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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 110: El Rey Theatre

The mighty El Rey Theatre, designed by Timothy Pflueger, opened on Ocean Avenue in 1931.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Feb 20, 2015

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 110: El Rey Theatre Outside Lands Podcast Episode 110: El Rey Theatre


Podcast Transcription

WNP110 - El Rey Theatre

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody La Bounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: David?

David: Yes, Woody.

Woody: It's good to see you again.

David: Oh, yeah. I can barely see you behind that big old microphone that you're talking behind.

Woody: I feel like I'm, can play hide and seek behind this rig that we’ve got.

David: I can't even see your jaw moving.

Woody: It's probably for the best.

David: Because it just keeps going. It never stops.

Woody: I do, I do, I am gratified, however, that people have noticed a sound quality difference.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And that they're complimenting us on it.

David: Yeah. You know, I'm kind of hard of hearing and so it's been good for me because I don't usually listen to it on headphones or anything. I just have a crummy little speaker on my computer that I listen to.

Woody: I heard you don't listen to it at all. [00:01:00]

David: Well, I check it. I check it. But I don't really listen to the whole thing.

Woody: To make sure I didn't edit you out or something.

David: Well, no, I mean, just because, you know I already lived it, man.

Woody: Yeah, I already lived it. I don't need to go there again. I'm moving on with my life. So, what are we going to talk about this week, David?

David: We're going to talk about some entertainment venue.

Woody: Ooh-la-la.

David: Yeah. You like that?

Woody:  I, I, I might.

David: Yeah. We are going to talk about an old theater, Woody, out on the West side of town. One that was a grand movie palace.

Woody: On the West side of town?

David: On the West side, yeah. Can you think of any grand movie palaces that were on the West side?

Woody: Let's see. In the past, we have done podcasts on the Alexandria Theater.

David: Movie palace.

Woody: With an Egyptian theme. And I think we did one on the Balboa Theater.

David: That's not quite a palace.

Woody: No, that's [00:02:00] more a popcorn palace.

David: But I mean, there were other palaces. The Coliseum Theater was kind of a movie palace in the Richmond District.

Woody: That was my movie theater, David.

David: Yeah, I know.

Woody: That is the close…

David: I attended movies there.

Woody: That is the one that's in my heart.

David: And I mean the Coronet, it's hard to call it a palace, but it was large.

Woody: Yeah, that's totally gone. Okay, so if we're talking movie palaces, this one's still standing?

David: It is!

Woody: I'm going to guess that we're going to talk about the king of movie theaters in San Francisco:

David: Da-da-da-daaah!

Woody: The El Rey.

David: That's right, Woody. The El Rey Theater on Ocean Avenue.

Woody: Which is Spanish for?

David: The king.

Woody: That's right.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Well, that's a great subject, David. You know what's funny about the El Rey is, so we should probably explain to people, if we haven't before, how the movie theater industry worked in the City back in the day. When movies were the thing.

David: Right. So back in the day, when a new movie came out, it would play on Market Street. And it would play on [00:03:00] Market Street until people didn't want to come downtown and see it anymore. Sometimes they would, sometimes it would play for months or even years.

Woody: Right.

David: A movie.

Woody: And that's when, it's funny nowadays, well, it's changing, but nowadays, that part of Market Street people wouldn't want to go down to see anything. Because it was pretty seedy for a long time. But we're talking about kind of mid-Market, right?

David: Right.

Woody: That's where the big theaters were, The Fox and what’s that one?

David: The UA Theater? The Orpheum was a movie theater, I believe, for a certain amount of time. The Warfield.

Woody: And there was, what was that one that showed nothing – Telenews.

David: Telenews. They showed nothing but newsreels.

Woody: All day long, like twenty-four hours.

David: Yeah. I think that was on the block that is where Justin Herman Plaza is now.

Woody: Yeah, I think that's right.

David: That whole block is gone.

