The Red Vic Movie House

Location #1:

1659 Haight St. | map |

Opened: The first Red Victorian Movie House opened at 1659 Haight on July 25, 1980 with Craig Russell in "Outrageous," a popular 1977 release. It's a story about a female impersonator who rooms with a pregnant schizophrenic. The photo by Tom Gray is from the Jack Tillmany collection.

Seating: 80 or so. Lots of it was on couches.

Closing: It closed May 29, 1990 after disputes with the landlord. The demise was chronicled in the April 10, 1990 Chronicle:

"RED VIC THEATER CHANGING REELS - - Funky movie house to move down Haight Street after 10 years as offbeat retreat -- After years of a grumpy, sometimes hostile landlady-tenant relationship, the laid-back but world-famous little Red Vic Movie House that occupies a special place in the heart of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, will close on May 20.

"But its operators, the seven members of the Red Vic Movie House Collective, said the good news is they are planning to move up the street, into the space now occupied by the Full Moon Saloon, 1725 Haight Street, a large nightclub that is also a beloved Haight hangout. All of this may come to pass over the long summer, said Dan Eichler, a member of the 'worker owned' movie house collective that claims that nothing profitable has ever occurred at the Red Vic, aside from the sale of home-baked cookies and brownies.

"FULL MOON TO CLOSE SOON - 'We want to reopen by September,' Eichler said. 'It's going to be great.' Meanwhile, the Full Moon Saloon is scheduled to close when escrow on its sale to a Peninsula couple closes, probably by June. The couple plans to rent the saloon to the Red Vic, but keep its popular bar operation, separated by a wall, in business. The nightclub's longtime operator, Joe (Bunny) Simon, 61, originally named the place the Anxious Asp after moving it from North Beach, which may ring a bell with '60s types. He said that even though he tried funk, punk and reggae, competition from South-of-Market clubs and 'changing times on Haight' made selling the Full Moon 'tremendously appealing.'

"Rumors have circulated about the fate of the Red Vic after its often-disputed lease with the Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast Inn, from which it derives its name, expires next month. Haight Street with its lingering lure of the celebrated Flower Child age, remains a provocative magnet for all kinds of people - the purely eccentric, the drug addicts and dealers, the transient just off the Greyhound from Portland, tourists from New Zealand and Germany, and even to local yuppies who entertain counterculture ideas and occasionally dabble in the odd bit of hippie or skinhead punk lore. What almost everyone on the street fears is that once the Red Vic closes down with its final show (Hal Ashby's 'Harold and Maude') on May 20, things will never be the same again.

"LIKE A LIVING ROOM - The funky little joint that seemed to be more a living room than a movie theater, charging only $3.50 admission and serving freshly made popcorn with the option of nutritional yeast sprinkled on it like Parmesan cheese . . . well, things will be changed. The word 'gentrified' is heard frequently. The Red Vic's fame has brought mentions in Newsweek magazine, and a reference in a New Yorker short story. Lauren Hutton went there to see herself in Les Blank's 'Gap-Toothed Women,' former Dead Kennedy lead singer Jello Biafra is a regular, Danny Glover occasionally drops by, and Paul Kantner shows up with his daughter, China.

"What made the Red Vic famous (it was once touted as San Francisco's smallest movie house, but sardine-can auditoriums at Opera Plaza Cinemas and at the Lumiere on California changed all that) was its practice of offering couches to sit on, rather than theater-style movie seats. Of the 100 or so seats at the Red Vic about half are old, beat-up and slightly forlorn-looking sofas. Most of these have been worn down by years of use and have taken on characteristic quirks, wrinkles or sags, like old faces. 'We've become a symbol of noncorporate thinking, the antidote to the multiplex movie theater,' said Red Vic collective member Sean Streiff.

