Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 388: 4-Star Theatre

We miss theatre popcorn! Continuing our long-running series about West Side movie theatres, this week's we recall the history of the still extant, 4-Star Theatre.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jul 18, 2020

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 388: 4-Star Theatre Outside Lands Podcast Episode 388: 4-Star Theatre

(above) La Bonita Theatre, Feb 11, 1919

23rd & Clement, later the 4-Star Theatre.

Podcast Transcription

388 – 4 Star Theatre

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

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And I'm Woody LaBounty.

Nicole: Hey fellas!

David: Hello Nicole. Welcome back.

Woody: Welcome back? Was she gone?

Nicole: Yeah?

David: No, she wasn't gone. And Woody, welcome back to you too.

Woody: Thank you.

David: Thank you for joining us.

Woody: It was a great week off.

David: It was a fast week, I think.

Nicole: I don’t…

David: It's you know, everything's discombobulated with this staying at home and not seeing any people in-person and all that. I go out for a bike ride every day. But, you know, I don't see any people, I don't talk to them. I got my mask on. I go by the ballpark. Can't [00:01:00] see anything.

Woody: Yeah, I, you know, I got to say I feel the opposite. I feel like everything's very regular because, of course, we're all like in very strict routines, I assume. You know? I do the same thing every day, pretty much. And once a week I do a podcast! Which this week is about what, Nicole?

Nicole: Oh, it's about one of our favorite Richmond District spots: the Four Star Theater.

Woody: Woohoo!

David: Oooh.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: I hope it's not that it'll never open again and that's why we're doing this podcast.

Nicole: No. No.

Woody: Okay

Nicole: It just felt like an easy podcast to throw together.

Woody: Okay, good.

David: I think that…

Woody: Now we usually say, David, where is the Four Star Theatre?

David: Yeah, that's, I was going to jump the gun and hopefully, but no. I do know where it is. It's on 23rd Avenue and Clement [00:02:00] out there in kind of the middle Richmond District. Kind of our neighborhood. Our office is at 17th and Balboa. And Woody lives in that neighborhood out there in the middle Richmond. It's kind of out there.

Woody: It is exactly out there.

Nicole: That little part of the neighborhood, too, it's really starting to, like, come up in the world. They're getting all kinds of fancy restaurants and stuff like that and all surrounding the Four Star. And that's one star for what, luxury? One star for gourmet snacks? One star for…?

Woody: I'm not sure, you know, Four Star is an interesting, it's funny, yeah, it's not, it's before, it's not like a Michelin Star or something that the Four Star is named after. But, you know, I don't know if you guys knew this, but it did not start life named the Four Star. It had a very, it had a very different name. [00:03:00] It was, we think, I mean we've talked to movie historians about this, but it seems that it opened in 1913. Which is darn early for a neighborhood movie theater in the City.

David: That was silent movies, right? I mean…

Woody: Yeah.

David: It was a movie theater. It wasn't any kind of live performance. It's always been a movie theater.

Woody: Right.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: Right. Remember, you know Talkies didn't start till late ‘20s. So yeah. silent movies, and central Richmond District, and little tiny theater. It was named the La Bonita Theater.

Nicole: Ooh, exotic.

Woody: You think that's exotic? Ooh, Spanish!

Nicole: Not if it was in the Mission District.

David: That’s a very pretty name.

Woody: That's what it means, David.

David: Oh, really?

Woody: La Bonita, yes.  You know, this is the era in which California was trying to create a history for itself. And it didn't really have one, this like, you know, European [00:04:00] colonization. So, they were calling themselves after Spanish things to kind of, you know, call back to those early days of the Dons. Everything was, La Bonita or El Plazeula or whatever. So…

David: Well, it's interesting, right? Because all the alphabetical streets on the west side had only just gotten names, gotten the Spanish names and all that, so…

Woody: Yeah, that was 1909.

David: Right.