Woody: So, the movie would come out it would debut on Market Street, these giant movie palaces that held thousands of people.

David: Right.

Woody: And then once it was time for a new movie to come out and [00:04:00] debut on Market Street, the old movie would get pushed out to the neighborhood theaters.

David: That's right.

Woody: And so that's what I, you know, when you think of the Coliseum or the Alexandria, even though these might have been big theaters, they, they were kind of getting the second run, even third run of movies that had been out for a while.

David: Right.

Woody: So why would they build a giant movie palace on the West side to show a second-rate movie, a second run movie?

David: Because movies was this thing to do, Woody.

Woody: Okay. So, tell us about the El Rey. When did the El Rey open? Well, where is the El Rey? You said it's on Ocean Avenue.

David: The El Rey is at 1970 Ocean Avenue at Victoria Street. Which is kind of right across from Ingleside Terraces. Down the road from City College, kind of between City College and San Francisco State.

Woody: If anybody knows that stretch of Ocean Avenue at all they know what building we're talking about, right?

David: Right. It's been, I mean, it's been closed since the mid-‘70s and [00:05:00] for quite a number of years it's been a church. It's the Voice of Pentecost Church.

Woody: But it's giant.

David: Yeah, it's great big. It has a great big, tall tower on it that's painted with a cross at this point. But the El Rey theater opened November 14th, 1931.

Woody: In the Depression?

David: Yeah.

Woody: And it was a big theater, how many seats?

David: It has 1800 seats, over 1800.

Woody: Wow. So, this opens in the middle of the Depression. I know on Ocean Avenue they had a movie theater in that stretch before the El Rey opened.

David: Right. The original Balboa Theater.

Woody: And which changed its name when the current Balboa Theater, which is on Balboa Street, opened.

David: Right.

Woody: The old Balboa Theater, which was kind of right where that Walgreens is essentially, a couple blocks to the East of the El Rey.

David: Right.

Woody: And it changed…

David: And it was a little place.

Woody: Yeah, it was small. It was like a medium sized.

David: But it had a, it was, that one opened a lot earlier.

Woody: Yeah. [00:06:00] Early 20’s.

David: Yeah, and it had all kinds of things in it. Like a little fireplace and a lounge area. It's like somebody's living room.

Woody: Right. And they called it the “Westwood.”  That was the name it changed its name to.

David: So, after Westwood Park, I imagine.

Woody: Exactly.

David: That’s right there.

Woody: Right. And a lot of people were trying to name that neighborhood “Westwood” at the time because of Westwood Park. And it sounded a little more high, upscale than “Ingleside” at the time. Because: residence park and all that stuff.

David: Well, the Ingleside had a connotation with the jail, I guess.

Woody: Dog racing track.

David: Right.

Woody: Things like that. Okay. So, the Westwood opens as the “Balboa” changes its name to the “Westwood” when the Balboa opens. But then the Levin family opens this giant 1800-seat, king movie theater.

David: Right.

Woody: In ‘31. And then Westwood closes.

David: With a super tall, you know, a 200-foot tower on it, almost. It's probably not 200 feet, I made that up.

Woody: It might [00:07:00] be, it might be a hundred and something feet.

David: A hundred something feet. And that thing had a blinking light on the top that was supposed to be a beacon for aviators.

Woody: To tie their blimps to it?

David: I don't think they were supposed to. It was not blimp parking, but it was just like, “Okay, there it is and we know where we're going.”

Woody: Don't crash into me.

David: You know, out in the fog. And it was supposed to have a directional spotlight up there for the fog.

Woody: It's actually very well situated because that's kind of a valley there, right?  On Ocean Avenue between the two hillsides, the two ridge lines. So, if you're anywhere on the North or South side of Ocean Avenue, you have a great view down and you see this big tower. And it's sort of a four-sided tower with a taper at the top. It's very Art Deco. It's totally Art Deco.

