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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 81: Alexandria Theatre

San Francisco's Alexandria Theatre opened at 18th Avenue and Geary Boulevard in 1923 with a lush Egyptian theme. Ten years after closing, there is new hope the building will be revitalized. (Alexandria theme song performed by Lisa Sanchez and Doug McKeeh
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jul 26, 2014

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 81: Alexandria Theatre Outside Lands Podcast Episode 81: Alexandria Theatre

(above) Geary & 19th, 1956

View east on Geary Boulevard. W. D. Brown, Zim’s, Pianobar, Alexandria Theatre, B-line streetcar #111.

Podcast Transcription

WNP81 - Alexandria Theatre

Music Playing: [00:00:00] Alexandria, I hear you calling. Alexandria, oh land enthralling.  You know well what…

Woody: It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: What do you think of that music, David?

David: I think it's very catchy.

Woody: You would never guess what that song is about. It's not about a city in the old world.

David: No.

Woody: Can you guess what it's really about?

David: Is it about the landmark Alexandria Theater at 18th and Geary?

Woody: I wish it was a landmark, but yes, it is. That song was [00:01:00] specially written and composed for the Alexandria Theater itself, if you can believe that. And we had the sheet music because our good friend, Jack Tillmany had a copy of it. And we were able to get somebody to record it, because I was curious what it sounded like.

David: Yeah, it’s good.

Woody: And it’s very Egyptian, very ‘20s.

David: That's right. It goes along with the motif of the Alexandria, which was Egyptian.

Woody: Right.

David: Everybody loved King Tut back in the ‘20s.

Woody: I think that's it. I think it was that.

David: No, it was super duper all over the country. People liked King Tut and the Egyptian Egyptology!

Woody: What's not to like about King Tut? So, Alexandria Theater, 18th Avenue and Geary Boulevard was a place I visited quite a bit when I was a kid. And there's been some recent news about the building, because for the past ten years or so, it has just been closed up and…

David: [making whistling wind sounds]

Woody: Yeah, left to molder there. [00:02:00]

David: [making bird cawing sounds]

Woody: But let's go back to the early, early…

David: [making cooing pigeon sounds]

Woody: What is that?

David: That's my dove. That's my pigeon roosting.

Woody: Your rock dove?  There’s worse things than rock doves there, I can tell you.

David: [making drinking sounds]

Woody: Yes, so let's go back to the beginning of the Alexandria Theater. First of all, David, when I was a kid, there were lots of movie theaters.

David: Yeah.

Woody: I mean, now if you're like a 20-something, you may not know this, but San Francisco was chock-a-block with neighborhood movie theaters.

David: Yeah, well, let's see, there was the Balboa nearby. There's the Four Star, there's the Coronet, there's the Alexandria.

Woody: There was the Coliseum.

David: The Coliseum, right. That's what I forgot.

Woody: The Bridge which just closed.

David: The Bridge which just closed recently.

Woody: All those just in the Richmond District.

David: That's just the Richmond District.

Woody: Isn’t that nutty? So, the Alexandria it was part of that. And, the people, the family…

David: And those are all movie theaters that you remember going to. It's not like we're talking about some ancient one that…

Woody: Right, right.

David: Okay.

Woody: They're, yeah, they…

David: I think I [00:03:00] went to all of those too.

Woody: Yeah. Some of them are still open actually. But, all of those are, or almost all of those, were run by one family. The Levin Family, who kind of had a, I wouldn't say monopoly, but they owned most of the neighborhood movie theaters. Not the Bridge. And they opened the Alexandria Theater, November 26th, 1923.

David: Wow.

Woody: And it seated, I mean, this is the thing that blows you away: 2000 people. It was a giant movie theater.

David: Yeah. Now, do you remember it when it was a single screen?

Woody: Yeah.

David: I mean, I think I only ever went there, you know, as a young adult. And it had already been cut up. And we were going to midnight movies there or something.

Woody: Right. It was in 1976 that they split it into three. And I went there before that. I think I saw The Towering Inferno there.

David: Wow.

