The Balboa Theatre

3630 Balboa St. | map |

Opened: February 27, 1926, a project of Joseph L. Levin's San Francisco Theatres. The location is near 38th Ave. The photo by Nikki Collister for Hoodline appeared with their 2017 article "Citing Attendance, Richmond's Balboa Theater Reduces Special Programming" that discussed the difficulties dealing with declining attendance and maintenance issues in a 100 year old building. Thanks to Rob Doughty for spotting the article.

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Seating: 800 initially. It now a twin with capacities of 307 and 226 for a total of 533.

Architects: Reid Brothers. Head to the bottom of the page for 12 images from the original blueprints that are in the Gary Parks collection. 

A rendering of the proposed theatre from Reid Brothers, the architects. The elaborate second facade over on the left was greatly simplified in the completed project. The drawing is from the Jack Tillmany collection.

A January 1928 schedule discovered in the Balboa's attic by "Projectionist Par Excellance" Jim Cassedy. His report: 

"Sometime around 2007 when I was working for Gary Meyer as Balboa's 'chief projection-guy' and tracing some speaker wiring to find a ground fault, I was crawling through the attic space, above what was left of the Balboa's original plaster ceiling, now hidden by the suspended ceiling tiles which I assume were put in when they twinned the building after the 1970's fire. Although that fire was decades ago, a lot of the steel beams and stuff up there were still covered with what appeared to be some soot and ash, along with bits of burned/charred wood and other debris. Somewhere not far from the area toward the stage end of what is now Auditorium #1, I noticed what appeared to be some old newspapers. 

"On closer inspection it turned out to be a small pile of what was left of some very old Balboa handbills. It was obvious from their condition that they had been there through the fire. They ones on top were charred to the point where the paper pretty much disintegrated on touch. The ones a bit further down were not as 'crispy,' but their ink had run and become illegible, from being waterlogged either by fire hoses or as a result of  the Balboa's perennially leaky roof and our Richmond District dampness. But, the next to the last program in the bottom of the pile, although badly charred, was intact and somewhat legible. The program on the bottom of the stack had pretty much half dissolved into the ceiling plaster."

1948 and 1949 Balboa tickets from Jack Tillmany's collection.  

"The Year's Two Worst Pictures." Thanks to Jack Tillmany for spotting the March 23, 1949 Examiner ad. He comments: "The TRUTH pays off, as long as you don't try it too often! We attended that show. The place was FULL."

A March/April 1953 calendar from the Jack Tillmany collection.

For decades the Balboa was a second run house, sometimes changing programs several times a week. All films first played Market St. and only later went to outlying theatres. As distribution patterns changed in the 60s the Balboa started enjoying longer runs of more recently released films.

After its 92 week roadshow run at the United Artists, "The Sound of Music" moved directly to the Balboa in 1966 for an extended 21 week run for a total of 113 consecutive weeks. Immediately thereafter, "Doctor Zhivago" completed its 66 week run at the Orpheum, and moved over to the Balboa for a 30 week extended run, for a total of 96 consecutive weeks. As a result the Balboa only changed its bill twice in one year.

Mike Thomas, who later went on to operate many theatres, comments: "I was assistant manager at the Balboa back in the 60s when they were running "Sound of Music" and "Dr. Zhivago" off their Market St. engagements. Our presentations were roadshow, with overture and intermission but monaural sound. I don’t think anyone noticed because it was loud, rich and resonant. Wooden floor I believe. The charming interior had indirect cove lighting along the auditorium ceiling, and simple ornate plaster work similar to the lobby, all painted a sand color as I recall."

The theatre was twinned in 1978. The reopening on April 21 was with a multiple run of the iconic Joan Rivers classic "The Rabbit Test" and "Quackster Fortune" on side 1 and "Crossed Swords" and "Swashbuckler" on side 2. Jack Tillmany comments that none of these should have been taken out of the can.