Woody: And A Street becomes Anza and B Street becomes Balboa, so right. It's the height of, what would you call that? Not, you know, there's Anglophiles and Francophiles. What do we call a, Hispanophile?

Nicole: Spaniard-ian Era?

Woody: Yeah, Spaniard-ian. Anyway! Nicole, how long was it The La Bonita? What changed?

Nicole: Not very long. It was renamed the Star Theater in 1927. And by this time there's, you know, there's like a lot of competition going up nearby. You had the [00:05:00] Coliseum Theater, you had the Alexandria Theater, and also the Balboa that entered the Richmond District. By the way, we have podcasts on all of these theaters, if you want to deep dive into those. So, it gets renamed The Star Theater, which sounds fancy. But it, at the same time, it became a low-price kind of option for catching like second viewings of films on their last run.

Woody: Yeah. You know, well, it makes sense because movie theaters were all about trying to see modern and hip, and so every new movie theater like pushed the envelope of size and luxury and opulence. And, like we said, the La Bonita opened in 1913. It was a little shoebox.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: I mean, in some ways it's amazing that it survived with these other, like, five movie theaters in the Richmond District. But it was a small, little, comfy place to see the thing [00:06:00] that you had missed the first time around. And David, we've talked about this before. You know, what was the usual sort of path of a movie when it came to the City? It would get released down on Market Street first. Right?

David: Right. Big movies played down there. And they could play for weeks or even months on Market Street. And then they would slowly move out into the neighborhoods to even bigger places. So, like, even a place like the Castro, which we think of as a movie palace today, was kind of a second run place, where Market Street movies that have played on Market Street for long runs would move out to the Castro or to the Alexandria. Right? So, you can imagine that the tiny little La Bonita, the Star Theater was way down the list.

Woody: Yes.

David: When, when everyone had, the big spenders had gone and, putting their gloves [00:07:00] on, and seen it on Market Street. The neighborhood people would've gone to see it at the Alexandria, maybe. And then the people who still hadn't seen it could go for cheap to the Star Theater right on the corner.

Woody: I mean, I guess we have to, I feel silly saying this, but we have to remind people that entertainment options were limited in those days. You know, David, I think you probably have Netflix and HBO and all that stuff, but there was no television. When you wanted to do something, you had to go out and find a place to do it, essentially. And so, the neighborhood movie theater was a place to park your kids. You know, like Saturdays you want to get chores done, “kids go to the movie theater, I don't care what's playing. Just go.” And…

David: And they would play like little one reel-ers, right? These things where you talk about with like Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy or something, right? [00:08:00]

Nicole: Yeah. It's also a time when you can just give your kids, I don't know, a dollar and be like, “get outta here. Go, go, go. A few blocks up…”

Woody: A dollar?!

David: A dollar?!

Nicole: Okay, like 25 cents, I don’t know what…

Woody: Yes, that's right, 25 cents. I remember I interviewed, I mean this is in our lifetime, I remember I interviewed Pat Swenson in the Richmond District. And she used to tell me that she would go to the Coliseum with a quarter, and that was like, 10 cents to get in and like 15 cents for candy for all her friends, you know? So that's the kind of era we're talking about in the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: So, Nicole, another good friend of ours who grew up in the Richmond and is definitely a movie historian and expert was Jack Tillmany. And Nicole, The Star, The Four Star when he was around, was his neighborhood movie theater.

Nicole: Yeah, he, so if you go to our website, opensfhistory.org [00:09:00], odds are, if you find a theater photo, it, it came from Jack Tillmany. He's a huge cinema buff and theater historian. And transit too, we have to mention that. So, he lived nearby, like, around the corner from the Four Star Theater. And the manager of the theater, Mrs. Frazier, lived upstairs from them. So, the Tillmany family received pass privileges until her death in 1945. And when I read that, which was on our website, I was wondering, is this where it all began for Jack?

