The El Rey Theatre

 1970 Ocean Ave. | map |


Opened: November 14, 1931 with Maurice Chevalier in "The Smiling Lieutenant." The building is on the north side of the street ten blocks east of Junipero Serra Blvd. This 1970 view from the Jack Tillmany collection appears on Cinema Tour. Note the Gap store in the east storefront. It was the chain's first.

Seating: 1,831 originally, later 1,750 

Architect: Timothy Pflueger of the firm Miller & Pflueger. Several sheets of plans for the theatre are in the Gary Parks collection. See some details from the drawings down at the bottom of the page.



An early rendering for the theatre. Thanks to Jack Tillmany for sharing the image from his collection. The theatre was a project of Samuel Levin and M.A. Naify's San Francisco Theatres, Inc. Construction of the Ingleside Terraces subdivision had begun in 1913 with the developer reserving a lot for a "nickelodeon." Much later it became the site for the El Rey.



 
A colored pastel on paper rendering from the office of Miller & Pflueger that reflects a later version of the design. It's now in the Mark Santa Maria collection, purchased from the Jack Naify Collection. The photo is by Tom Paiva, originally taken for Therese Poletti’s book "Art Deco San Francisco, the Architecture of Timothy Pflueger.” Thanks to Gary Parks for tracking down the image.
 

A February 20, 1931 ad promoting space for lease in the project. Thanks to Jack Tillmany for locating it.


A pre-opening ad from the San Francisco News. Thanks to Therese Pilotti for including it with her October 2011 post on the Timothy Pflueger blog titled "The El Rey Theatre to come back as a movie palace for a night." The church that was in the building was throwing a party to celebrate the theatre's 80th anniversary. They ran what had been the theatre's opening film, "The Smiling Lieutenant."  The event was also discussed in Peter Hartlaub's 2011 SF Gate article "El Rey Theatre's 80th anniversary salutes the past."



"The Beacon's Rays Will Guide You." The opening day ad in the Examiner. Thanks to the Facebook page Growing Up in San Francisco's Western Neighborhoods for sharing it. 



A detail from Pflueger's plans shows his idea for a big swirled "R" at the base of the theatre's 146 foot tall tower, something that was never installed. The image appears with "El Rey Theatre blueprints show what's missing," a very interesting 2010 post on Therese Poletti's Timothy Pflueger Blog.

Jack Tillmany discusses programming in the 70s: "If the operators of the El Rey Theatre (United Artists Theatre Circuit) had simply planned to close the place down and walk away from it, it would have been a kinder gesture than what they did to it during its last few years of operation. During 1975, for example, week after week, the worst garbage imaginable was booked into the place, bottom of the barrel celluloid trash that never should have been taken out of the can. Little wonder audiences stayed away in droves.

"In May 1976, the site was leased out to independent operators, who chose to describe it as 'the most unique theatre in San Francisco,' which brought them some attention from irritated English teachers, but failed to stimulate ticket sales. UATC put a fresh coat of fresh paint on the building. The new operators offered an eclectic mix of contemporary, foreign and domestic, independent, and vintage film programs which failed to appeal to more than a handful of ticket buyers. Yours truly was one of about a dozen dedicated souls who ventured into the immense unheated auditorium one cold December evening in 1976 to experience 'Murders in the Zoo' (1933). Although the new operators had signed a long term lease, they walked away from it less than a year later.

Closing: The theatre closed April 1, 1977. Jack has the story: "Its last hurrah took place Tuesday 29 March 1977 when the International Hookers Film Festival ran a noon to midnight marathon of 'Irma La Douce,' 'Sweet Charity,' 'Some Came Running,' 'Three Penny Opera' (1931), and 'Pandora's Box' (1929). Three days later, the Festival (and the theatre) closed permanently after a program of X-rated films about prostitution and a panel discussion. A sad end indeed."

It became a church. The Voice of Pentecost bought the building in 1977 but the pastor decided years later that god would take care of his mortgage payments. His god didn't come through and he lost the building to a group of investors in a December 2015 foreclosure sale.

The Chronicle's February 15, 2016 story "Foreclosure sale of old Ocean Avenue movie house shocks neighbors" by J.K. Dineen noted: "...In December, the El Rey changed hands for the first time since 1977, selling in a trustee sale on the steps of City Hall for $1.06 million. The seller was the Stanford Federal Credit Union, which had foreclosed on the property after the church, now called A Place to Meet Jesus, defaulted on a loan. The buyer was a joint venture between Ricci Ventures and Greenpoint Land Co., both Marin investment groups."

