WNP36 - Balboa Theatre
Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast for the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.
David: And I'm David Gallagher.
Woody: Are you ready to talk about a notable West side landmark today? A cultural…
David: Another one?
Woody: Yes, we've got tons of them. A cultural and a physical West side landmark.
David: Has it been demolished?
David: Has it gone out of business?
David: Is it threatened with…
Woody: Daily, like all West side landmarks. No, actually, it's on relatively secure footing right now. Which is unusual.
David: What could it be, Woody?
Woody: Well, you know, we talked a few podcasts ago, maybe twenty, about the Surf Theater, the old theater that used to be in the Outer Sunset that was beloved and eventually closed.
Woody: Well, I'm going to talk about, [00:01:00] tell you about one that's on the North side of Golden Gate Park and is almost as beloved these days, but is open. The Balboa Theater out on…
David: The good old Balboa Theater.
Woody: The good old, yes. At Balboa Street near 38th Avenue.
Woody: And it was my local movie theater for quite a long time.
David: I've spent a lot, I’ve gone to see many movies there.
Woody: Yeah. So, what do we know about the Balboa Theater? And it wasn't the first Balboa Theater, actually.
David: No, it wasn't. The original Balboa Theater was on Ocean Avenue.
Woody: Kind of in the Ingleside, Westwood Park area.
David: Right. And it opened just a couple of years before the new Balboa opened.
Woody: What happened? Why were there two Balboa's? What's going on here? Explain. Elaborate.
Woody: Curious minds want to know.
David: I, well, I don't know why. So, [00:02:00] the original Balboa Theater on Ocean Avenue is near Balboa Park.
David: Right? And the new Balboa is on Balboa Street.
David: So that's why, that's one reason why, they would both be named Balboa.
Woody: All right, all right, all right, all right.
David: Is that what you're trying to get at?
Woody: No, no. I'm wondering why, because…
David: Because they were honoring a great…
Woody: You know, in those days they would've honored a conquistador. Nowadays we have a more nuanced view, I think. But what I'm actually getting at is, if there was already a Balboa movie theater that was operating and in business, why would another theater, that’s a new theater, be christened the same name? That seems to be confusing and odd to me.
David: I don't know. Why? You tell me.
Woody: Well, here's what I do know. I do know that both theaters were built and operated by the same family.
David: The Levin family.
Woody: Yes. And the Levin’s operated, I [00:03:00] think they were led by Samuel Levin for many years.
Woody: Operated many, many of the neighborhood theaters that used to just cover, blanket San Francisco. The Alexandria Theater, the Coliseum Theater.
David: And those are big examples. There were plenty of smaller ones.
Woody: The Metro, I think, they operated. They were kind of like, had a little monopoly on a lot of neighborhood theaters, especially.
Woody: So, I think they opened the first Balboa on Ocean Avenue and it was a small, comfy, cozy little theater for a growing neighborhood.
David: Right, it had a lounge and it had a fireplace, even, that worked.
Woody: It was cold and foggy. I think it was something to draw people in to have a fireplace.
David: Back then, back then, it was cold and foggy there.
Woody: Yes, now it’s, now it's balmy. But it was small and when he opened, when they built the new Balboa, the one we're talking about today on Balboa Street, I think he liked the name and decided, because it was on Balboa Street, it should more… It would be more suitable to call that the Balboa.
Woody: And then he changed the name of the [00:04:00] old Balboa Theater to the Westwood.
David: Right. But I mean, they operated in tandem for quite a while. And the Balboa, the now Balboa Theater was known as the “New Balboa.”
David: For about five years or more.
Woody: Oh well, until today, really. Oh, you mean the “New” part.
Woody: Yeah, I think, I think it just made more business sense. It's like people are going to know the Balboa Theater is on Balboa Street, you know?
Woody: And so, he changed the old one, but we're not talking about the old theater. We'll talk about that another time. Let's talk about the Balboa Theater we all know and love today. What can you tell me about it?
David: Well, it opened…
Woody: When did it open?
David: It opened 1926. February 27th. And every year they celebrate the Balboa's birthday, around that time. Not exactly on the 27th, I'm not, I don't think. But around the end of February.
Woody: Yeah. They… That was started by Gary Meyer, who ran the Balboa for a number of years.
