The El Capitan Theatre

2353 Mission St. | map |

Opened: June 29, 1928 as an Ackerman and Harris operation. Soon Fox West Coast ended up with it. What's left is on the east side of the street between 19th and 20th.

Architects: William H. Crim, Jr. and G. Albert Lansburgh. Much of the decor was rather plain and the lobby areas were rather small. Evidently the owners scaled the project back during construction. The story is that Lansburgh wasn't pleased with the results. None of that stopped the house from being a big money maker.

The theatre was an addition behind an existing building. Gary Parks has the story: "The El Capitan Hotel was a completely separate building, built not long after the quake. I do not recall the original hotel name. Lansburgh and his associates simply designed the arch and new ornament for it, and cut the lobby through what had once been a retail space. According to Steve Levin, the Neoclassical decorative balconies with Italianate balusters which exist on the second floor, just above the retail level, are survivors from the hotel’s original exterior look."


A rendering of the theatre from the Jack Tillmany collection. 

Seating: 3,100 was the announced capacity initially, later it was 2,578.

Pipe Organ: It was a style 230sp Wurlitzer. After massive vandalism it was sold in 1960 to Bill Reid, who installed it in his house in Antioch. In 1993 he donated it to the Nor-Cal Theatre Organ Society for installation at the Fox California Theatre in Salinas, were it remained for 10 years. It then went to the ATOS Central Indiana Chapter for installation in the Indiana Theatre in Terre Haute, a job still pending. Thanks to Tom De Lay for the information.



An announcement of the opening of the theatre that appeared in the July 7, 1928 issue of Motion Picture News. Thanks to theatre sleuth Bob Ristelhueber for finding the article for a post on the BAHT Facebook page.



The article "El Capitan is Largest Theatre in San Francisco," appeared along with four photos in the August 4, 1928 issue of Motion Picture News. It's on Internet Archive. Thanks to Bob Ristelheuber for finding the article for a post on the BAHT Facebook page.



An article in the September 28, 1928 issue of Exhibitors Herald-World announced that Fox West Coast had bought out Ackerman and Harris. A combination policy of films plus stage shows survived until at least mid-1932 and then the house went film-only.



A chance to win a new Plymouth! "Man About Town" opened at El Capitan in August 1932 after playing the Fox in June. Thanks to Jack Tillmany for finding the ad.



The return of stage shows to the theatre was the subject of a June 22, 1933 Examiner article. Thanks to Jack Tillmany for finding it. He comments about "Out All Night," the film portion of the initial program: "It had 'premiered' downtown (as all films did in those days) at the Golden Gate 26 April 1933 along with the usual Golden Gate vaudeville stage show."



"Big Stage Shows Are Back." This was the theatre's ad in the June 22, 1933 Examiner. Also see a photo of the parade celebrating the new policy. It's unknown how long the stage shows continued to be offered. 

Closing: Fox West Coast closed the theatre July 24,  1956. It was then leased out to an independent operator and re-opened May 1, 1957.

In September they were already struggling to stay open. Jack Tillmany found one ad for a "Movie-A-Thon! 4 Big Hits!" The program was "Each Dawn I Die" (1939 re-release w/James Cagney and George Raft), "Three Hours to Kill" (1954 Technicolor Western with Dana Andrews and Donna Reed), "Adventures of Hajji Baba" (1954 CinemaScope Harem thing, produced by Walter Wanger, released by TCF). Plus, yes, plus: "Duel on the Mississippi" (1955 Technicolor Sam Katzman krap from Columbia).

They finally gave up and the place closed December 15, 1957.

Status:  The auditorium and inner lobby were demolished in 1964. The facade, outer lobby and spaces in the earlier hotel building fronting on Mission St. remain.


Lobby areas:


The outer lobby set up as a speakeasy in 1932 during the run of "The Wet Parade," a film about prohibition. It's a photo from the Jack Tillmany collection. They were offering free beer but Jack notes that it was prohibition-style "Near Beer." 



A June 1928 look at one end of the inner lobby. Note that there's no carpet yet. It's a photo from the Jack Tillmany collection. A version of it is in the collection the San Francisco Public Library.