Gary Meyer took over the operation in 2001 at the request of the Levin family. Adam Bergeron's San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation assumed the management in 2011. Their lease from the Levin family runs until 2024. The SFNTF also operates the Vogue Theatre.

Status: Alive and well as a two screen first-run operation.

Showtime at the Balboa:  A one and a half minute trailer about trash and cell phone use shot at the theatre is on YouTube. Thanks to Terry Wade for sending it along.  Long time projectionist Jim Cassedy is featured as the guy eating his popcorn with his cell phone on.

Jim reports: "Some time around 2010-11 a couple of Balboa Theater employees decided to make a 'policy video' to discourage people from bringing in outside snacks & using cell phones. They asked me to be in it. All I remember is that we spent all night doing this, and the scene I'm in wasn't shot till 3 or 4 in the morning, after which I got soaked to the bone walking home in a torrential downpour and caught a cold that lasted the rest of the week. Ah Choo!

Quite frankly, I thought the finished product sucked, for a variety of reasons. I know they were still using it as of a couple of years ago because one day I was on the bus and I noticed a couple seemed to be staring at me. When I looked back at them, they said 'We saw you last night.' For a moment, I nearly froze, because I knew where I was and what I was doing the previous evening, and I didn't think anybody had seen me. (Don't Ask!) Fortunately they explained themselves and I breathed a sigh of relief."

Lobby views:

A snack bar shot by Scott Strazzante that appeared with a March 2019 Chronicle article about the theatre: "Bring on the bagpipes -- it's a Total SF Movie event at SF's Balboa Theater." Thanks to Terry Wade for spotting the article.

A lobby view from Pawel W. on Yelp. It appeared with a 2017 Hoodline article.

A 2018 look in from the entrance doors from John Grant on the Facebook page "I Grew Up in SF's Richmond District.." Thanks to Bob Talley for spotting it for a share on the BAHT Facebook page.

Another view from the entrance. This one's by Pawel on Yelp.

Auditorium photos: No photos have surfaced of the auditorium before the twinning. Gary Meyer, who took over the management around 2001, notes that he's never seen any. The original blueprints do exist, in the collection of Gary Parks. He notes: "What’s interesting about the blueprints is that they show that the auditorium ceiling was perfectly flat, which was really unusual. Typically, Reid Bros. did vaulted or domed ceilings. Also, the concrete pillars which are painted blue-gray and divide the present soundfolded wall surfaces were just as they are today—exposed concrete, painted. They did have plaster ornamental capitals on them though. The proscenium and organ grilles were somewhat similar to those in the Amazon, and Roosevelt (York)."

Auditorium #1, house left. Thanks to Terry Wade for the photo. Head to the Cinema Treasures page about the Balboa for 53 photos that he shot in 2019.

Auditorium #2, house right. This is the larger of the two. Photo: Terry Wade - 2019

Booth stories: Projectionist Jim Cassedy made another attic discovery: "I found a number of empty beer bottles from The Rainier Brewing Company (here in SF), which according to some info printed on the labels, as well as other info I found online, I was able to date back to right after Prohibition ended in 1933. Based on their location in the ceiling, (right inside an attic access hatch which opened into the projection room), I can only assume that they were tossed up there long ago by some brew-thirsty projectionist."

Gary Meyer notes: "In the booth for auditorium #2 (the lower booth) you can see the original ornamental wall at ceiling molding and the design around the ceiling light fixture. You can get above the lowered ceilings from the upstairs booth."

More exterior photos:

A 1941 look at the theatre running "Four Mothers" with Claude Rains and Priscilla, Rosemary and Lola Lane. "Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum," a 1940 release, completed the bill. The photo, from, appears on the Balboa Theatre Facebook page.

A 1949 photo from the Jack Tillmany collection of a billboard for the Balboa. He comments: "Once upon a time all the major first run venues and even some of the nabes, such as New Mission and New Fillmore, promoted their films with colorful 24-sheet billboards, maintained by Foster & Kleiser, at high visibility locations all over the City, in the days when there was an abundance of such vacant lots, which, before they were 'developed,' provided no other source of revenue for their owners.

