In the 1920s, going to the movies wasn’t just an easy way to kill a couple of hours, it was an experience unto itself. That had to do with the invention of the movie palace: grand theaters with glittering chandeliers, space for hundreds, and high ceilings. In San Francisco, movies might come and go, but the city is dedicated to preserving its historic theaters. Take a look at three of these institutions—and veritable San Francisco tourist attractions—to see why they matter and how they’re being preserved.
San Francisco’s oldest continually operating movie theater opened in 1909 as the C. H. Brown Theater. Six name changes and more than 100 years later, and The Roxie still serves the Mission District, screening independent, documentary, and foreign films. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the theater was playing second- and third-run Hollywood films, which meant it was often screening worn-out prints with poor sound. But in 1976, The Roxie as we know it today was born. The theater has premiered the artistic works of Werner Herzog and David Lynch and even launched its own distribution company, which was responsible for the 30th anniversary re-release of Night of the Living Dead. It carries on its dedication to independent cinema today as a nonprofit.
The Castro Theatre
Less than a mile away from The Roxie lies The Castro, an architectural gem that landed on San Francisco’s list of city landmarks. It was designed by legendary architect Timothy L. Pflueger, who is known for his awe-inspiring Art Deco style. Every trip to the theater is like simultaneously going to an art museum and traveling back in time. Part of The Castro’s success is due in part to its ability to cater to the historically gay neighborhood, which is why it screens the Frameline Film Festival—the world’s largest LGBT film exhibition. It also does well to remember its past while keeping up with the times, showing classics like North by Northwest and Double Indemnity, but also playing classic 70mm film with new and improved digital sound.
The New Mission Theater
While The Castro and The Roxie have stood for decades, The New Mission Theater—soon to be The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema—is only now being saved from destruction. The 2,000-seat theater hasn’t been used since the ‘80s, after which it went from furniture showroom to rave hot spot to pigeon roost. That is, until the Alamo Drafthouse, a Texas theater chain, stepped in to rescue it. Whereas such palaces like The Alhambra Theater have been repurposed as fitness centers or shops, The New Mission Theater will retain its intended purpose with five new screens, a bar, and ample bicycle parking. Set to open in 2015, it might even be the start of The Mission as the city’s artistic cinema district.