Woody: Yep. I mean, we talked about him before, but Jack was, and he still does this, you know, he would save the ticket stubs from every movie he went to. And he kept, he still keeps, a diary of every movie he watches. And so, he has meticulous records, that he has transferred to computers as an adult, of him going to movies in the ‘40s. He could tell you what he saw, [00:10:00] where he saw it, what time it was. And he could produce the ticket stub, usually. And now it's funny, you know, Jack's at home and he is watching Turner Classic movies, he's still keeping his database up to date, and he watches two movies a day or a night. He sees one before dinner and then he watches one after, and he records it on his database. So yes, I think it did all start for him at the Four Star.

David: And I mean, even when he was a kid, I think, he would go to multiple movies a day. Downtown.

Woody: You could, you could. So, when does it go from the Star to the Four Star? Was there something that made it four times better?

Nicole: Yes, luxury snacks. Uh, no. It became the Four Star in 1946 after it changed hands. And at the same time it the theater got a little bit of an upgrade. They added that glass box office on the left side. And then a couple years [00:11:00] later, it took them a couple years, till 1948 to put the “4” up on the sign. And I have to say about that little glass box office, you know, the Four Star is still there. You can still go. And the first time I went, I was like, “this is my movie theater.” Because the guy was in like a plush office chair and he, like, sold me my ticket. And then I walked inside, and he scooted the office chair to his left and then sold me popcorn.

Woody: Yeah, it's a one-man operation.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: So, let's talk about that. Let's talk a little bit about what it looks like. David, we've gotten sort of backstage, although there isn’t really a backstage, tours of the building. So, Nicole, you mentioned they added a “4” because it did say “Star” up there on the little neon sign. They just added a “4” to it. And if you walk along 23rd Avenue, the exit doors are all [00:12:00] original to, like, the La Bonita. They have these sort of curved exit doors. But what’s it look, what’s it look like inside, David? Once you get past the little, tiny lobby and box office.

David: Well, so it was twinned at one point recently, so there's two theaters and one of them is really tiny. And then they also put a, for ADA regulations, they put in a bathroom right inside there that took up a lot of space in the main auditorium. And I mean, the main auditorium is not big.

Nicole: No.

David: And you go in, and like we say, it was a movie theater the whole time. So, there's no backstage there. It's just the screen is almost against the concrete of the back wall of the building. And it was kind of funny because, you know, I like, I like seeing stuff behind the scenes. So, we peeked behind the screen and there is like a little bit of space and we saw all this ancient graffiti. Like [00:13:00] from the, I think from 1920 or so, back there, written on the wall. We also got to go up into the projection room, which is tiny too. And from there you can see that original sort of Spanish-style facade that's been covered at this point with kind of a boxy facade. And it's funny because you, to change the marquee, he just has a window that he opens up and leans out and reaches out and changes the marquee by hand from inside, from leaning out the window.

Woody: Yeah, have you guys ever seen like Cinema Paradiso, right? The movie that is about movie making, movie watching in Italy, right? In the old days. Anyway, but the little box office in Cinema Paradiso is very much like the Four Star. It's like a closet.

Nicole:  Yeah.

Woody:  It's like a closet with enough room for a projector, and there's stuff piled all over the place. [00:14:00] I also, there's a pressed, I don't know if it's tin, but the ceiling in the main auditorium is like a pressed pattern. Like a pressed pattern tin ceiling.

David: Like embossed something.

Woody:  Yeah.

David: I'm not sure if it's metal or it might be plaster.

Woody: Yeah, I think it's been painted, you know, but it has, I mean, it's funny, I wish, they had to twin it and add that little, tiny movie theater for more revenue, because then they could show more movies. And they did that in the ‘70s, I think. But that little…

Nicole: No.

Woody: No? When’d they did that?

Nicole: They twinned it in the ‘90s.

Woody: Oh, ‘90s. Okay.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: If you go into that little room, it's like, smaller than your living room.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: And the screen is like the size of most people's TVs these days, you know? And my neck…

Nicole: You know…

Woody: What?