"Lesser nabes opted for 6 sheet boards, promoting split week programs, of 2nd and 3rd run programs, located nearer the actual site of the venue, such as this May 1949 example, on the NW corner of Geary Blvd. & 33rd Avenue, announcing the Balboa's Sunday-Monday-Tuesday double feature.
 [which, believe it or not, I actually recall seeing there, on Sunday afternoon!] This one's particularly interesting because the adjoining board, partially cut off on the right side of the photo, announces the opening of El Rancho Drive-In Thursday 26 May 1949.

"'Letter to Three Wives' was very popular at the time, and has since become recognized as a classic of its era. The less said about 'Whiplash' the better. Both of them are now frequent flyers on Turner Classic Movies."

A December 16, 1956 photo from the Jack Tillmany collection.  The theatre is running "Toward the Unknown" and "The Best Things in Life Are Free." Jack comments: "We lived on 26th Avenue & used to go to the Balboa most Sunday afternoons. It was a nice walk, and saving 15 cents on the streetcar meant a box of popcorn. Rail service on Line B would end two weeks after the photo was taken.

An August 1964 look at the theatre running "Tom Jones." It's an Alan J. Canterbury photo in the San Francisco Public Library collection. The photo also appears on the Balboa Theatre Facebook page.

Thanks to Robert Muller for spotting this 1969 photo by Tom Gray on the Lost San Francisco Facebook page. The Jack Tillmany collection photo appears on a Western Neighborhoods Project page.

This 1972 view of the theatre appears on the Facebook page Growing Up In San Francisco's Western Neighborhoods.  The photo, credited to the San Francisco Public Library, also appears with a 2015 story on the UpOut blog about San Francisco's remaining historic movie theatres.  

The twinning of the Balboa happened in 1977 and 1978. Jack Tillmany has the story: "The single screen Balboa closed, as a result of a fire, in mid-September 1977. They would have been showing an interesting revival of 'War of the Worlds' and 'When Worlds Collide.' I could find no mention of the fire in the Chronicle. Their last ads were Friday-Saturday-Sunday, all of which had to have been placed at least 3 days earlier. The deadline for Sunday was Tuesday, the deadline for Monday was Thursday. There was no ad Monday or afterwards, so the fire may have occurred sometime in the middle of the preceding week. Maybe it was mentioned in the Examiner or elsewhere. Maybe not.

"It re-opened, with no fanfare, as a twin on Friday 21 April 1978, with a citywide multiple run of one of the what was expected to be one of the season's big successes, 'The Rabbit Test,' the story of the world's first pregnant man, written and directed by Joan Rivers. Anticipation ran high for this one, so it opened simultaneously at the Balboa, New Mission, Empire, Alhambra, Serramonte 6, and Geneva Drive-In and at 22 suburban sites, also listed in the ad. [Running stuff like this in order to fill screens was just one more plus of multi-plexing, since all of the above, except for New Mission, were multiple screened by this time.] Sadly, I missed it. So did most people. Just about everybody, in fact.

"Obviously, there was no need for a second feature, but the Balboa was not niggardly in giving its patrons maximum return for their box office dollars, and backed it up with a re-run of the cult favorite 'Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx' (1970), so how could they lose? 'Crossed Swords' and 'Swashbuckler' provided enough racket on Side Two to keep patrons awake on Side One, both of them."

A 1986 photo from the Jack Tillmany collection.  

The theatre got profiled in an Up Out "A Historical Guide to the 9 Remaining Old Movie Theaters of San Francisco." The 2005 photo they used was by Tim Trautmann. He has it on Flickr.

A 2011 Chronicle photo appearing with "The big screen, no not your TV: over 100 years of San Francisco Theaters," a March 2016 SF Gate photo portfolio. 

A 2014 view looking east on Balboa from Google Maps.

