by Ken Lewetzow
I was startled by a picture on this website indicating the Star Theatre (now the 4 Star) dates back to 1913, which seems to be very early for a theatre—especially for this area in early stages of development. It set my mind to recalling my earliest connections to the Star—late 1930s to 1940s.
Some called it the “fleahouse,” assumably because of its size—(somewhere between 150-180 seats). Configured somewhat like a wide-body jet, there were two aisles with sections of two-seat, five-seat (or six?), and two-seat across. Seats were wood-backed with flip-up cushions. There were four ceiling-mounted light fixtures with impressive inlaid red, blue, and purple glass. They usually ran two feature films, a comic short, and a newsreel such as The March of Time. Films were “second run,” about 90 days after their first-run showing at downtown Market Street theatres. One Fox Movietone Newsreel serial comic short always started with a goofy-looking guy (Lew Lehr, d. 1950) in a corner inset saying “monkeys is the cwazyiest people”—then flipped to shots of chimps riding bikes, doing somersaults, etc. Most of the cowboy films were second-tier “B” movies, with many chase scenes shown running left, then the film reverse-flipped to show running right (low-cost film footage!). During the war years, replacement materials were not available so the seats had multiple repairs and aisle carpeting was worn and sticky from gum and drink spills—it actually stuck to the soles of your shoes (sounded like VELCRO being separated). In the late 1940s, competition from the Alexandria was heavy! That theatre had remodeled, upgraded the cushioned seats, and also put in rocking-chair loge seats. (Perhaps the removed and reclaimed seats were the source of the Star’s fully cushioned re-do at about that time.)
Admission costs: Kids 10 cents, Juniors 15 cents, Adults 25 cents. Seems cheap, 10 cents for kids, but coming out of the Depression, for some hard-pressed families, 10 cents was a serious expenditure!
Local advertising: A stack of FILM COMING ATTRACTIONS six-inch square cards, was placed in all the larger markets, close to the front door (i.e., Grazzini Market on the south side of Geary Boulevard about 21st Avenue, and Stanley’s Hollywood Food Market on the north side of Geary at 26th Avenue next to Trad'r Sam’s). Most Richmond District homes had their card close to a calendar; a good reference check for appropriateness for the kids.
Profit margins must have been razor-thin. A $30+ take on a Saturday afternoon including concession sales—think about it—with two or three employees, film rental, ownership costs, utilities, janitor, overhead, insurance—brutal! My cousin, Cliff Martin, earned 75 cents on Saturday mornings for a two-hour job sweeping out the theatre and scraping gum off the bottom of the seats.
The Adult Evening Crowd
In those days, adults generally dressed appropriately for an evening out. If a kid accompanied, he was only on good behavior. Rustle a popcorn bag, and the big guy in the seat in front of you would spin fully around and stare straight into your face—point taken! Ladies in high heels: as soon as they stepped off the aisle carpet, sounded like a huge clatter on bare floors. People stood up to let others pass would raise the seat (screech!) and then sit down (ca-chunk!). The cop walking the Clement Street beat would routinely stop in to warm up and watch a few minutes of the show, sitting on the usher’s stool, or standing in the rear. Smoking was confined to the side seats. A lot of good that did! You'd look up and see the projector lights illuminating the billowing clouds of smoke.
In 1939, they started passing the March of Dimes can with the slotted top thru the crowd between movies and with the lights up. It was a hearing check test: was that a dime, or was that a thumbnail flick on the bottom of the can? (Silver coins have an unmistakable ring sound!) Come on folks! Some people simply couldn’t afford it.
Occasionally in the early evening, the usher would come searching thru the audience with a flashlight—and in stage whisper –“Billy Smith, your mother is on the phone, and wants you home for dinner.” Billy Smith types were always tempted to stay over from the matinee and see the exciting parts again.
The Kids Crowd
Saturday afternoon, you had to be in line early. If sold out, a kid would go home totally destroyed. Sometimes the line went up Clement Street past Hockings Hardware Store (where I got my first pair of Union #5 roller skates).
As I neared the kid rate age cutoff (was it 10 years old?) my cousin Thelma Martin would say as we approached the ticket booth, “keep your knees bent and don’t look so tall.” (If I got charged 15 cents, there would be no 5-cent Hershey bar.)
Early on, I was inclined to run in and sit in the front row. Big mistake! The screen was almost straight up and the picture was so fuzzy that I would have eye strain and a headache all night long. A slow learner, this happened a few times before sitting further back.
The kids were a noisy crowd, lots of laughing and chatter. If an exciting cowboy film, there was much shouting such as “shoot ‘em!” Short kids sometimes had trouble seeing and would leave the seat in an upright position and sit on top: this resulted in many calls of “down in front.”
My sister Marilyn (four years old) was chewing on something. I asked, “what are you chewing?”
She says "gum” (a huge wad).
I said, “where’d you get it?” She points to the bottom of the seat!
Brother Richie (6 years old) sat on the floor and refused to look at the screen if a scary movie part was on (Frankenstein, The Mummy's Curse).
My sister Carol recalls there used to be a guy with white hat, shirt, and pants who would silently hawk ice cream in the aisles. He didn’t say anything; just held the ice cream over his head and looked side-to-side for a buyer.
There were issues with popcorn bags! Very noisy, rustling of bags while the popcorn was consumed; then the kid would inflate it and give it a whack, resulting in a loud bang! Attempting to remedy this, the management punched holes in the bags, but a kid with strong, fast hands could still make it pop. So then they started putting popcorn in in large paper drinking cups. Resourceful kids then finished the popcorn, turned the cup upside down on the bare floor and stomped on it, resulting in a thunderous BOOM! It was finally resolved when they started using cardboard containers with scalloped-shaped top edges.
Once in a while a kid not wanting to go the long way would wait for the usher to enter the lobby, slip behind the fire door curtain, wait for a timely moment, then burst thru the fire door and make a bee-line for home. The sun streamed in and the curtains flapped in the breeze. The usher would come running, close the door while shaking his head. (Must have been one of those unruly kids from St. Monica's.)
While mostly noisy, the crowd was generally pretty good in deportment. Not like the kids at the Coliseum who would cast unspeakable things from the upper balcony onto the audience below. This resulted in a rule of only 18 years and older allowed in the balcony.
Summation: In looking back, I loved that place.
Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!
Page launched 20 February 2016.