Nicole: Oh sorry. The, that little room fits forty-nine people

Woody:  Right.

Nicole:  Which kind of blew my mind.

Woody: They're all kind of smushed together. And the thing is, I took my nephew there to see like [00:15:00] one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies. And he was, I think he liked it because he was like, “I've never been,” he's like nine, “I've never been in a movie theater that is smaller than my living room almost,” you know? So, it was pretty fun. So, you'd mentioned David, that facade got changed because it used to have sort of a stepped back more, or slightly more, ornate facade and now it's like a box, right?

David: Right

Woody: On Clement Street.

David: And we have pictures of it with its original facade. So, look at the website and check that out.

Woody: So, I know the Lee family runs it now, Frank Lee. And they started, they run the Presidio Theater, I think the Marina Theater. Both, one's on Chestnut, one's on Union in the Marina District, and they've owned it since like 1990. And it was Frank that let us [00:16:00] kind of look inside and see all the backstage stuff.

Nicole: So, they put it on the market, right? There's been all kinds of, there's been a couple times where the theater was in danger. I read on the Richmond District blog that a church bought it or was looking to buy it in 2004-2005 and, like, completely demolished it and build a three-story church. That didn't happen. But it did go on the market again in 2015, kind of aimed at developers. And didn't you guys say that there was some scheme to put the WNP office in there?

Woody: I like that you are kind of denying that you knew anything about it, Nicole. You were telling us how we were going to put rolling shelves to put the collection in there.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: And all this stuff.

Nicole: Yeah.

Woody: That was before we found our current office. We were looking at places and it was a great idea.

David: And the floor is a slope in the theater. I mean, we couldn't do that.

Woody: I thought it was cool though. We [00:17:00] could run movies and have our office there. I thought that would be a good idea.

David: And you could have a room smaller than your living room.

Woody: Yeah.

Nicole: And,

Woody: That would be my office.

Nicole: Most importantly, unlimited popcorn and Jujubes.

Woody: I don't think there's a popcorn mine in there or anything, you still have to buy it.

Nicole: Oh.

Woody: But that theater, they were announcing that theater was going to close in the ‘80s. They were telling us that theater was going to close in the ‘90s. They were telling us it was going to close in 2005. And it was for sale recently. I mean, I cannot believe it's still there after over a hundred years, a hundred and seven years, the Four Star has been there. It's amazing.

David: And now with so many things actually closing up, who knows what's going to happen to it.

Woody: Well, I think the amazing thing is if it opened, right?

Nicole: Hang in there. Hang in there, Four Star. That’s one of my favorite neighborhood anchors and I hope it sticks around. [00:18:00] Well on that note, it's time for the Pearl of the Podcast. David? Did you want it?

David: Sure. Okay. The Pearl of the Podcast: when the Four Star was put on the market in 2015, it was listed for 2.8 million dollars. And they quantified an annual income from rent at $345,000. That's 28,000 dollars a month, which is kind of hard to believe that the Four Star pulls in that much. Yeah, that is hard to believe. So, what's the Pearl anyway? That it makes 28,000 dollars a month? Or did?

Nicole: Or did, yeah. Yeah. The Pearl is that these astounding figures are attached to a teeny, tiny little, [00:19:00] you know. No, you don’t like The Pearl?

David: You know the Pearl is really resonating this week, I think. That's going to be one that sticks with people.

Nicole: Yeah, the Pearl is San Francisco real estate is expensive. Gee golly. Okay, well, moving on to listener mail. Woody, how does one contact us for listener mail?

Woody: I'm sorry, I fell asleep during the Jingle.  Let's see…

Nicole: Got to keep you guys on your toes!

Woody: I think we send in an email, is the best way, podcast@outsidelands.org. Although I think if you send in direct message on Twitter or a message on Facebook, or, I don't know, even comment on Instagram maybe?

Nicole: Yep.