David: Yeah, it's very Art Deco. Yeah, funny you should say that, it was designed by Timothy Pflueger. Who did a lot of Art Deco buildings in San Francisco, including the Castro Theater, but notably, Roosevelt Junior High School, [00:08:00] which the designs are similar. They each have this big tower to them.  I mean, that's probably the end of the design of similarity. But they do both have this big tower.

Woody:  It's funny, Pflueger, too, he did the Castro Theater, which of course is definitely a movie palace.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Right? He also did the Paramount Theater in Oakland.

David:  Oh yeah.

Woody: Which is ridiculous.

David:  Art Deco over the top.

Woody: Palace with the…

David: I mean did he, he did the interior too then, or?

Woody: Yeah. And that place is amazing. And so, but the El Rey is a step down from both of those. I mean, he had, he made the outside, it's very sleek and Art Deco. The awning, I guess you would call it, or the sort of where the signage would…

David: Marquee?

Woody: Marquee, yeah. Has this zig zag, it feels sort of South American.

David: It’s Spanish.

Woody: Okay. Or Spanish.

David: It’s Spanish. I mean, it's called the “El Rey” and it has, it's a Spanish Art Deco.

Woody: Okay. And I think it had murals on the inside at one point. [00:09:00] Which I don't know if they're still there, but…

David: I think they've been covered but I believe they're still there. The Voice of Pentecost Church is very nice about it. And if you want to go in, you can, you can ask permission. They're often very open about it.

Woody: Right. The first movie, the first movie to show at the El Rey?

David: The Smiling Lieutenant.

Woody: With Maurice Chevalier and, and what's her name? Claudette, oh, what's her name?

David: Claudette Colbert?

Woody: Yeah, she was in that too.

David: I never saw it.

Woody: You didn't?

David: They showed it, though, a few years ago at the 80th anniversary celebration.

Woody: Of the El Rey?

David: Yeah.

Woody: Oh cool. I'm glad it's still able to be shown because it's really early. It's, like, early talkie-era in a sense.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So that was the first movie. Do we know what the last movie was at the El Rey? We don’t.

David: We do not know what the last movie was.

Woody: Well, before we get to the end of the El Rey. In the middle, again I think we talked about this in other podcasts, [00:10:00] there were a lot, a lot, a lot of kids that lived on the West side of San Francisco. Especially in the ‘50s.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And I've interviewed a number of people who went to the El Rey in the summer, and it had a little balcony and everything, and said it was just a mad house. And there'd be so many kids in there, hundreds of children, throwing popcorn.

David: Popcorn at the screen.

Woody: Just making noise.

David: And everything just…

Woody: The War of the World's played there, which I…

David: Uh-oh!

Woody: Yeah. And apparently it was a big hit and drew a lot of kids. And so, you have to imagine a time when not only movies were the big activity that people would do, but tons of big families too.

David: Right.

Woody: Looking for something to do.

David: And, I mean, it was a place where all people came together. I mean, I don't know, do you remember going? You said you went to the Coliseum Theater when you were a kid.

Woody: Yeah.

David: I mean, that's long after the ‘50s.

Woody: Yeah, thank you.

David: But do you remember? Do you remember, do you remember the Saturday afternoon [00:11:00] matinees? And having it be crazy in there?

Woody: Yeah.

David: Because I went to the, I grew up going to the El Camino Theater in San Bruno and it, and I recall it being just kind of nutty.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And just throwing stuff and kids going crazy all afternoon.

Woody: I kind of now look back and feel sorry for that one usher, who essentially was in charge of everything. When they had the flashlight with the little red tip by the end to show people to their seats, even though they didn't show us to our seats. But the big thing at the Coliseum is, and I, they had this at a lot of neighborhood theaters. They had a summer movie program. It was like a way for moms at the time to basically have free daycare.

David: Right.

Woody: So, it was like, I don't know what it was, a whole package. You got like twenty movies for like a quarter each or something. It was really cheap.

