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Clay Theatre

2261 Fillmore St.  | map |


Opening: The theatre was opened in 1913 as the Regent Theatre by pioneer exhibitors the Naify Brothers. It's not in the 1913 city directory but Jack Tillmany advises that it did make the October 1, 1913 edition of the telephone directory. The theatre is in Pacific Heights on the west side of the street just south of Clay.

The photo is from September 1940 with the theatre running "Queen of Destiny" with Anna Neagle. Yes, those are firemen on the roof. It's a News-Call Bulletin photo in the San Francisco Public Library collection. The photo also appears on a post discussing the theatre's history on the Clay Theatre Facebook page.



A December 1913 flyer. Thanks to Jack Tillmany for sharing this item from his collection. 

It was renamed the Avalon in 1931. Herb Rosener took over beginning April 11, 1935 calling it the Clay International. Walter Reade operated it for a spell after taking over the Rosener interests. Following the 1968 Walter Reade bankruptcy it was part of Mel Novikoff's Surf Theatres operation.

Website: LandmarkTheatres.com/san-francisco/clay-theatre | on Facebook | Midnight Movies |

Architect: Unknown

Seating: 380 at present. Still a single screen venue.

Status: Still doing well as a single screen first run house. Landmark Theatres has had it since 1991.


Interior views:


A 2015 snack bar view from Elokuvateattereita, "a photographic blog of movie theaters."



The west wall of the lobby in 2010.  It's a photo by Will M. Baker on his 100 Movies, 100 Theaters blog.



A north wall view. Photo: Elokuvateattereita - 1915



A 2014 photo by Franck Bohbot. It's part of his Cinema Series.


More exterior views:


A detail from the 1940 photo at the top of the page. It's on page 65 of Jack Tillmany's "Theatres of San Francisco." The page with the photo is included in the book's preview on Google Books.



SFMTA doing some repair work c.1940. Thanks to Cinema Treasures contributor Granola for finding the photo in the SFMTA collection.



A 1941 look at the entrance at the premiere of the documentary "Kukan." The director is on the left. Thanks to Michael Blythe of the Clay for the photo. It appears as one of four photos on a 2015 post on the Clay's Midnight Movies Facebook page.



Another shot at the "Kukan" opening. This one's from the Jack Tillmany collection. He notes that the film opened Friday August 1, 1941.



A look at the theatre's entrance c.1959. The shot is from some footage in the Prelinger Archives. Thanks to Bob Ristelheuber for posting the three minutes of footage on Facebook. He also posted three screenshots from the footage on the BAHT Facebook page.



A June 1964 "World of Henry Orient" Alan J. Canterbury photo in the San Francisco Public Library collection. The photo also appears with "In Bid To Survive, Historic Clay Theatre To Undergo Major Revamp," an April 2016 Hoodline story about approval for renovations to add food and drinks to the moviegoing mix.



Thanks to the American Classic Images collection for this May 1980 photo.



A 1997 photo by Ken Roe appearing on Flickr



A 2007 photo appearing with a 2014 KQED article "The Best Movie Theaters of the Bay Area."The Clay got a nod as one of the best Bay area theatres in KQED's 2014 survey. The photo is one they got from Wikimedia Commons. The Clay also made it on the SF Weekly's 2012 "Top 10 Bay Area Movie Theaters" list.



This 2008 shot by the Clay's Michael Blythe has the theatre running "The Class." It was paired with the 1940 San Francisco Public Library photo for a "then and now" on the Facebook page Lost San Francisco where it elicited many comments.



A 2009 look up the facade appearing with "5 Bay Area Theaters to Watch Throwback Movies," a 2015 RushTix blog post.



A 2010 photo by Will M. Baker from his 100 Movies, 100 Theaters blog.



A c.2010 Roshan Vyas photo from Flickr appearing with the April 2016 Hoodline story about building owner Balgobind Jasiwal getting Planning Department approval for renovations to add food and drinks to the moviegoing mix. 



A fine 2011 "Potiche" night view accompanying a story on the blog The New Fillmore story about plans to expand the lobby and offer beer and wine at the theatre.  Thanks to Michael Blythe for sharing the story on the BAHT Facebook page where it got some comments about the plan. Also see "How the Clay Dodged a Bullet," a 2010 story carried on the blog.



A view from across the street.  Photo: Elokuvateattereita - 1915



Michael Blythe changing posters. Photo: Elokuvateattereita - 1915



A closer look at the boxoffice. Photo: Elokuvateattereita - 1915. Thanks for the photos!

More information: See the Cinema Treasures page about the Clay Theatre.