J.K. Dineen's January 2017 SF Gate article "Church's exit offers new hope for SF's historic El Rey Theatre" noted:

"It may be too early to plug in the projector, but there’s hope on Ocean Avenue that the historic El Rey Theatre could soon be ready for a sequel. After occupying the El Rey for 39 years, A Place for Jesus, a Pentecostal church, has vacated the building, bolstering a longtime neighborhood dream that the neglected icon could be reborn as a community arts center or theater. This week the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission voted to initiate the designation of the 1931 movie palace as a city landmark, a six-month process that will make it eligible for state and federal tax credits and other incentives.

"While the Streamline Moderne theater has long been a shoo-in for landmark status, California law stipulates that a building serving as a church cannot be designated as historic unless the church agrees to the designation, which A Place for Jesus never did. The theater is now owned by two Marin investment groups. The San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission is trying to make the El Rey Theatre building, home to a church for decades, into a city landmark. The news comes as Ocean Avenue has attracted a wave of investment over the past five years, including a Whole Foods and four new apartment complexes totaling more than 300 units. Yet stretches of the retail thoroughfare have languished, especially on the western end of the strip where El Rey is located." Thanks to Gary Meyer for spotting the story. 

A June 2017 Chronicle article by J.K. Dineen, "SF's EL Rey Theater moves step closer to being a city landmark," discussed the landmarking process for the building as well as future possibilities. Dineen noted: "While the owners have not yet filed an application to redevelop the property, they are exploring a mix of retail, arts and, possibly, housing. The owners have reached out to theater groups in gauge interest. Architect John Goldman, who is working on the renovation for the property owners, said the new owners are 'very much behind the landmarking.'" Thanks to Bob Ristelhuber for spotting the story.
 
SF Curbed had a July 2017 story about the theatre getting the city landmark status. Thanks to Bob Ristelhueber for spotting the article. Hoodline also picked up the story with a followup article.

Status: It's now just sitting there. The theatre has been landmarked. The owners plan to restore the theatre and retail spaces plus add condos around it. See "Plans to Redevelop the Historic El Rey Theater Site," a July 2019 article on Socketsite.  Thanks to Bob Ristelhueber for spotting the article.



A rendering of the proposed project by Goldman Architects that appeared with the July 2019 Socketsite article. There's also a facade drawing as well as two views of the rear of the project. Andra Young notes: "John Goldman is a fan of Pflueger and also was a board member of the Art Deco Society of California."

An update on the plans appeared in the August 2021 SFist article "Redevelopment Plans Move Forward For Historic El Rey Theater in Ingleside." Thanks to Mike Hume for spotting the story. SFist noted that plans were withdrawn in 2019 after objections were raised to the condos perched on top of the theatre's retail wings. It was suggested that the project would be improved with greater density at the rear of the property instead. The plans have been resubmitted for for review by the Planning Department.
 

A facade view that appeared with both the 2019 SocketSite article as well as the 2021 piece from SFist.



Lobby views:


In the lobby looking toward the entrance doors. It's a December 4, 1942 Ted Newman photo from the Jack Tillmany collection that appears on the San Francisco Public Library website.



A lounge up at balcony level. It's a 1942 Ted Newman photo from Jack Tillmany that appears on the San Francisco Public Library website.



A view across the lobby during a 2019 garage sale. Thanks to Andra Young for this view and the others appearing here. Her photo set appeared on the BAHT Facebook page. She notes that nothing offered at the sale was related to the theatre.



One side of the lobby. Photo: Andra Young - 2019



Ceiling plasterwork. Photo: Andra Young - 2019



A lobby column detail. Photo: Andra Young - 2019



A 2007 Tom Paiva photo taken for Therese Poletti's book "Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger." The photo appears with "El Rey Theatre blueprints show what's missing," the 2010 post on Ms. Poletti's Timothy Pflueger Blog.



The ornament as it appears on Pflueger's blueprints. This detail from a page of the drawings appears with the photo above on Ms. Poletti's blog post.  See 11 images from drawings for the building that are in the Gary Parks collection down at the bottom of the page.



An aisle sign photo by Brant Ward that appeared with "Foreclosure sale of old Ocean Avenue movie house shocks neighbors," J.K. Dineen's February 2016 SF Gate article. The photo also appeared with Dineen's January 2017 SF Gate article "Church's exit offers new hope for SF's historic El Rey Theatre." The caption: "Much of the 1931 Streamline Moderne building’s original detailing has survived, although the structure is in bad shape."