Woody: We will, some people send us postcards in the United States Postal Service mail. So, [00:20:00] all those ways are a way to send listener mail.

Nicole: Yes. And Ed wrote in via an email, traditional email, and he had three things to say to us. He said, one: “Your podcast on the Golden Gate Park Statues,” that's the episode called Toppling Monuments, “was well done and thought provoking. What an interesting blend of history, social awareness and art appreciation. I was especially moved by the passion of everyone's commentary.” Two: He wants a podcast on St. Anne's House, run by Little Sisters of the Poor out on Lake Street. Which is kind of crazy we haven't already recorded one. So, duly noted, Ed. And three: He wants us to put our email address, podcast@outsidelands.org, on the page where you can find and listen to the podcasts.

David: I told Ed that I will never do that. And the reason I did that was that I [00:21:00] didn't want get, I didn’t want that email address to get filled up with spam and I wanted people who actually listened to the podcast, to have access to that address. So, we are never going to publish that email address on the website. Sorry.

Nicole: Sorry, Ed.

Woody: I think we're on the wrong side of history with that, but okay.

David: It's our little secret. You, the three of us, and our twelve listeners.

Nicole: We have more than that. There is over 3.5 million downloads of the podcast, don't you know?

Woody: Don’t you know.

David: That should have been The Pearl.

Woody: That is a better Pearl. All right, so are we done this week or is there anything else we have to say or do?

Nicole: I mean there's a lot more listener mail and then…

Woody: Okay.

Nicole: We've got a lot more things to say.

Woody: Let's do it. What else? Listener mail, Carla wrote in. Carla says, “I joined,” as a Western Neighborhoods Project member, I guess she means, “in the fall of 2019.” Thank you, Carla. [00:22:00] When she “discovered the podcast.” She “started at number one,” which I actually think is not the way to start the podcast, but I understand why people do, and she “just finished number 340, with a few more recent ones thrown into the mix. Dang, I'm going to run out soon, but clearly, I've had more than a year's worth of membership already. Happy to renew early and increase my contribution during these difficult times.” Thank you, Carla. We really do appreciate it. And I'm sorry that that you started on number one, because that's our worst episode.

David: It's only seven minutes, number one. But she makes a good point of renewing her membership early and I encourage everyone to renew their membership or join Western Neighborhoods Project in general. You know, there are a lot of benefits to membership.

Nicole: Yes, there's a quarterly membership magazine. You get event exclusives and [00:23:00] discounts. And you support the podcast, which is probably the most important thing to you. Oh, also you support opensfhistory.org, which takes up an immense amount of David's time and a lot of trusty volunteers. So, a little bit of money goes a long way when you're a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

David: You click the “Become a Member” button at the top of any page or any of those orange buttons that say “Donate.” They're all over the website.

Nicole: Yeah.

David: So, try that.

Nicole: That website is: outsidelands.org or opensfhistory.org. Just clickety, clickety clack. Now I'm very excited to announce, can I get a drum roll please? So, if you right now, right now, as you're listening to this podcast, go to outsidelands.org/events, there will actually be events there. [00:24:00]

David: Wow.

Nicole: Yes.

David: And there's like a hundred events.

Nicole: There are. We're really going, coming in hot, with these events. Starting on July 23rd, we're launching our History Happy Hour series, which is going to be the second and fourth Thursday of every month. From 5:30 to 6:30 PM. And it'll be me, with a cocktail talking to, for this one, John Martini. Who will also have a cocktail in hand. I hear he is picking out a good scotch, so.

Woody: Oh, not a martini, huh?

Nicole: Not a martini. I know, but I figured best last name to kick off this event series. And, you know, we're keeping it light, we're keeping it breezy. He's already sending me some pearls that sound like they're going to be a good time. So come join us. We hope you come with questions, and also ask John all kinds of things.

David: And these are virtual events on…

Nicole: Yeah.

David: Conferencing [00:25:00] software, Zoom or something like that, right?