Woody: With Steve McQueen. And I have a very strong memory of sitting in like the first [00:04:00] row of the second section, and it was like eight people in the movie theater. This 2000-seat movie theater. I also remember going there and seeing a preview for Star Wars. Star Wars didn't play there, but there was a preview for it. And I remember saying to the friend next to me, “We should go see that.”

David: Little did you know, you'd see it fifty-two times!

Woody: That's right. At The Coronet was where Star Wars ended up opening here. So, November 26th, 1923, the Alexandria opens. This giant theater and remember, we've already got the Coliseum. We've already got these other smaller theaters, but that’s what the movie-going demand in the ‘20s, that they could build this enormous building, with this Egyptian motif and, you're right, it's got these columns in the front. It had originally, this giant “A” that revolved around on the top that was lit up.

David: Oh really? Wow.

Woody: Yeah, that disappeared pretty early.

David: And I mean, and as opposed to other neighborhood theaters, it had a parking lot too. That was made for it.

Woody: [00:05:00] Yeah, there's a parking lot just up 18th. I don't know if that was there in the beginning. It may have been, but it was definitely there from the ‘40s on, for sure.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, the Alexandria, also, can you describe the inside of it? Because that's the thing I think that blows people's minds is, it was a very lush movie palace inside.

David: Right. Well, it has all kinds of beautiful reliefs and decorations inside. I mean gold leaf Egyptian angels and things flying around.

Woody: Yeah. Well, yeah, there's those murals on the sides.

David: Yeah.

Woody: That are just very Art Deco-y and kind of, well, I guess they're Art Nouveau-y really.

David: Yeah.

Woody: You know, with flower vines and nymphs and things like that. But then in the lobby, there's these panels that are gold that, and they vary, some of them are kind of like warriors, they look like they have Roman [00:06:00] looks about them. Some of them are, actually have movie making motifs inside the relief.

David: Right.

Woody: So, it's got some guy with a 1920s movie camera filming some scene that looks like something from Greek history, you know, it’s like, Aphrodite coming out of the waves or something.

David: Strange.

Woody: So, and Pegasus. You know, it's very stylistic and very lush and rich. And it was that way until it closed in 2004. I think there's been some vandalism and I think some of it has really been kind of beat up since then. But this is the height of movie palaces, you know, when it was built. Our friend Jack Tillmany…

David: Right.

Woody: Who's Jack? You should probably tell people who Jack is, I think.

David: Jack Tillmany is a theater and transit historian.  He, he can tell you about every movie theater in San Francisco. And he can tell you what was playing [00:07:00] at every movie theater in San Francisco on any particular date.

Woody: Now how, but what's funny is he has a lot of personal knowledge about that. It's not just looking at old newspapers.

David: Right. No, he kept it, from what I understand, and I haven't seen it, but he kept as a kid and as a young adult and all through his life, he kept a logbook of the movies he saw and other movies that were playing like on Market Street or elsewhere in the City. On every day of his life, like a diary.

Woody: Yeah, when he'd go to a movie he'd write down in a little book.

David: And I mean, that's gold for a lot of people who look at old pictures of Market Street, right? Because if it has a movie theater marquee in the picture, then you go to Jack Tillmany and say, “Hey, when was this playing at this theater?” And, he'll tell you the exact date that the picture was taken.

Woody: Right. And then I think we've talked about this in the past too. But this is what Jack was telling us about, is that back in the days when movies were big, before TV had really taken hold.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And all this stuff, [00:08:00] they would have movies that would open that would be such big hits, they would stay at that theater for a year.

David: Right.

Woody: And at the Alexandria, South Pacific, which was a musical on Broadway.

David: Yeah, early ‘60s, late ‘50s.

Woody: Yeah, ‘58. \

David: Yeah.

Woody: They made a movie in ‘58.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And when they debuted it at the Alexandria in San Francisco…

David: It opened at the Alexandria?

Woody: In San Francisco.

David: Okay, for a first run?

Woody: Yeah. You had to reserve a seat. It was like a regular, like a stage movie theater.

David: Yeah.

Woody: A stage theater. It was so popular. And each seat was numbered, and you bought your ticket ahead of time like you were going to a show. And South Pacific played there, at the Alexandria, for 48 weeks.