David: Wow, yeah.

Woody And then you'd get the package and you'd go every day to the movies. And the movies were, would change every day and they'd usually show older stuff. Like old Disney movies or science fiction movies from the ‘50s. So, we [00:12:00] all, our friends, would all get together. We'd go to the Coliseum and they'd show the movie like at 11:30 in the morning and we would just go in and own the place. There'd be nothing but kids.

David: I remember going and just staying and watching. Going in at any time, getting there in the middle of the movie, and then staying through the next movie and staying through the repeating show of the movie that you missed the first half of.

Woody: Yeah. My friend Gabriel and I, when we were kids, we would go to all the neighborhood movie theaters during the summer. We would just like pick a different one every day. And we didn't care what was playing there. And we would go see the movie, get on a Muni bus to go see it and sit there. Same thing, we'd go in anytime. And sit there as long as we wanted. And we just kind of hang out. I also have this memory, which I probably have already mentioned on the podcast once, we were going to the Coliseum and it was one of those summer movie things and they were showing the Shirley Temple movie, The Blue Bird. It was a terrible kid movie for a boy.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But they had a preview for a movie that was coming out that summer [00:13:00] called, “Star Wars.”

David: Uh-oh.

Woody And I said to Gabriel, I said, “We got to see that. It looks pretty good.” And I always think of Star Wars, I always think of Shirley Temple and The Blue Bird mixed in with that.

David: There you go. Well, here's, I have some, I have a couple of little anecdotes about the El Rey theater.

Woody: Oh, right! That's what we're talking about.

David: Where, where probably wasn't a kid's matinee that played there.

Woody: Okay.

David: Yeah. It turns out that the Mitchell brothers who were well known pornographers in San Francisco…

Woody: Yeah, we have, yeah, kind of changed tack here.

David: They're kind of, hey, they were as legitimate as you can get, being a pornographer. But they…

Woody: I just want to apologize to the family of Shirley Temple Black, now that we're talking about the Mitchell brothers. Okay, go on.

David: You already insulted a lot of people by saying it wasn't a good movie for a boy. Anyway. The Mitchell brothers rented out the El Rey theater and showed the premier screening of Autobiography of a Flea.

Woody: Was that a [00:14:00] pornographic?

David: That was a pornographic movie.

Woody: Entomological?

David: I never saw it. I never saw it. But one of my old mentors in theater, Morgan Upton, was the voice of the flea.

Woody: Ah.

David: Yeah. But I never saw the movie, I don't know. I think the flea crawls around all kinds of places that you…

Woody: Can imagine.

David: Don’t really want to think about.

Woody: And poor Morgan was just the voice, huh?

David: Yeah.

Woody: He didn't appear on screen.

David: He was like, “Whoa, what's that?”  I don't know, I have no idea.

Woody: We probably shouldn’t guess.

David: “Man, can I jump!” I don’t know.

Woody: We probably shouldn’t guess what the flea saw. Okay. But that kind of goes back to what that area was like in the ‘70s, that you could do that because…

David: Right.

Woody: And what the ‘70s were like in San Francisco.

David: Yeah. Oh, another thing in that building. So, the El Rey theater has a couple of retail spaces in there and the first Gap store was part of that building.

Woody: The very first?

David: Very first.

Woody: Gap.

David: Good old Don Fisher. I can, I think I can say “good old Don Fisher.” [00:15:00] I've never met him, but.

Woody: Well, he's deceased.

David: Oh.

Woody: He won't mind.

David: I didn't even know he was sick.

Woody: Anyway, yeah, the first Gap. This multi, global, whatever, clothing, apparel…

David: Clothing store, yeah.

Woody: Yeah, business. Started on Ocean Avenue in the corner of the El Rey theater in that little storefront. Right there.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And the other side it was a grocery store for a long time too. Wow! So that, I think the El Rey should be a landmark just for that. Spawning the Gap, that’s pretty amazing.