Ladies room signage. Photo: Andra Young - 2019



Men's room signage. Photo: Andra Young - 2019



A look up the stairs. Photo: Andra Young - 2019



A ceiling detail. Photo: Andra Young - 2019



A view toward the lounge area above the entrance vestibule. Photo: Andra Young - 2019



A closer look toward the windows. Photo: Andra Young - 2019


In the auditorium: 


A 1942 view of the stage. The Ted Newman photo from the Jack Tillmany collection is on the San Francisco Public Library website.



The Ted Newman proscenium image photoshopped by Jack Tillmany to show how the house looked with a CinemaScope screen. 



In addition to the ornament we see adjacent to the proscenium in the photos above, similar thin vertical bands of ornament were intended for the side walls. The detail from the plans appears with "El Rey Theatre blueprints show what's missing," Therese Poletti's 2010 post on her Timothy Pflueger Blog. 



A 1942 look at the rear of the house taken by Ted Newman. It's in the Jack Tillmany collection and appears on the San Francisco Public Library website. 



A Brant Ward photo for theChronicle that appeared with J. K. Dineen's January 2017 SF Gate article "Church's exit offers new hope for SF's historic El Rey Theatre." 



Nope, not the original seats. It was a church when Tom Paiva took this 2007 view of the back of the balcony. The photo was taken for Therese Poletti's book "Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger." The photo appears with "El Rey Theatre blueprints show what's missing," the 2010 post on Ms. Poletti's Timothy Pflueger Blog.



A detail of the sidewall ornament from the original blueprints showing a face rather than the fan and floral design seen in the 2007 photo. The image appears on the 2010 blog post by Ms. Poletti. As she comments, we don't know if the design was changed during construction to get rid of the faces or if it was later altered.



A balcony view appearing with Peter Hartlaub's 2011 SF Gate article "El Rey Theatre's 80th anniversary salutes the past." It's a photo taken by Brant Ward for the Chronicle. The guys are looking up toward the booth. That black void on the right is the proscenium.



The auditorium's main ceiling light fixture. It's a Chronicle photo by Liz Hafalia that appeared with "Foreclosure sale of old Ocean Avenue movie house shocks neighbors," J.K. Dineen's February 2016 SF Gate article.



A look down from the top. Thanks to Graeme McBain for posting the 2019 photo on the Facebook page Theatre Architecture.

Gary Parks comments: "That ceiling was originally a riot of flying tropical birds, sun rays, and Chinese-inspired, swirling Deco clouds, much of it done in metallic pigments or metal leafing."


More exterior photos:


A 30s view from the Chronicle archives appearing with a 2011 SF Gate story about the theatre's 80th anniversary.



A perhaps early 40s view looking east. It's from the Jack Tillmany collection. 



A 1941 photo with the theatre running "The Lady Eve" and "Topper Returns." This photo from the Jack Tillmany collection made an appearance on a Mt. Davidson page about Ingleside Terraces.  Jack notes that this double bill opened for a one week run beginning June 13.



A December 4, 1942 photo by Ted Newman looking east. It's from the Jack Tillmany collection and appears on the San Francisco Public Library website. 



A December 4, 1942 look at the marquee by Ted Newman. They weren't bothering to put up titles as the marquee wouldn't be turned on at night anyway due to wartime lighting restrictions. It's a photo from the Jack Tillmany collection that appears on the San Francisco Public Library website.



A 40s peek into the boxoffice. Thanks to Woody LaBounty for finding the photo. 



A c.1947 look east on Ocean Ave. from the Jack Tillmany collection that appears on a Western Neighborhoods Project page about the theatre.



A K-line streetcar at Ocean and Ashton in December 1951. It's a Walter Vielbaum photo from the Jack Tillmany collection appearing on the Open SF History Project site. 



A July 25, 1959 photo taken by Clark Frazier at Ocean Ave. and Ashton. Note the new signage on the east side of the tower, evidently the only side to get it. The photo appears on the Open SF History Project website. Thanks to David Gallagher for figuring out that the theatre was running "This Earth is Mine" and "At War with the Army."



A March 1966 photo taken by Jack Tillmany while the theatre was running "The Ugly Dachshund" with Suzanne Pleshette and Dean Jones. Jack calls our attention to the tower, no longer with its El Rey lettering on the two sides we see here. 



A June 1966 photo by Tom Gray from the Jack Tillmany collection. The theatre is running "Frankie and Johnny."