Woody: As a little way to recognize the history and kind of help celebrate [00:05:00] the Balboa as a great theater.
David: It's always a great party too. I mean, they have old classic cars and then they do a special presentation. With live presentations and they usually have some movie from about the time of the opening.
Woody: Yeah. I saw Wings there, I think. That was like the first movie to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. They've had Peter Pan, they've had a lot of old movies there.
Woody: For the Balboa thing. But usually, it doesn't play old movies. It's not a repertory theater in the sense that it, always plays old movies. What is it? Nowadays, it's contemporary stuff.
David: Nowadays it's playing first run movies.
David: I mean, these days. It was playing kind of art house things for a while. And movies in repertory with changes every couple days, but yeah, now it's playing first run movies.
Woody: Well, when it opened, Levin said that, as with all his theaters, he sought to quote, “supply the comforts [00:06:00] and intimate surroundings associated with the higher ideals of home life.” Which I don't know how that's reflected in the interior there, but…
Woody: But it was actually, when it opened, like a lot of movie theaters, it was a single screen movie theater.
Woody: They didn't used to have these double, multiplex sort of theaters.
David: Now it's been split in two.
Woody: Yeah. In the ‘70s, and that's when a lot of this happened. As a business plan, a lot of these single screen theaters split into multiplexes. And the Balboa split into two screens. They turned it into two screens. But in the very beginning, it had, I think, first run movies and then pretty quickly it went to that second run model. Which, can you explain the second run model?
David: So, the second run model would be a large movie that played downtown on one of the Market Street theaters for a number of weeks, until it kind of ran out of steam. And then it [00:07:00] would move out to the neighborhoods such as the Balboa.
Woody: Right. And that was a great business plan because people would go downtown, they'd see the big new hot movie at the giant, giant theater on Market Street.
Woody: And then as it started, the new movie was coming in to replace it. They would play the old one at all the neighborhood theaters.
David: Right. And they had lower prices at the neighborhood theaters, that sort of thing.
Woody: Right. But it's a lot more convenient. I mean, when I was a kid, by then the Market Street cinemas had pretty much disappeared or had turned into adult cinemas.
Woody: And we only went to movies in the neighborhood theaters. And they showed first runs when I was a kid. I mean, I saw Jaws at the Coliseum.
David: Well, the Coliseum, I mean, if you want to talk about movie theaters. The Coliseum was a pretty big theater. I mean, I think that you could call that, really, a first run thing. You know.
Woody: Well, the neighborhood ones would occasionally run first run. I think Jack Tillmany, who's our movie expert type person, that we have, a member and a very…
David: He's a [00:08:00] preeminent theater expert, Woody.
Woody: Okay. Well, he has great records and he can tell you where everything played and how long it played. And he says that at the Balboa Theater they had, in the ‘60s, had… They landed a very popular movie, a sub-run of The Sound of Music. Which was a very popular movie that played there.
David: Right, it had played downtown and then it moved out to the Balboa.
Woody: I think this was a little different, I think it was playing in both places.
David: Oh really?
Woody: Because it was such a popular movie that it was playing downtown at a big theater and the Balboa got to also play it. And it played there for: how long? Do you know how long The Sound of Music played at the Balboa in the ‘60s?
David: It played there only twenty-one weeks.
Woody: Twenty-one. Can you imagine?
Woody: Nowadays, I mean…
David: But it got knocked out. It got knocked out by Dr. Zhivago, which played for thirty weeks after playing ninety-four weeks at the [00:09:00] Coronet. Right? So, the Coronet is not downtown, was not downtown.
Woody: No, but it was a big theater.
David: But ninety-four weeks, that's a year and a half, right? More than a year and a half, it's almost two years! Dr. Zhivago.
David: And then it went to the Balboa right down the street.
Woody: Pretty much.
David: Essentially. For another thirty weeks.
Woody: I don't, it's amazing that it's a different…
David: A hundred and twenty-four weeks.
Woody: Now a movie comes out, I hear about it, and a week later I want to go see it and it's gone, you know? It's just, but back then movies, like Oklahoma I know, played at the Coronet for like a year and a half or something.
David: I'm trying to remember what the last movie that I feel was like that. And I remember that The Gods Must Be Crazy…
Woody: Oh yeah.