Hoodline's April 2016 story "In Bid To Survive, Historic Clay Theatre To Undergo Major Revamp," discussed proposed renovations to add food and drinks to the moviegoing mix. The article noted: 

"'Our current situation is not sustainable,' said architect Charles Kahn of Kahn Design Associates, who's leading the theater's revamp. 'We've been trying to figure out a way to get people back to the theater—but it's hard to compete with those with that have multi-screens.' A new layout for the theater has yet to be officially confirmed, but the current plan is for traditional seats near the front of the theater, and dining in the back. Gaining a restaurant use from Planning means the theater can offer full meals; it also gives it permission to apply for a beer and wine license. 'This will put us on more equal footing with Sundance Kabuki down the street,' Kahn, who's also designed Artis Coffee in Berkeley, and Cowgirl Creamery in the Ferry Building, told us."

Jack Tillmany's Arcadia Publishing book "Theatres of San Francisco" can be previewed on Google Books. It's available from Amazon or your local bookseller. 

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The Great Star Theatre

636 Jackson St. | map |


Opened: 1925 as the Great China Theatre, a venue for Chinese Opera. One of the backers was allegedly the Kuomintang, a Chinese nationalist party. The building is on the north side of the street between Kearny and Grant. The pre-opening photo is on Calisphere from the Museum of Performance and Design Performing Arts Library. It was a donation to their collection from May's Photo, the studio that took the photo.

There was an earlier Chinese theatre on this site in the 1880s (and perhaps a bit earlier than that). Early 1880 guidebooks and city directories show four theatres in Chinatown. One on this site, the New Chinese (Po Ling) Theatre across the street at 623 Jackson, the Royal Chinese at 836 Washington and the Grand Chinese (Donn Quai Yuen) at 814 Washington. By 1895 the neighborhood were down to two (the New and the Grand) and patronage was so sparse they were running alternate weeks.

Paul Nathan, operator of the Great Star for several years, comments: "A bit of fun history. The Mandarin (later called the Sun Sing Theatre) opened just a few months before the Great Star (then the Great China Theater). The Great China was going to open first but the Mandarin pulled out some backdrops and put them on the facade of the building so they could open first. They were rival political factions so it was a big deal to be open first."

A projection booth was installed in 1940 and films were then part of the programming. It became the Great Star Theatre sometime c.1966. Around 1970 the theatre got a new marquee and, later in the decade was acquired by Hong Kong producer Run Run Shaw to show his product. It closed as a film house in the 1990s but continued to be occasionally used for Chinese operas.

It had been dark for about a dozen years when George Kaskanlian and Ken Montero stumbled across it and got a ten year lease. See "Great Star Theater preparing to rise again," Sam Whiting's March 2010 SF Gate story about what they had planned for the theatre. They didn't stick around long.

In 2014 Harris Rosenbloom had the theatre and was envisioning a remodeling program that was outlined on Kickstarter. Rosenbloom's tenure came to a bad end when the body of a 31 year old woman was found in the theatre. SF Gate had that story in May 2015. The venue was taken over in 2015 by Paul Nathan who upgraded the facility with new sound, lighting and projection equipment. He then mounted a strong program of legit offerings, cabaret shows and occasional films.

Seating: Perhaps 900 originally, down to 540 in recent years.

Status: The theatre closed in late 2017 with Paul Nathan as the last operator. He still has a Great Star Facebook page up from the time he ran the theatre. The closure was due to problems with Julia Lee, an uncooperative landlord. The story was covered in a January 2018 story on Hoodline.

Stage information: The proscenium is 32' 6" wide with 14' of wingspace SR and 13' 6" SL. Stage depth is 24' from the smoke pocket to the face of the backwall columns. It's one of the few surviving theatres in the country with a raked stage. It's about 8" higher upstage. It's a hemp house with a steel grid using, except for several sets, wood loftblocks and headblocks. Grid height is 42'. There are flyfloors both stage right and stage left as well as an additional pinrail at stage level on stage right.

The asbestos operates stage right, the movie screen is a wire guide counterweight set operated stage left. The projector is a  Barco R6+. An improvised corridor serves as dressing rooms behind a temporary wall upstage. Others are in the basement. All loading is through the house or via narrow exit passages on either side of the building. There's no rear access. 


Lobby views: 


A 2017 lobby shot by Priscilla L. on Yelp.  



One of the theatre's projectors on display in the lobby in 2017. It's a photo by Priscilla L. on Yelp



A men's room sign at the Great Star. It's a photo by Rebecca A. McBride from the book ""Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres" by McBride with Julie Lindow. The photo appears on a 2010 post about the book on the blog Mubi


The auditorium: 


A 20s photo taken by Brooks. It's on Calisphere from the collection of the Museum of Performance and Design Performing Arts Library.