Nicole: Yes. These are virtual events and they're sponsored by the Office of the Economic and Workforce Development. So, thank you very much to OEWD for supporting these events.

David: And I see you're going to be reprising the Western Neighborhoods Project Story Time on the first Wednesday of the month for…

Nicole: Yep.

David: An unknown number of months. So, Wednesdays at 4:30, you can hear Nicole reading a classic kid’s story, San Francisco focused. And that's good for, obviously for kids, and for adults, and for people who like classic children's stories like some of our Western neighborhoods Project members.

Nicole: Yeah. We're starting August 5th with Herb Caen’s, The Cable Car and the Dragon, which is recommended for ages four through eight, but, and we're also switching again to Zoom format from the Facebook Live format we tried out in May, which I think exclusively had a litany of, you know, middle-aged men watching. [00:26:00] So maybe new format, new audience. This…

David: Wait, we have some live events too. We have a whole bunch of history walks coming up. And there's just too many to mention. But I guess the first one is Portola Drive history walk with Richard Brandi.

Nicole: Yep.

David: Board member Richard Brandi will lead us on a tour. And this is live, in person, but it's, you know, socially distanced. So, we have very limited ability to have people at it. So, it's going to be limited to 10 people. So definitely get on the website and register your spot there. Now, saying that, it's only 10, but we're going to have a whole bunch of these kind of walks. So, check out the website. They're all up there, right now.

Nicole: Yeah, never fear, Western Neighborhoods Project is here. And again, this is sponsored by the Office of Economic and Workforce Development through their “Invest in Neighborhoods Program.” So, thank you to OEWD for that. [00:27:00]

Woody: Exciting.

Nicole: Yeah. And…

David: And more. And you know what I want to shout out, shout out to Woody LaBounty and the San Francisco Heritage organization, because they've been doing some amazing virtual events that have been, really, the model of what we're going to try and do. So, if you are not connected with this of Heritage, you should follow them on social media and check out their events too.

Woody: You know, we're doing our lecture series this year is all, because this is the Year of the Woman, is all about women in preservation in San Francisco. And that's a broad topic. I mean, we had, you know, we had women owners from Sam Wo’s and Specs last week, talking about legacy businesses. But the great thing I like about that series? I'm not in it, because I'm not a woman. So, we have the amazing Carrie Young who is at SF Heritage, who's sponsoring that whole [00:28:00] series and hosting it. It's great.

Nicole: Carrie did great last night. I was very impressed. Okay, well there's more events, but go to outsidelands.org/events or sfheritage.org.

Woody: Well, that's our event, you can go there if you want. Yeah.

Nicole: And I think…

David: We have a preview for next week?

Nicole: We sure do. How does everyone take their eggs? Over easy? Scrambled? No? You're not going to going to pick up what I'm putting down, guys? That's fine. I can taste the toast and jam already because we're metaphorically grabbing breakfast together next week.

Woody: I love breakfast. I think that's the best meal.

Nicole: Me too.

Woody: I'm ready.

Nicole: Excellent.

David: All right. Well, we'll see you guy’s next week, and I'll welcome you back again.

Nicole: Okay. See you next week.

Woody and David: Bye. [00:29:00]

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook which is outsidelands with an “S,” at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a “Z,” and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a “Z.’ And, check out our historic San Francisco images website at opensfhistory.org.

Related Images
On the Map (click marker for larger map)
More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 422: Balboa Street Businesses

    We take another virtual stroll down a Richmond District business corridor, Balboa Street. Where else but on this Pod can you visit both beloved, but lost businesses and learn about those that endure to this day? Become a WNP member and join us on the live podcast each week, plus other great benefits of membership. http://outsidelands.org (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Mar 20, 2021)
  • Podcast # 474: Reino Niemela Jr.

    We welcome special guest Reino Niemela, Jr. His father was the artist and designer responsible for all the hand-painted signage at Playland at the Beach from the 1930s until it closed in 1972. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Sep 17, 2022)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History