This atmospheric shot of the theatre's signage appeared with a KQED piece in 2014 on their picks for "The Best Movie Theaters In the Bay Area." The photo by Sarafina is on Flickr

A fine look at the theatre from a Rushtix page on "5 Bay Area Theatres to Watch Throwback Movies."

Gary Parks comments: "Though I've never seen photos of the interior before twinning, the original blueprints I have show a very nice, but typical Reid Bros. Spanish house, with tall twisted Corinthian columns flanking the proscenium, and little ornaments along the sidewalls. The blue-painted concrete columns we see today between the panels of ochre soundfold were exactly the same then, no plaster covered them. The ceiling was completely flat, though, no vaulted surface like the Roosevelt/York or Varsity. The proscenium was the usual graceful Reid arch, with a little filagree around it."

A 2015 photo by Eugene Kim that appeared with "Neon Dreams: 16 old theater marquees around the Bay Area," a February 2018 article on Curbed SF. 

With the theatre closed due to the Coronavirus, the staff painted a mural on the boarded up front. With appropriate social distancing, of course. It's an April 2020 photo from the theatre's operators, Cinema SF. They noted that the boardup was necessary as there had been a series of break-ins along the Balboa corridor. The blackboard on the right would later get the legend saying "What movies do you want to see when we return?" Thanks to Gary Meyer for forwarding the photo.

"Bay Area movie theaters are reopening. Is it safe to go?" This shot of the Balboa by Santiago Mejia was included with Aidin Vaziri's June 22, 2020 article for the Chronicle. Thanks to Terry Wade for spotting the article.

The mural episode: 

The mural that was painted on the back of the theatre in 1980 or 1981 by David Warren and others. It's a photo by Tom Gray from the Jack Tillmany collection. Jack comments: "Here's the mural in all its grandeur. It eventually faded and deteriorated badly. There's the usual sad story about its demise which I'll let somebody else tell." It was painted over when work on the wall needed to be done in 2005.

Gary Meyer tells the story: "We spent over a year trying to find people connected with it. One guy claimed to have helped paint but then he turned out to be a crazy who made up lots of stories. We know that the Levins paid for the paint and supplies bought from Crown Hardware but the store's owner at the time had long been dead and his son knew little. Several people whose homes faced the mural begged us to get rid of it. When the time came that the wall work had to be done (to prevent the place from being shut down) we took a detailed photographic survey of the mural so that it could be used as a reference for possible recreation. A few weeks after the wall repair project started Mrs. Levin's lawyer got a call that a lawsuit was being filed by the muralist.

"I didn't know about it until after the 90ish Mrs. Levin had agreed to a very large cash settlement. We could have redone the mural for less than she paid and put the balance towards other improvements. It turns out she was one of several people who worked on it and may have had some design input. I could never get a straight answer as to when it was painted.  She claimed to be an art professor at SF State but when I looked into it she was a teacher's assistant. She lived in Alameda and claimed to have drawings and other materials. I said I'd love to see them and create a permanent or temporary lobby exhibit with them and the photos. She did not want me to come to her house so we met for lunch in SF but she conveniently forgot to bring her work. She agreed to it all, went back to her home in Alameda and was never heard from again despite many attempts by me to keep the project going. I wonder what paradise she moved to with her winnings?"

Gary Parks adds: "From what I was told, at the time the Balboa was due for repainting, ownership/management did all sorts of due diligence in trying to locate the muralist, who's name was on the mural, as it was something that they wanted to preserve, but needed to be redone, as concrete needs periodic repainting, especially when one has salt air and wind to contend with in that part of town. The individual in question did not surface, so, after a time, with reluctance, the mural was painted over. AFTER that, all of a sudden, the muralist contacted the theatre, understandably upset. It's a classic case of  'Where were you when the page was blank?' As a some-time muralist myself, I have witnessed three of my works obliterated by subsequent business or property owners. In those three cases, the murals lasted a very brief time, but I got my fee upon completion, and took photos, and that's all an artist can expect. The creator of this whimsical tribute to Playland and the neighborhood can rest assured that her work was enjoyed for many years--which is more than I can say for a few of mine."