A lobby drinking fountain. The 1928 photo is in the collection of the San Francisco Public Library.



A Hales Brothers lobby appliance display in September 1937. It's a photo from the Jack Tillmany collection.



The lobby display for the Mission Merchants "Better Times Fair." The c.1933 photo is from the Jack Tillmany collection.



The upstairs portion of the c.1933 "Better Times Fair." Thanks to Jack Tillmany for the photo.



Upstairs in the lobby. "Portion of the Wall Treatment on the Mezzanine Level. The Mezzanine Overlooks the Foyer Promenade." The photo is one of four appearing with with "El Capitan is Largest Theatre in San Francisco," an article in the August 4, 1928 issue of Motion Picture News. It's on Internet Archive. Thanks to Bob Ristelheuber for finding the article for a post on the BAHT Facebook page.



Looking toward stairs down to the main floor. The 1928 photo is in the collection of the San Francisco Public Library.


The auditorium:


A proscenium view appearing in the August 4, 1928 issue of Motion Picture News. 



A detail of the area above the proscenium. The photo appeared in the in the August 4, 1928 issue of Motion Picture News with the caption "The Balcony over the Arch and the Polychromed Beamed Ceiling Are Important Decorative Features."



A stage set from the theatre's early years. Jack Tillmany comments on his photo: "Here's a look at what you might have expected to see as backdrops for the stage shows. Note the little ramps where Peggy O'Neill and her Merry Makers troupe could cross over the orchestra pit and give the audience a closer look, just like the burlesque houses of the era. "



 A photo from the Jack Tillmany collection of a set for another production. 



Another stage photo from the Jack Tillmany collection. He comments: "For the record: Moulin Studios took complete photos of the El Capitan when it opened, and, as far as I know, they're still in their vaults. Many years ago, the DeYoung Museum had a show in which poster size enlargements of some of them were displayed, and, take my word for it, they are SENSATIONAL! Maybe some day... someone..."



A drawing looking across the auditorium from the 1991 Conclave issue of the Theatre Historical Society magazine Marquee. Thanks to Michael Moran for finding it for a post on the BAHT Facebook page.


Exterior views: 


A look at the decorative treatment on the upper part of the facade. The photo is one of four appearing with "El Capitan is Largest Theatre in San Francisco," an article in the August 4, 1928 issue of Motion Picture News. It's on Internet Archive. Thanks to Bob Ristelheuber for finding the article for a post on the BAHT Facebook page. The photo is also on the San Francisco Public Library website.



A September 1930 shot of the theatre while the comedy dance team of Barto and Mann were on the bill for the stage portion of the program. The film that week was "Romance" with Greta Garbo. It's a George Mann photo that Brad Smith has on Flickr.



A 1932 photo appearing on Shorpy with the caption: "Essex sedan at El Capitan Theatre, in the Mission. Now playing: Jay Brower with Peggy O'Neill's Merrymakers Revue. Whether these ladies constitute five-sixteenths of the Sweethearts or some undetermined fraction of the Merrymakers, or both, we cannot say. 5x7 nitrate negative, formerly of the Wyland Stanley and Marilyn Blaisdell collections."

The film portion of the program was "Amateur Daddy," an April release with Warner Baxter. The stage shows were soon dropped in favor of a film-only policy. Thanks to William David French Jr. for spotting the shot. The photo also appears in a smaller format on page 79 of Jack Tillmany's "Theatres of San Francisco." The page is part of the preview on Google Books.



The ticket lobby as it appeared during the run of "The Wet Parade" in 1932. Jack Tillmany comments on the photo from his collection: "It was a mid-1932 MGM film depicting the evils of Prohibition, but trying to show both sides of the issue, what brought it about, as well as the results of what were regarded as good intentions at the time. Dan McLean, always a showman, gave it a big promotion, fixed up the front of the theatre as an old time saloon, and even dressed the part, with costume & handlebar mustache. The 'Free Beer' he handed out was actually the non-alcoholic 'Near Beer' of the prohibition era."



