The Surf Theatre

4510 Irving St.  | map |

Opened: This Outer Sunset district theatre opened in 1926 as the Parkview, a project for Ward Cox and George Hustin. The construction was announced December 12, 1925 and it was running in May 1926. The location is between 46th and 47th Avenues. Thanks to Doug Depue for this photo of the theatre and the adjoining Cine Cafe. It was a post on the Facebook page San Francisco Remembered.

Architect: Edward A. Eames. A set of the original blueprints is in the Gary Parks collection. See eleven images from them down at the bottom of the page.

It was renamed the Sunset in 1937. It became an art venue as the Surf beginning July 24, 1957 after a remodel by owner Isabella Strohmeyer. Mel Novikoff took over a couple years later and continued that programming model for decades.  

His Surf Theatres group also operated the Clay, Lumiere, Castro and Surf Interplayers with a mix of foreign films, specialty releases and revival/repertory policies. He also briefly operated the Bridge, Stage Door and Cannery theatres. 

A 1963 Surf program. Thanks to Matías Antonio Bombal for sharing this image of the cover on the BAHT Facebook page. 

"Loved that theater and its little café!" -- Marco Place

"And those wonderful Dutch orange chocolate bars they sold in the lobby. My mother took me to see a double bill of 'Forbidden Games' and 'Bicycle Thief' back in 1963 when I was 8 years old and I remember it as if it was yesterday." -- Ethan Nielson

"The trek out there on the N Judah primed you to enjoy whatever miracle you were going to see. And they were miracles." -- Charlie Cockey

The Surf in the Movies: It's the theater where Woody Allen watches "Casablanca" at the beginning of "Play It Again, Sam" (Paramount, 1972). Herbert Ross directed. Dianne Keaton co-starred.

Outside in front of the Surf Cafe.

Seating: 392 per the original plans. As the Parkview it was listed as 450, perhaps an exaggeration. In later years as the Surf it had 333.
Status: It closed July 7, 1985 and is now a church.

 Mel Novikoff died in 1987. Thanks to TJ Fisher for locating this newspaper photo for a post about him on the BAHT Facebook page. TJ comments: 
"He was only 64 when he died in September 1987. One tribute described him as 'a gentle man with a passion and a vision who wanted to share his love of entrepreneur with an artistic soul, and a nice guy.' Another called him 'a one-man United Nations: he brought the world to us on film.' One could argue that he was more responsible than any other individual from this period for making San Francisco one of the best cities for moviegoing in the country." 

Michael Blythe notes: 

"The main offices for the Surf Theatres chain were kitty corner across the street from the Clay Theatre!"

Gary Meyer talks about Mel: 
"When I was 16 I introduced myself while he sat in the Surf Theatre Cafe (what a concept!). He became my mentor (and even my daughter's godfather). We shared offices above Brommel's pharmacy where we loved looking across the street on opening day to see if there were lines. I learned so much from him about movies and showmanship. And giving back to the community. He was an avid supporter of the ballet, symphony, opera, live theater, local restaurants and museums. When SFMOMA decided to stop its film programming he jumped and kept it going. He'd work extra hard to fill the auditorium and we were always rewarded by the films (such as introducing America to Bertrand Tavernier showing 'The Clockmaker'). 
"If he loved a movie lacking distribution he might buy it and convince a distributor to handle it for him. When the SF International Film Festival ran out of money and was about to close down Mel took the lead with Tom Luddy, Peter Buchanan and Albert Johnson to save it by working for no pay to get it back on its feet. And he brought the Festival to the Castro (the start of a trend). The story I have often told and to confirm everything TJ wrote was that the theater was a run-down, dirty, crumbling third run venue. The Nasser Brothers Sr. (sweet old guys I knew) had no interest in it anymore. We walked into this dark place one morning. Mel dragged the janitor's light to the center and turned it on, revealing the ceiling dome. As he tilted the lamp we saw murals and cameos covered with dust and cigarette smoke. 
"It only took a few minutes for Mel to get excited and start talking about his vision for turning it into a theater where every night would be an event. He also operated the Surf, Clay, Surf Interplayers, Lumiere (adding a screen in the adjacent half of the building), Cannery (the first cinema in SF with a bar), and the Stage Door (for a short time). The Blumenfelds were proud to continue Mel's tradition with Anita Monga programming it and bringing in more festivals. When the lease ran out the Nasser sons decided that they should operate it----with mixed results. Whatever reputation it maintained was thanks to the people hired to program, manage and promote it plus those festivals."