David: Played at the Vogue.
David: For what seemed like a year and a half.
David: I don't have the details on that. And I, well…
Woody: And the Vogue was a small theater too but...
David: I know I'm a… It is small. And I'm in the minority here, but I thought that was one of the worst movies I've ever seen. And I was like, why is this…?
Woody: I liked it. [00:10:00]
Woody: Are we going to do our Siskel and Ebert thing now?
Woody: We just talking about a movie every week?
David: You like Benny Hill too. So that's probably why…
Woody: I like…
David: You like The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Woody: Oh, they're very similar, aren't they?
Woody: That guy in Sub-Saharan Africa going, [imitates the Benny Hill theme song].
David: It was like that! That's what I remember about it.
Woody: I think we're, every week, we're going to review an old movie.
David: Let's get back to the Balboa.
Woody: Okay, the Balboa. So, when I was living out on 35th and Balboa, in the ‘90s or late ‘80s, we'd go there all the time. It was still playing movies and it still had the two screens. But it was kind of petering out. I got to say the Balboa itself was in danger of…
David: Bitterly cold in there!
Woody: Well, they, I think, I think they had infrastructure problems.
Woody: No heating. The one thing I did like about it then, though, is on the, I guess it's 38th Avenue, on the middle of the block, you know where the back of the theater is…
Woody: Was a big mural.
Woody: That [00:11:00] had like Marx's Brothers and movie people. And it was just a really neat thing. Especially since it was kind of hidden away on the middle of a, you know, an avenue…
Woody: Off the main street. And I think… I remember that David Warren, who was a guy we've talked about in the past, kind of a…
David: Yeah, he ran the…
Woody: Giant Camera.
David: Giant camera.
Woody: Tried to save Playland. Had a lot to do, we think he was the first guy to, to start Burning Man, to actually light the Burning Man sculpture.
David: Oh yeah.
Woody: So, he had a big role in a lot of people's lives back then. But I think he painted that mural.
Woody: So, his little influence is all over the place.
David: I think there's a move afoot to try to restore it somehow.
Woody: Well, I know Gary Meyer, when the wall had to be replaced because of a leak or it was falling apart or something, he was trying to look into that because he didn't want to ruin the mural. But they did have to replace the wall and I, the mural had to get taken out, unfortunately.
Woody: But Gary really brought around the Renaissance to the Balboa. Because he, with a lot of [00:12:00] background in running theaters and helped start Landmark Theaters. He runs the Telluride Festival, Film Festival.
David: Film Festival in Colorado, yeah.
Woody: So, he took on the Balboa as a personal project. He rented it from the Levin family, who still owned it. Who still owns it today, actually.
Woody: I think in about 2000, something like that, he started renting it. And changed it, tried to get some good first-run movies in there. Tried to have events like the Balboa birthday bash. Publicized it, started a website. Really kind of got the Balboa a lot more publicity and interest.
David: He really kind of tried to bring back the history of the Balboa too.
David: Found some old artifacts out in the, up in the attic and posted those. I know there's a big sign that says something like, “Shows every Wednesday, get a free dish.”
David: For your kitchen or something.
Woody: Well, Gary was one of the first members of the Western Neighborhoods Project too. So, he is a history buff.
Woody: [00:13:00] And, I remember Jim Cassidy, he was another member and a projectionist there for a long time. He found like an old beer bottle.
Woody: In the wall upstairs where the projectionist booth is.
David: Right. And some old for the…
Woody: Yeah, the little programs, essentially. Marketing programs.
David: The programs that show every week.
Woody: I think we have at least one of them on our website. But yeah, a lot of little, like, urban archeology going on there. The Balboa, like all these landmarks and movie theaters are, it's always in danger, right? Because the business model has moved on. They're expensive to maintain, to operate. And Gary had to basically move on to other things.
Woody: And it was only a couple years ago that the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which is a nonprofit that we're friends with, took over the lease there and got a longer lease from the Levin family.
David: Right. They own the Vogue too, right?
Woody: That's right, they own the Vogue Theater. And they've been doing a lot of fundraising to help upgrade. They have heat now at the Balboa. They have new [00:14:00] seats. In fact, I have, we sponsored some seats that personally, my grandparents' names are on two of those seats at the Balboa. So…
David: I sponsored some seats too, but somehow, they didn't, they forgot to put the names on the seats for me.