"SAGGING SOFAS - When the Red Vic's sofas get so bad they're seemingly worthless, the theater simply places them out on the sidewalk for the poor and disenfranchised to adopt. These little adoptions have become rituals of the street. In turn, when Haight residents upgrade their home furnishings and need a good home for the old sagging couch, they call upon the Red Vic.'We've had couches walk away in about five minutes,' said Red Vic collective member Brian Waldron. 'And we've had them show up on our doorstep unannounced.' However, members of the collective reluctantly admit they have purchased a few sections of bolt-down, traditional armrest theater seats.

"COUCHES COULD BE A PROBLEM - 'We're not sure the city fire codes will let us keep the couches,' said collective member Gary Aaronson. 'That's going to be a big problem for some of our fans.' 'I don't think I can ever watch that great hippie movie they play if I have to sit on a regular seat,' said Loraine Marchand, 39, who described herself as a '60s person and longtime resident of a Cole Street flat.

"She was referring to what is probably the Red Vic's most popular film - 'The Hippie Temptation.' It is a CBS News report made in 1967 by Harry Reasoner, who gives his impressions of the Haight and its youth culture of the time. 'They call them hippies,' Reasoner starts out, and the Red Vic audience will recite the words aloud. The Reasoner report goes on to survey the curious habits and dress of the period, while the Red Vic patrons ache with laughter.

"UNEASY TENANCY - Almost since its opening 10 years ago, the Red Vic has had a difficult relationship with its landlady, Sami Sunchild, 65, who owns the Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast Inn, a 15-room hotel upstairs from the theater. Sunchild said noise was a big factor in her opposition to continuing the theater's lease on 3000 square feet of space in her Inn's ground floor. The Red Vic fought Sunchild's attempts to evict. Bitterness arose after an arbitrator ruled, about 5 years ago, that the theater had a valid lease contract and was entitled to stay another 5 years. Since that time, the theater folks knew their number was up when their next lease expired.

"Sunchild said the 'unfair lease' deprived her of the chance to build her own dream place in the space occupied by the theater. She wants to start what she calls a New Age 'global networking center' that will include a small cafe, a merchandise bazaar, computer networking stations, a gallery for 'transformational art' and information booths for peace and ecology groups. Sunchild said the Red Vic theater owes its very existence to her Red Victorian Inn, and is no more deserving of fame than her place, which consists of 15 guest rooms designed with a 'new consciousness to make history a living event.' For example, her Flower Child Room is decorated to make guests feel like they are in the Summer of Love, she said.

"AQUARIUM BATHROOM - She said tourists from all over the world marvel at her inn's 'aquarium bathroom,' which features a toilet tank with '14 happy goldfish' living in it. You flush the toilet and wonder if the goldfishes go down the drain - but when the water is still again, voila! there they are, as happy as toilet tank fishes can get. The Red Vic movie house folks said all of their ambitious plans to move will depend a lot on raising as much as $150,000 for remodeling the saloon, and installing a 35-millimeter projector (they have only 16mm now) that will help usher the Red Vic into a more modern era. 'We'll still be funky and lovable,' said the Red Vic's Lenny DiFranza. 'Nothing's really going to change except that everything will be better.'"

Thanks to Jack Tillmany for finding the article on Newsbank.

Location #2:

1727 Haight St. | map |

Opened: The second location, called the Red Vic Movie House, opened January 15, 1991 at 1727 Haight, a block away from the first location. It was on the south side of the street between Cole and Shrader.

In the January 4, 1991 photo it's Brian Walder, Martha Beck, Gary Aaronson, Susie Bell and Sean Streiff, members of the Red Vic collective, ready to open the house. It's a 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 1992 Tom Gray photo from the Jack Tillmany collection.

Seating: 143

Closed: July 25, 2011

A view toward the screen by R.A. McBride from the book she wrote with Julie Lindow, "Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres." The gallery page on the website about the book has photos of other theatres to browse. Additional photos from the book appear on a 2010 post on the blog Trouvaillesdujour. There's also a post about the book on the blog MUBI.