David: That's crazy.

Woody: They had business. They had people coming to see that movie. To fill… You know, get, to make enough money for 48 weeks.

David: To fill that 2000-seat theater.

Woody: Yeah, or at least get enough people to make it worth the while.

David: Right.

Woody: Another one I think you've heard of is Cleopatra?

David: Right.

Woody: With Elizabeth [00:09:00] Taylor.

David: Yes, oh yeah.

Woody: Which totally makes sense for the Alexandria.

David: Yeah, absolutely.

Woody: Played there 56 weeks.

David: Oh, my goodness!

Woody: In ’63 and 1964.

David: That's more than a year.

David: Yes, it is, David.

David: I remember when I was a kid, they would do that. I mean, you would see movies that stayed for a long time. I think the last time that I saw something like that happen was The Gods Must Be Crazy played at The Vogue for like a year.

Woody: It wasn't… It was the Vogue, right? Not the Clay?

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah.

David: And, I hated that movie so much.

Woody: Well, that's a little different though because the Vogue was, is relatively small.

David: It's tiny.

Woody: Yeah.

David: It’s tiny compared to the Alexandria for sure.

Woody: Right, right. So, you can make enough money off that movie maybe to, to play it. But Oliver played forty-three weeks. Now Jack talks about how this was kind of a mixed blessing, because the way the neighborhood theaters used to work is that the big first run shows would be down on Market Street at the big theaters. And the neighborhood theaters sort of played a movie when it started losing steam.

David: Right.

Woody: And every week would [00:10:00] change, or every two weeks would change the movie they’d play.

David: They would call it like “second run” or something.

Woody: Right, right. Well, when the Alexandria became this big first run theater, then all the people from all over the City would come to the Richmond District to see this movie because it was…

David: It would be good for the businesses at least.

Woody: Yeah. But there was no parking.

David: Oh.

Woody: I mean, that's what Jack remembers is that that little parking lot would just, people couldn't find a place to park, the whole neighborhood got jammed full of cars. And it might be good for the businesses on Geary, but it was kind of a nightmare for…

David: For everybody else.

 Woody: A lot of the Richmond District residents.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Who were kind of sick of it.

David: And Jack grew up in the Richmond District, right?

Woody: He did. He grew up like four blocks from the Alexandria. So, he says that a lot of people that used to go to the Alexandria started going to the Four Star and the Balboa and the Coliseum to see movies there because they'd already seen South Pacific.

David: Right

Woody: And they just were trying to keep away from it. So, it's kind of funny, you don't think of it that way, but there was a whole business strategy with these theaters that survived into [00:11:00] television, you know?

David: Yeah.

Woody: And television, I think, kind of changed the whole dynamic. But also, the Alexandria and all neighborhood movie theaters really started closing up, what I remember, in the ‘80s.

David: Yeah, when video came.

Woody: I think that was it. I think it's those VHS tapes.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Darn it. Betamax! Killed the movie theater.

David: I remember my sister had Animal House and that Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And I watched those two movies 200 times apiece.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Well, I also think Showtime and HBO I remember like things.

David: Yeah.

Woody: I remember we used to watch the same movies over and over and over on Showtime.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But people stopped going to the movie theaters, you know, they could get their entertainment at home. And a lot of these movie theaters closed up and, in fact, they're still closing, right? So…

David: Yep.

Woody: We have the Balboa still and we have the Four Star, but the Bridge just closed a year or two ago. And in 2004 the [00:12:00] Alexandria closed in February. And I think one of the last movies was Miracle on Ice, which was about the hockey team. You know, US Hockey team.

David: Oh yeah, US Olympic Hockey team.

Woody: I think that was the last movie that played there. It was the last showing. And I remember when it closed on February 16th, 2004, they said a whole investment group bought it and they were going to turn it into housing on the parking lot. They were going to take the main building and break it up a little, but, have a supper club or a nightclub and a maybe a movie theater upstairs in one of the little movie theaters. And that was the plan and that was what they started filing and that was what they started telling the City it was going to be. And then ten years later?

