, that's the line coming from movie theater preservationists.

Coincidentally, the Red Vic announced the next phase of its existence recently. The Alembic Bar (next door to the Red Vic) will expand into the lobby area. The actual theater will be split into a "marketplace" featuring "four to six food-related start-up entrepreneurs and retail businesses." They are also carving out space for a 49 seat screening room available for private rental.

Also, I recently saw a film at the 4 Star (in the larger screening room) where I was the only person in the audience on a weeknight screening (8:40 PM, I believe). That auditorium can probably seat approximately 200 people. That can't last for long. However, the Lees moved heaven and earth to "save" the 4 Star. I can't see them closing the theater after working so hard to abrogate the lease and purchase the building.


Sutro's: The Palace at Lands End is directed by Tom Wyrsch who directed Remembering Playland at the Beach which I also saw at the Balboa. Sutro's is cut from the same cloth as Playland which is appropriate; Sutro Baths was just up the hill from Playland at the Beach and owned by the same person (George Whitney). Sutro Baths was originally built by Adoph Sutro in 1896, a San Francisco mayor who made his fortune in developing mining techniques for the Comstock Lode.

I called Playland a "barebones documentary." I recall thinking it was a little amateurish. Both documentaries relied on talking head interviews, still photos, home movies and minimal narration. However, Wyrsch seems to have upped his game as a documentarian. At nearly 90 minutes, Sutro's is twenty minutes longer than Playland but Wyrsch keeps the film moving much better. Whereas Playland felt like a substandard History Channel documentary, Sutro's has the look of one of those better made KQED documentaries.

That's not really very important though. Like Playland, Sutro's is targeted for people with an interest in San Francisco history. They'll lap up the photos and reminiscing. In addition, Sutro Baths seems more interesting than Playland. Sutro Baths was a impressive engineering feat and to this day, its ruins look like some Roman baths. The Playland site is now condominiums. Actually, epic plans for condos on the site of Sutro Baths was proposed after a fire destroyed the site but never came to fruition.

Wyrsch has set the table for a trilogy - Playland at the Beach, Sutro Baths and the natural finale could be a documentary on the Cliff House which still exists. I've always been interested in history and particularly San Francisco history so count me as a fan of Sutro's.

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