David: Well, I mean, it just sits there drawing people. And it is a, it's a landmark unto itself, if it isn't a City recognized one.

Woody: Right. And inside, I got to say, it hasn't changed too much. The lobby, I think, got some work done on it and may have lost some of its original…

David: They took out the candy counter and blew out that area a little bit.

Woody: Right, but inside the theater itself, which we've been in a few times, it's a giant cavernous movie house essentially, with all the seats.

David: Oh yeah, we had our OMI History Day there. [00:16:00] That was a long time ago.

Woody: Right. But it's giant. It's a giant place. It's really big. And I know the Voice of Pentecost for a while was getting into movie making themselves. Inside the old movie house, they were making religious themed motion pictures essentially.

David: Yes, I got a casting call for a part in one of those.

Woody: Yeah? Which, who, were you Pontius Pilate?

David: Yeah, “Burn them!” No.

Woody: Yeah, they used all these special effects and I know the guy had like the Bulgarian National Orchestra doing the soundtrack for one of their movies.

David: Wow.

Woody: So yeah, they were actually getting really into it.

David: So, movies are still going? Filming?

Woody: I don't know. They were ten years ago/ I don't know if they're still doing it. But that's the mighty El Rey theater on Ocean Avenue. Anything else we can add? I do know that, I think originally, Pflueger had a whole lighting scheme up the tower. Like he wanted to have colored spotlights go up it. And you talked about the beacon at the top. It also used to say “El Rey” on the side of the tower.

David: Right, in big letters. There's been a little bit of change. Yeah, I think [00:17:00] that at the top where the cross is, I believe it was open with some kind of fluting or something. I don't know exactly what was up there, but it wasn't a solid thing like it is now.

Woody: And that tower was a perfect shape for the Voice of Pentecost to paint a big cross on it.

David: Right.

Woody: It kind of worked out really well for them. But it's still there, the building's still there. It should be a City landmark if it isn't, and I don't think it is.

David: No.

Woody: And it's definitely a landmark in the neighborhood, for sure.

David: Yeah. We should tip our caps or give a little notice to Jack Tillmany and Therese Poletti, who, whose material and research on the El Rey has helped us immensely in this podcast.

Woody: Yeah. Jack is an old movie house historian friend of ours. And Therese is an expert on Timothy Pflueger. And she…

David: We have a podcast with Therese that we did, so.

Woody: Yeah. And she wrote a great book on him too. So, thank you both. David, I think we have some info and photos of the El Rey Theater on our website.

David: Boy, do we!

Woody: That's outsidelands.org. [00:18:00] And what else can people do on that website, David?

David: Woody, they can become a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project. We are a 501(c)(3), nonprofit organization. So, any donation you make to us could be tax deductible. I used to say, “Is tax deductible,” but then Woody would always put a disclaimer in there. So, it could be tax deductible. And what does your donation and membership get you, Woody?

Woody: I think it gets you, well, you definitely support the work we do. Which is to preserve and share the history of these neighborhoods that people live in and love, and maybe they grew up in. And it's also definitely an ignored side of town as far as history and preservation goes. It's getting better, but we do that work. We try to advocate for the history and for buildings like the El Rey theater, so you're helping support that. And you get a nice glossy magazine every quarter. You get to hear our [00:19:00] podcast, you get to look at all the great photos that you and Nicole are archiving on our website. I kind of feel like you get way more than you deserve.

David: You mean “one does,” as a member.

Woody: One does, that's right. So go now...

David: Well, Woody, there's no maximum donations.

Woody: All right, all right, I'll write another check, darn it.  So go to the website outsidelands.org., become a member. And, David, I'll see you next week.

David: Sounds good.

Woody: Okay.

Woody: Hey, to learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about the San Francisco history, go to outsidelands.org [read in a high-pitched, accented voice].

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