The rear of the house. It's a photo by R.A. McBride.

A look to the rear of the house during a screening of "The Room." Thanks to Omar Rodriguez for adding the photo as a comment to a post about the theatre on the BAHT Facebook page.

The cover for Depeche Mode's singles reissue features the back wall of the auditorium. Thanks again to Omar Rodriguez for finding this one.

The end of the 2nd Red Vic location was covered by the Chronicle on July 7, 2011 in an article by G. Allen Johnson: 

"FINAL FLICK TO ROLL AT HAIGHT'S RED VIC - The already endangered repertory movie scene in San Francisco is taking yet another hit. Later this month, 31 years to the day after it became an instant landmark in the Haight-Ashbury, the Red Vic Movie House will close. 'Our closure is 100 percent certain at this point,' co-owner Claudia Lehan said. 'On July 25, our birthday screening of "Harold and Maude" will be our last, I'm sad to say.' The Red Vic opened on July 25, 1980, at Haight and Belvedere streets. Its first film was the 1977 Canadian indie 'Outrageous!' about the friendship between a gay hairdresser and pregnant mental patient, which set the tone for three decades of eclectic repertory and second-run fare.

"The theater was created and operated by a six-member employee-owned collective that rented space for 80 seats, including its signature worn couches, from the Red Victorian Bed & Breakfast. In 1991, the Red Vic moved a block west to its current location at 1727 Haight St., renovating the former Full Moon Saloon and expanding to 143 seats - this time padded benches and theater seats - and a concession stand featuring organic treats. Danny Glover was a regular, bringing his own green bucket to handle the gourmet popcorn.

"Glover, who once introduced 'Places in the Heart,' was merely one of many celebrities and industry professionals who showed up in person for Q&As. Legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs presented 'Easy Rider,' and more recently Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, the Oscar-winning musicians and stars of the film 'Once,' performed after a screening of the film. Of the original six collective members, only Jack Rix is currently involved. Lehan has been in the collective since 1998; the other current members are Susie Bell and Sam Sharkey.

"'We had various benefits, and individual donors contributed via PayPal,' Lehan said Tuesday night by phone as she was working a shift at the theater. 'We had some support, but not enough to make it sustainable.' Instead, the modern factors that have taken down many independently owned theaters - home video, HD cable and on-demand TV and movies, and streaming video from websites such as Netflix - appear to have finally doomed the Red Vic. The liquidation process has begun. A movie poster and collectibles sale is scheduled for Saturday afternoon ('We have sooo many posters, it's really out of control,' Lehan said). 

"The theater's lobby area will be absorbed by its next-door neighbor, the Alembic Bar, which plans to expand, according to general manager Daniel Hyatt. There are no plans for the auditorium itself. The San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation estimates about 25 to 30 neighborhood theaters have closed in the past 30 years. Among repertory houses, only the Castro and Roxie theaters remain. The Roxie has remade itself as a nonprofit. But there is a new kid on the block: The San Francisco Film Society recently reached an agreement to operate the New People Cinema in Japantown beginning in September. Repertory programming is part of its mission. 

"The Red Vic was a true original with a vibe that was perfect Haight-Ashbury. Movies remaining on the schedule include the Talking Heads concert film 'Stop Making Sense,' the Orson Welles classic 'Touch of Evil' and a few Bay Area-filmed movies, such as 'The Last Waltz,' 'What's Up, Doc?' and of course 'Harold and Maude,' which had become the theater's annual birthday movie. 'It's a sad thing,' Lehan said. 'We held on for a long time. I'm so grateful to have been a part of it. A really great gig. Love it.'"

 Thanks to Jack Tillmany for finding the article on Newsbank.

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.

There's a page about the Red Vic Movie House on Cinema Treasures.  

The Open SF History Project website has a photo of the members of the Red Vic Collective taken outside the theatre in 1985 by Greg Gaar. Thanks to Art Siegel for locating the photo.

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