"Winning" playing at the El Rey in June 1969. It's a Tom Gray photo from the Jack Tillmany collection.



A July 1970 Tom Gray photo from the Jack Tillmany collection. The Muni Historic Trolley #1 was out on a fan trip. The theatre has "Kelly's Heroes." Note the Gap signage on the east storefront.



A perhaps mid-1970s photo by Tom Gray. It's from the Jack Tillmany collection.  



 A c.1977 "Most Unusual" Tom Gray photo from the Jack Tillmany collection. 

In 1976 United Artists Theatre Circuit repainted the building as a result of finding someone to lease the theatre from them on a long-term basis. The marquee copy originally said "Most Unique Theatre in San Francisco." They got so many complaints it was changed to "Most Unusual." The new tenants walked away less than a year later.



A c.1977 Tom Gray photo from the Jack Tillmany collection appearing on the Open SF History Project website.



An entrance view from the Jack Tillmany collection taken during the building's church era. Gary Parks comments: "Though not appropriate for a deco building, I have to say that the marble floor isn’t half bad. Before it was there, the floor was pretty plain. If it was terrazzo, it was absolutely patternless, but I seem to remember it was something like pebbly concrete or some such. If the terrazzo had been worth commemorating, I'd have photographed it."

Regarding the marquee during the church era, Gary notes: "The Voice of the Pentecost marquee kept going through various incarnations. At one point, it had this little plastic figure of a man in a warmup suit, leaping for joy. Not sure what that was all about, and later, it just had a garish purple paint job, and incandescent bulb digital readerboards."



A 2011 Brant Ward photo for the Chronicle that appeared with a June 2017 article by J.K. Dineen: "SF's El Rey Theater moves step closer to being a city landmark." Thanks to Bob Ristelhuber for posting the story on the BAHT Facebook page.



The facade in 2015. Photo: Bill Counter



The west side of the building. Photo: Bill Counter - 2015 



The minister didn't understand that he needed to pay the mortgage. This photo by Liz Hafalia appeared with "Foreclosure sale of old Ocean Avenue movie house shocks neighbors," the Chronicle's February 2016 article by J.K. Dineen. 



A John King photo that appeared with J. K. Dineen's January 2017 SF Gate article "Church's exit offers new hope for SF's historic El Rey Theatre." 



Another John King / Chronicle photo that appeared with J. K. Dineen's January 2017 SF Gate article.



Looking east toward the theatre in December 2017. It's a Google Maps image.



The theatre in December 2019, still awaiting redevelopment. Photo: Andra Young



Behind the barricade.  Photo: Andra Young - December 2019. Thanks, Andra! Her photo set and comments can be viewed on the BAHT Facebook page.


El Rey salvage:


The ticket taker’s box that's seen in the 1942 Ted Newman photo. Gary Parks comments: "The squared-off scroll patterns on the upper part of its flanks appear to have been designed to echo similar patterns in the theatre’s interior ornamental plasterwork. The box was purchased from the Voice of Pentecost Church organization by Mark Santa Maria c.1990. At the time, they were removing and discarding many original fixtures and fittings of the theatre, in an effort to make the premises less theatrical-looking. Mark purchased two large metal and etched glass wall light fixtures at the time, which he later sold to someone in Los Angeles, but he was too late to save several large, trough-shaped ceiling lights, which ended up smashed in a dumpster." Photo: Mark Santa Maria


Images from the plans for the theatre in the Gary Parks collection:


A south facade elevation.



A closer look at the entrance. 



A detail of the grillework above the entrance doors. 



A storefront detail. 



A section through the building looking toward the rear of the auditorium.  



A section looking toward the proscenium. 



A detail indicating what planes various sectional drawings represented. 



A longitudinal section. We're looking toward the house right wall. 



The rear of the auditorium, a detail from the section drawing. 



The middle of the auditorium, another detail from the section. 



The front of the auditorium with the stage at the left. Note the screen line and curtain line. 

Thanks, Gary! He comments: "These are details from two big sheets I have of  the El Rey. They were duplicates of sheets in the full set that I gave to Therese Poletti, because former owner of the collection, Gary Goss, wanted her to have the Pflueger stuff, so she got the El Rey, the Castro, and the Alhambra." Therese is the author of the book "Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger."

More information: See the Cinema Tour and Cinema Treasures pages about the El Rey. Also see the Western Neighborhoods Project page about the theatre.

Another theatre in the neighborhood was the Balboa, about four blocks west. It was later renamed the Westwood and closed in the early 30s. 

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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