John Law discusses the artist: "David Warren painted the mural on the backside of the Balboa Theater in 1980 or 81...Chris [de Monterey] worked on it a bit with David at the time. I remember stopping by a couple of times while he was painting it...Regardless of whatever the aesthetic value of the mural at the Balboa may or may not have been, David was nothing if not a true and powerfully eccentric San Francisco character. According to Chris, David signed the mural 'R.J. Mololopozy.' This was one of David’s many stage names, including Irving Glikk, Flammo LeGrande, etc. David was indeed an afflicted alcoholic. With that said, over the course of his life he accomplished quite a bit, despite his never terribly plush checkbook.

"During his first marriage, while living in Florida, David and his wife were heavily involved in the Federal Head Start Program. David was vocally pro integration at a time when that was not a very popular stance. Upon returning to the San Francisco area, David started a thing called Playland Research Corporation through which he did his best to collect and archive Playland memorabilia. Much of this went to Dick Tuck at Playland-Not-at-the-Beach. David was instrumental in a handful of local historical projects, including rescuing the windmills in Golden Gate Park, and restoring and operating, along with Chris de Monterey, the Giant Camera at the Cliffhouse. Their tenure at the Camera was over 20 years. It was their effort to include the holograms. David inspired generations of artist show and film makers and the like.

"Among his other notable activities I must include his involvement in Communiversity, the long lived 'free' school that came out of SF State in the late 60s. David along with three others was the cofounder of the San Francisco Suicide Club. This group is now regarded as a major progenitor of flash mobs, urban exploration, culture jamming, and any number of other (sub)cultural activities. In my book, Tales of the San Francisco Cacophony Society, David is noted for these and other of his activities. David was a fire eater among other talents. He ignited the Burning Man figure the last year on Baker Beach 1989 and the first year that it burned on the Black Rock Desert, 1990. David’s papers are in the possession of me Steve [Mobia] and Chris. They will eventually be housed in special collections libraries at either Stanford, Nevada Museum of Art or some other suitable institution. I’ve been in negotiations with archivists at these institutions they are hoping to house this history...I’m telling you all of this, to point out for your edification who David Warren was and why he is important to the history of the Richmond District as well as the rest of the Bay Area and beyond..."

A photo by Steve Mobia. Thanks to John Law for sending it along.  

A photo of the mural that appears on the Western Neighborhoods page about the Balboa courtesy of Dennis O'Rorke. 

From the blueprints for the theatre that are in the Gary Parks collection:

A 38th Ave. elevation, a section through the lobby and auditorium, another auditorium section looking toward house right, and a facade elevation. 

A closer look at the facade from the previous image. 

A closer look at the backstage wall on 38th Ave.  It's a detail from the top image. 

The entrance arch separating the lobby from the auditorium. 

The area to the right of the proscenium. It's a detail from the lower section seen in the first image.

An even closer look house right.

A closer look at the section through the lobby and front of the auditorium that's in the top image.

A detail of a wall section at the inner end of the lobby from the previous image.  

The organ grille area left of the proscenium. 

A floorplan.

Marquee and other exterior details.  

A closer look at some marquee items. Thanks, Gary!

More information: Hoodline had a 2016 article "The Story of the Outer Richmond's Historic Balboa Theatre." A 2017 Hoodline article "Citing Attendance, Richmond's Balboa Theater Reduces Special Programming" discussed the difficulties dealing with declining attendance and maintenance issues in a 100 year old building. Thanks to Rob Doughty for spotting the article.

Visit the Western Neighborhood Project page about the Balboa for an interesting discussion of the theatre's history. Also see the Cinema Treasures page.  

There was also an earlier Balboa Theatre at 1634 Ocean Ave., later renamed the Westwood.

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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