Mel Novikoff in the upstairs lobby of the Castro Theatre. Thanks to TJ Fisher for locating this.

Interior views:

A c.1978 lobby photo by Paul Lawrence from the Surf Theatres Archives. Jason Benlevi comments: "The fellow at the candy counter is David Bacon, who was the manager for a few years. We went to San Francisco State Film School together."

A July 1985 look at the 333 seat theatre's interior by Cliff Tune. The photo appears on Woody LaBounty's article about the theatre for the Ocean Beach Bulletin
An earlier look to the back of the house from the Surf Theatres Archives. 

More exterior views: 

A 60s view of the Surf by Greg Gaar that appears with the Ocean Beach Bulletin article. Kevin Walsh commented: "Actually, no later than 1962, judging by the yellow 1956-issue license plate on the car at the right. In 1963, everyone was issued new black plates." One source dates the photo as 1964. A version of it is in the San Francisco Public Library collection.

Lining up for John Korty's film "The Crazy-Quilt" in 1967. It's a photo from the Surf Theatres Archives.  

Another 1967 "Crazy Quilt" shot from the Surf Theatres Archives.

A c.1970 photo by Clay Geerdes. Thanks to David Miller for posting this on the Facebook page San Francisco Remembered. And thanks to Kevin Walsh for spotting the post.   

A Jack Tillmany photo taken in the 70s that appears on the Western Neighborhoods page about the theatre. The photo also is on the Growing up in SF's Western Neighborhoods Facebook page. The photo is also with Woody LaBounty's Ocean Beach Bulletin article on the Surf.  

A 70s shot of theatre operator Mel Novikoff in front of the building. It's a photo from a Surf Theatres Archives scrapbook. It was probably used as a publicity shot as "Surf Theatre" is stamped on the back.  

A detail from the photo with Mel from the Surf Archives. The posters in the cases are for "The Story of Adele H" (1975) and "Amarcord" (1973).

An evocative look at the Surf by Ann G. Baker that appears with Peter Hartlaub's 2014 SF Gate article "Screens like old times: Movie spectacles of the past."

 A c.1975 photo by Paul Lawrence from the Surf Theatres Archives.  
A 1977 view by Paul Lawrence from the Surf Theatres Archives. Note the poster for "Pumping Iron," then playing at the Clay

An 80s look at the Surf by Jim Cassedy appearing with the Western Neighborhoods page on the theatre. 

A 1985 photo from the Jack Tillmany collection.  

Thanks to Gregory Kiner for a 2015 look at the famous art house, sadly now a church. He posted the view on San Francisco Remembered as a comment to a post of a 70s view of the theatre. 

Details from the set of prints in the Gary Parks collection: 

A title block with the names of the owners and the architect. 

Facade details. That's the boxoffice in the lower left. Gary comments: "The facade is drawn as it was built, except for the very significant difference of the lack of the Mission style outline of the top cornice. Here, it's square. I think the decision to change it to the Mission shape was a good one."

A decorative cove. Gary comments: "Stenciled peacocks once resided on the lobby walls!"

A look toward the proscenium. Gary comments: "A pretty plain proscenium at the get-go…and NO organ chambers! Must have had a tiny Photoplayer down front, or a piano." It's noted on the drawing that there was no screen. It was to be a painted area on the plaster back wall.

The standeee area and front of the booth. 

A section through the front of the building. In the outer lobby, at the center, the drawing calls for stenciled ornament in seven colors. The stairs at the left go up to the men's room and the booth, which is in the upper left.

A section through the unexciting back of the auditorium. The booth is seen in the upper right.

More interesting sidewall decor here near the front. At the left it's the orchestra pit, the proscenium,  and the back wall that would be used as a screen.  

A detail of the plaster ornament on the side wall.

A plan of the front of the auditorium showing the stage and orchestra pit.

A plan of the lobby end of the building. In the upper right it's a rental storefront. In the upper center is the theatre's ladies room and stairs up to the men's room and booth. 

Thanks, Gary!

More information: The Western Neighborhoods Project has a page on the Surf. Also see the Cinema Treasures page.

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