The theatre running "Hot Pepper" in 1933. Thanks to Benjamin Greenhaack for posting the photo on the Facebook page San Francisco Remembered.  It's from the Jack Tillmany collection. A sad version of the photo is on the San Francisco Public Library website. The photo also appears on the blog San Francisco Pictures in their Mission St. photo collection. It has also been seen as part of a triptych on the site Burrito Justice.



Thanks to the Lost San Francisco Facebook page for posting this photo of the parade celebrating the June 1933 return of stage shows to the theatre. The film on the initial program of the new policy was a second run engagement of "Out All Night," with Slim Summerville, Zasu Pitts, Billy Barty and Shirley Temple. It had originally played the Golden Gate. A version of the photo is also on the San Francisco Public Library website from the Jack Tillmany collection. 



A July 1936 photo from the Jack Tillmany collection. Note the vertical for the El Capitan in the distance. The Majestic later became the Tower Theatre.



A 1938 photo appearing on page 79 of Jack Tillmany's "Theatres of San Francisco." The page is part of the preview on Google Books.  Lily Castello also found it on eBay and had it as a post on the BAHT Facebook page.



Looking south in 1939 with a Mission St. Market Street Railway Interurban passing by. It's a photo from the Jack Tillmany collection.



A 1955 photo from Jack Tillmany along with ticket stubs from his collection. He comments: "Under Fox West Coast operation, El Capitan was the first neighborhood house to install CinemaScope, and got all the films as soon as they left their Market Street premieres. Alexandria, Marina & El Rey soon followed suit. In mid-1955 it was hard to imagine it had only a couple more years to go."



Reverend Gaylord E. Atwell looks at a display case at the theatre. It's a newspaper photo in the San Francisco Public Library collection. It ran November 28, 1957 with this copy: "Standing in front of Mission's newest church - Golden Gate Evangelistic Temple - is its pastor, the Rev. Gaylord E. Atwell, who thinks location is 'just ideal.' Church is in the El Captain Theater, 2358 Mission St. Transformation work is not completed. Note sign upper left."



A c.1958 photo from the Jack Tillmany collection. He comments: "Looks like the place was boarded up without even bothering to take down the message on the marquee. A sad end, indeed, especially with Wally's Television right next door."



Still "Trees For Sale" in this April 1962 Peter Breinig photo for the Chronicle. The photo appeared with the May 2012 SF Gate article by Peter Hartlaub, "The streets of the Mission District: Then and now."



The facade c.1964. It's an Alan J. Canterbury photo in the San Francisco Public Library collection.



A c.1968 view north taken by Tom Gray. It's a photo in the Jack Tillmany collection. 



A photo from the 1985 book "Silent Screens."  The auditorium had been demolished in 1964. Thanks to Bob Ristelhueber for funding it for a post on the BAHT Facebook page.



Thanks to Michael Moran for his fine 1991 shot of the vertical -- no longer on the building. This appeared with 3 more El Capitan views in a post on the BAHT Facebook page.



The theatre's facade is still a major presence on Mission St. This 2009 photo is by Thomas Hawk on Flickr. Also see his immense Theaters album.



The facade in 2015. Thanks to Bob Ristelhueber for his photo on the BAHT Facebook page.   



A detail of the upper part of the facade. Photo: Bob Ristelhueber -  BAHT Facebook page - 2015



A peek into the former lobby. Photo: Bill Counter - 2014


Deeper in what had been the outer lobby. Photo: Bill Counter - 2014



Lobby plasterwork. Photo: Bob Ristelhueber - BAHT Facebook page - 2015



One of the conquistadors. Photo: Bob Ristelhueber - BAHT Facebook page - 2015 



A closer look. Photo: Bill Counter - 2014 



Looking in toward what had been the inner lobby. Photo: Bill Counter - 2014 



The view from the space that had been the auditorium. Photo: Bill Counter - 2014



Looking back out to Mission St.. Photo: Bob Ristelhueber - BAHT Facebook page - 2015

More information: 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.

Both Cinema Treasures and Cinema Tour have pages about the theatre.  The blog 100 Movies 100 Theaters pays a visit to the Mission district.

The site Noe Hill has an El Capitan page as part of their San Francisco landmarks series.  The San Francisco Public Library has many exterior views and two lobby photos.

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