David: Nothing.

Woody: Nothing's happened. In fact, it's, I mean, I live near there – graffiti, pigeons.  Obviously, water damage is getting in.

David: Right.

Woody: And hurting the murals. Some of [00:13:00] the panels I think have been ripped off. People have stolen them. So, it's been a big problem. And, only this week, we heard that those owners which have neglected the building for a decade, have sold to another group. And the other group supposedly is going to jump in, secure the site, and go ahead with this plan of building housing. And then what they're going to do with the historic building? They're going to fix it up, but they don't know exactly what to put in it.

David: Right.

Woody: Is what I've heard.

David: Now I said it was landmarked and it's not, is it?

Woody: No, no.

David: So…

Woody: It has some protections.

David: They could do whatever they want with it, almost.

Woody: Almost. But they have to go through a lot of hoops at the City. Because the City won't just let them tear it down. But I was just worried it might burn up or something by accident, you know?

David: Yeah.

Woody: But…

David: People going in there and drinking beer.

Woody David?

David: I never did that. I never did that. I don't think I ever snuck a beer in there either.

Woody: Good for you. I’m so proud of you, you didn’t drink…

David: It’s been a while. It’s been a while since we have talked about me drinking beer in places.

Woody: [00:14:00] So that's the story of the Alexandria. I think I would like to mention with…

David: It's not done. That story.

Woody: It's continuing.

David: We're still wondering about it.

Woody: Yeah, it's continuing. And we really want to make sure all those historic elements that are still there are preserved.

David: Right.

Woody: And survive somehow. It's a beautiful building, really, it's just been neglected.

David: Yeah. And we have some great shots of all the interior details that were taken right after it closed. Right?

Woody: Yeah, we had a friend who came forward to photograph, because of this very thing. I was worried, I didn't know what was going to happen to the theater building. So, they let us in to take photos of a lot of these elements in 2004. And we have those, or maybe early 2005, we have those photos, and we could probably put more up on our website.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And we'll see, we'll see how long this takes. But I can tell you, everybody in the neighborhood is ready for something to happen.

David: Right. Are you going to give them another ten years?

Woody: No! That's what I'm saying. [00:15:00] So, do you want to hear the whole song, David?

David: Yeah, let's hear it.

Woody: All right. But before we play the whole song, we'll go out with it, how do people become members of the Western Neighborhoods Project?

David: Well, they go to our website at outsidelands.org and they click on the Become a Member link that's at the top of the page.

Woody: Also on our website, there are lots of pictures of the Alexandria through the years.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So, you can, like, put “Alexandria” in our search box and you'll probably find lots of views of it. Mostly from our friend Jack.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And that's it. I hope to see you next week, David.

David: Well, I hope so. I'll be here.

Woody: Oh, good. Do you ever go home?

David: No, I'm here all the time. No, that's not true. If you call us, leave a message and I'll call you back.

Woody: Because you're sleeping.

David: Usually, yeah.

Woody: All right, I'll see you next week.

Woody: Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco [00:16:00] history at outsidelands.org.

Music Playing: Symbols crashing in that ancient land of mystery. Beckon me, from far over the sea. Horsemen dashing ‘oer the desert sands I visualize, to the place I call my paradise, ‘neath Egyptian skies. Alexandria, I hear you calling. Alexandria, oh land enthralling. You know well, what haunts me. It's your spell, that taunts [00:17:00] me and your song, all day long I sing. Beside an ancient well so rare, amid the palm trees, waits a maiden fair. There, ‘tis her love I’m always dreaming of. My Alexandria, you’re calling me.

Trumpets ringing through the night again, I seem to hear loud and clear [00:18:00] as the horsemen appear. Maidens singing through the cobbled streets so merrily. Allah, listen to my lonely plea, bring this back to me. Alexandria, I hear you calling. Alexandria, oh land enthralling. You know well, what haunts me. It's your spell, that taunts me and your song all day long I sing. Beside an ancient well so rare, amid the palm trees, [00:19:00] waits a maiden fair. There, ‘tis her love I’m always dreaming of. My Alexandria, you’re calling me.

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