A busy night in 2013. Thanks to Eric Tay for his photo, one appearing on Yelp.  



Looking toward the stage in 2016. Photo: Bill Counter  



The 1925 vintage painting on the asbestos. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



A view to the rear of the house during a March 2015 showing of Arthur Dong's 1989 documentary "Forbidden City, USA." Thanks to Arthur for the photo. His book "Forbidden City USA: Chinatown Nightclubs, 1936-1970" was published in 2015.



A view to the rear after some side wall draping. Photo: Andra Young - 2016 



A look along the house right wall. Photo: Andra Young - 2016



A proscenium view from a video on Kickstarter for an unsuccessful 2014 campaign by Harris Rosenbloom to finance a remodeling.



A balcony view. Photo: Andra Young - 2016



A view from the booth. Photo: Andra Young - 2016


Backstage:


The pinrail stage right at stage level. The ladder at the left gets you up to the flyfloor above, not used much in later years. It's a photo by Rebecca A. McBride from the book ""Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres" by McBride with Julie Lindow. The photo appears on a 2010 post about the book on the blog Mubi.



Another pinrail view. Photo: Andra Young - 2016



Dressing areas along the upstage wall. Photo: Andra Young - 2016



A basement dressing room stage left. Photo: Andra Young - 2016



Drawings taped to a dressing room wall showing layouts for Chinese opera scenery. Photo: Andra Young - 2016



A view off right toward the flyfloor. Photo: Andra Young - 2016. Thanks Andra!



Looking downstage on the stage right floor. The ropes at the left are going down to the pinrail at stage level. In the upper right of the image there's a bit of the back of the movie screen. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



 Looking out from the flyfloor. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016


 
A downstage view to the backwall and across to the stage left flyfloor. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



Looking upstage on the stage right flyfloor. The ladder on the back wall gets you to the grid. Note a single wire-guide counterweight set near the back wall. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



An upstage view across to stage left. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



 Looking across the grid from downstage right. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



A closer look at several of the wood loft blocks. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



Looking upstage along an array of hemp headblocks stage right. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



A hemp headblock downstage right with the metal headblock for the asbestos beyond. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016



A closer look at the headblock for the asbestos. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016


More exterior views: 


An October 9, 1920 view west on Jackson from Kearny. The squat building on the site before the theatre arrived is on the right. Thanks to Jack Tillmany for spotting the DPW/Horace Chaffee photo on the Open SF History Project website.



A detail from the pre-opening photo at the top of the page. It's on Calisphere.  



The theatre had a float in the September 12, 1925 parade for the California Diamond Jubilee celebration. The photo appears in a scrapbook of Hamilton Henry Dobbins that's in the California State Library collection. 



The theatre in 1949 during the run of "Mad Fire Mad Love." The photo appears on a Columbia University Women Film Pioneers Project page about filmmaker Esther Eng.



A 1955 view from the Facebook page Vintage Kodachrome Slides. Thanks to Lily Castello for sharing it on the BAHT Facebook page.



A late 50s view by an unknown photographer. Thanks to Jack Tillmany for sharing this version of the photo from his collection. He notes that it's 1956 Packard in front of the theatre.



A 1960s photo taken by Jack Tillmany.



A June 1964 photo by Alan J. Canterbury from the San Francisco Public Library collection.



A c.1968 photo featuring the new marquee taken by Tom Gray. It's in the Jack Tillmany collection.



A 1976 photo by Tom Gray from the Jack Tillmany collection.



A Peter Perkins photo appearing in the 1981 book "Chinatown, San Francisco." Thanks to Bob Ristelhueber for spotting the photo for a post on the BAHT Facebook page.  



A 2005 view west from Kearny from Jeterga on Cinema Treasures



A 2014 photo from an unsuccessful campaign on Kickstarter.



A view east on Jackson in 2015. Photo: Bill Counter



A closer look at the entrance. Photo: Bill Counter - 2015



Thanks to Gary Parks for his 2016 photo of the vertical sign. 



A detail of the top of the sign's east side. Photo: Gary Parks - 2016 



The top of the west side. Photo: Gary Parks - 2016. Gary's three photos originally appeared as a post on the BAHT Facebook page. His guess is that the sign dates from the 30s or 40s. 



Looking north from Kearny. Photo: Bill Counter - 2016

More information: See many photos on Calisphere of various productions staged at the Great Star.  The site Cinema Treasures has a page about the theatre. The Cinema Tour page on the Great Star has some 2005 and 2007 exterior views. The Yelp page on the theatre has photos and some discussion.

Jack Tillmany's Arcadia Publishing book "Theatres of San Francisco" can be previewed on Google Books. It's available from Amazon or your local bookseller. 

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