Woody: Well, we'll get some…
David: I still like them.
Woody: We'll get some brass plates to put in there on a guerilla action of our own. But they just raised a bunch of money to help switch over to digital projection, which is a standard now for theaters.
David: That'll keep the place in business, you know what I mean?
David: A big expense for theaters had been, you know, shipping 35-millimeter film around in big cases.
Woody: Yeah, giant cans, right? But I think it's kind of, I think we, it's quirky, can-do, sort of neighborhood feel, makes us particularly fond of the Balboa.
Woody: I think so. And also, it's really out on the edge of the City. I mean, you wouldn't know it was there unless you were out there.
David: It's a nice little section of Balboa. I mean, both [00:15:00] of us have spent a lot of time in that, in that little neighborhood and it's nice out there. There's a lot of good little restaurants.
Woody: Now we should talk a little bit about who built, the architects for the Balboa, rather. Levin, of course, built it, but his go-to architects were the Reid Brothers and…
David: Notable names in San Francisco architecture.
Woody: Especially the West side. I mean James and Merritt Reid, they were brothers from, I think they were Canadian originally. They, what did they design that we, I mean almost every movie theater you can almost think of. The Alexandria, which is closed up out there, they designed that. The Coliseum we had talked about, they designed that. The current Cliff House, not the sort of addition part, but that original 1909 Cliff House was the Reid Brothers. The Balboa Theater. The funny little things too, like the music stand in Golden Gate Park.
Woody: You know where, the music concourse, they designed that. And I think the Fairmont Hotel, I think that was one of theirs as well. But they were, they had their fingers all over, especially [00:16:00] movie theaters. And they designed the Balboa as well.
David: Good job, Reid Brothers.
David: They were busy.
Woody: So, I guess people can still, of course people can still go see movies at the Balboa.
David: They should go see movies at the Balboa, if they can.
David: If you're local, go to the Balboa.
Woody: And I also think that if you want to contribute, to help, the Balboa with its operating expenses, with its upgrade plans and that sort of thing, you can do so very easily. If you go to cinemasf.com, that is the sort of corporate entity that runs the Vogue and the Balboa. And, I think through there you can probably find a way to donate, through the San Francisco neighborhood history, I mean, sorry…
David: Neighborhood Theater Foundation.
Woody: Thank you. Its name is almost as cumbersome as ours. I can't say it.
David: We are the Western Neighborhoods Project, in case you are wondering.
Woody: Yes. Well, people think we're Outside Lands.
David: That's right.
Woody: And, because our URL is [00:17:00] outsidelands.org. And I think you can find out more about the Balboa at that website: outsidelands.org.
David: That's our website.
Woody: What else can you do at our website, David?
David: Woody, you can become a member.
Woody: I'm already a member, but other people can become a member.
David: One can become a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project. And support the work that we do every day, by going to our website and clicking the Become a Member link.
Woody: Well, that's great. Do you have anything else to say about the Balboa Theater today, David?
David: I miss the Sugar Bowl.
Woody: Oh, the Sugar Bowl Bakery that was next door.
Woody: I, yeah, you know what I kind of miss is, across the street, is the Zephyr Café. Which is still open.
Woody: But it's got new owners and for, like, three decades it totally looked like a 1981 cafe. It had like…
Woody: It's kind of like Nagel-looking prints on the walls…
David: Burnt wood.
Woody: And that nothing had [00:18:00] changed since like 1981. The furniture, the chairs were kind of these weird wicker bent, anyway. But now they're kind of upgrading it, so.
David: Everything changes, Woody.
Woody: I can't handle it.
David: Even Hockey Haven got a window.
Woody: Oh, Hockey Haven was the best dive bar until it got that window. Now it's like popular.
David: Second best dive bar. Really went downhill.
Woody: Actually, it got improved, I got to say, because, well, I could tell you Hockey Haven stories another time.
David: That's another podcast, Woody.
Woody: The Hockey Haven. If you have stories about the Hockey Haven or the Balboa, please go to our website. You can leave a message there or send us a note too, so. Thanks David.
David: Thank you, Woody.
Woody: I'll see you next week.
Woody: Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.