clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Neon dreams: 16 old movie theater marquees around the Bay Area

New, 2 comments

Retro signage breathes life into repurposed movie houses and still-operating cinemas

Photo by Lynn Friedman

Some have dazzling, newly refurbished neon signs that rise several stories. Some have one-of-a-kind murals and soaring art deco ceilings inside. A number are still operating as movie houses, though a few have been converted into gyms and concert venues, and some are still waiting for their second act. The Bay Area is nevertheless lucky to be home to over a dozen movie theaters from early in the last century whose flashy exterior signage has been at least partially preserved, lighting up their neighborhoods with reminders of a different time.

This preservation work has been done either by new owners who have repurposed the spaces inside, or by owners who know that nostalgia is strong for the days when every neighborhood had a single-screen theater that was packed every night—and movie houses had oodles more grandeur and style than the cookie-cutter multiplexes we’re cursed with today.

San Francisco is blessed with the Castro Theatre, one of the biggest and grandest movie houses of its era in the country that is still showing movies daily with a single big screen and a pipe organ to boot. And as of two years ago we have the renovated New Mission Theater, now operating as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, with its six-story vintage neon sign newly aglow over Mission Street after decades sitting rusted and dark.

Oakland has the Fox and the Paramount, the latter of which still screens old movies now and then, and the neighborhood gem that is the Grand Lake Theater, renovated back in the 1980s and still going strong with first-run movies and its own mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Let’s take a look at a collection of the finest examples of grand movie marquees around the Bay Area.


Alhambra Theater sign on Polk Street.
Photo by Thomas Hawk

The Alhambra Theater

2330 Polk, SF

No longer operating as a theater, the signage and much of the interior of the Alhambra on Polk Street were preserved after being converted into a gym in the late 1990s—it’s now a Crunch Fitness, and they still make use of the projection screen inside. The Alhambra was one of several local theaters designed by architect Timothy L. Pflueger, and we have SF’s preservationist fervor to thank for the fact that it was never demolished. The red, white, and green neon marquee lights up an otherwise drab part of Polk Street, flanked on either side by a pair of Moorish towers—and the wavy pattern of the neon itself follows on the Moroccan theme.


Photo by Christopher Michel

The Avenue Theatre

2650 San Bruno Avenue, SF

Portola’s Avenue Theater is just now undergoing its renaissance, with its towering neon sign having been switched back on last fall. The sign was refurbished and relit following a crowdfunding campaign by the Portola Neighborhood Association and a grant from the city. Work is underway to get the largest of the building’s spaces filled—local ice cream business Churn Urban Creamery has claimed the smaller retail space; it’s slated to open later this year.

Opened in 1927, the Avenue Theatre survived the era of decline of the city’s movie palaces in the 1960s, switching over its programming to include foreign and silent films, using the theater’s Wurlitzer organ. It kept on into the 1980s before finally closing due to financial difficulties in 1984, and has sat vacant ever since. Here’s hoping someone comes along soon to breathe new life into the space.


Photo by Eugene Kim

Balboa Theater

3630 Balboa, SF

Still chugging along playing first-run movies in addition to running special programs and vintage screenings, the Balboa in the Outer Richmond has survived thanks to a non-profit, the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which also supports the Vogue and took charge of the Balboa in 2011. To give you an idea of how the economics of movie houses have changed, the Balboa only played two films over the course of the entire year of 1967, because they were so popular: The Sound of Music (21 weeks) and Dr. Zhivago (30 weeks).

The Balboa, with its simple Spanish-Revival facade, was designed by the same architects as the Cliff House and the Fairmont Hotel, brothers James and Merritt Reid, and opened in 1926. It survived two fires in the 1940s and 1970s, and its colorful marquee and sign continues to glow in this otherwise sleepy part of town, drawing in fans from the Avenues who don’t feel like hoofing it downtown to catch a flick.


Photo by Felix Lipov

The Castro Theatre

429 Castro

The crown jewel of the Bay Area’s vintage movie houses, the Castro Theatre was designed in 1922 by Timothy L. Pflueger in the grand Spanish style of nearby Mission Dolores, and underwent remodeling and mural cleaning in the last decade. It remains under the ownership of the descendants of the original owners, the Nasser family. In 2008 its towering neon sign and marquee got refitted with new neon and repainted for the filming of Milk—and the sign is supposedly how the neighborhood got the nickname that stuck, since The Castro used to be known as Eureka Valley. The red, yellow, and blue marquee and blinking sign is the most impressive and intricate local example from the era behind Oakland’s Fox Theater.

Also, the theater’s original, decorative ceiling, known as a leatherette ceiling, is possibly the last known example of this kind of ceiling remaining in the world. While still operating as a neighborhood draw for single-night screenings of first-run movies as well as thoughtful programming of classic films and double-features, the Castro is also home base for several annual festivals and occasionally brings in major premieres.

In addition to doing digital screening with Dolby sound, the theater still projects 35mm and 70mm films for film geeks as well—and the organ, now a pipe-digital hybrid installed several years ago, has the ability to sound like a full orchestra.


Photo by Thomas Hawk

Fox Oakland Theater

1807 Telegraph, Oakland

Reopening as a concert venue a decade ago, the Fox in Oakland is a major success story for historic reuse and preservation, taking a grand, intact movie palace that had sat vacant except for squatters for several decades and restoring it to its original glory. The coffered, sculpted ceiling and the mishmash of Asian, Art Deco, and Middle Eastern detailing are all things to behold, but the blinking, rainbow-colored marquee is again a centerpiece of the Uptown neighborhood as it was when the Fox first opened in 1928.

The theater was originally going to be called the Bagdad, in part because of some of its architectural details—the work care of the firm Weeks and Day, who also designed the InterContinental Mark Hopkins and the Scarlet Huntington on Nob Hill. The exuberant sign and marquee, along with the interior, were the lucky side benefits of a large redevelopment project next door, completed in 2009—the total restoration project cost roughly $75 million.


Grand Theater

2665 Mission, SF

The Grand Theater and its sign are dwarfed a bit by the larger New Mission Theater on the next block, and the neon still needs some restoration, but the space is at least active again and refurbished as home to the arts organization Gray Area (after years as a dingy dollar store).

The Grand, which opened in 1940 and was designed by the firm Cantin and Cantin, was one of a quintet of single-screen cinemas on this stretch of Mission in the heyday of the city’s movie palaces, competing with the other row of first-run cinemas on MidMarket Street during the ’40s and ’50s—this group also included the New Mission, the El Capitan, Cine Latino, and the Tower Theater. By the ’70s the Grand was a horror and sci-fi movie house, and ceased operations as a theater by the late 1980s. Gray Area continues their fundraising drive to restore the theater and the sign, and you can learn more here.


Photo by Thomas Hawk
Photo by cwgoodroe

Grand Lake Theater

3200 Grand Avenue, Oakland

Oakland boasts a trio of restored movie palaces, and the Grand Lake is the smallest of the three but the only one that is still a full-time movie theater. Built in 1926 and restored in the 1980s and 1990s to include three smaller screens that were formerly retail spaces, the Grand Lake is the cornerstone of the Grand Avenue and Lakeshore shopping nodes, and a well-known date-night destination for Oaklanders.

The theater’s main screen still features a Mighty Wurlitzer organ that plays before Friday and Saturday night shows, and owner Allen Michaan has been well known during recent election cycles to use the marquee for more than just movie titles. The marquee and horizontal Art Deco-style neon sign are accompanied by a huge rooftop sign that’s visible from 580 as you’re driving through Oakland, and all of them retain their vintage glory.

Morbid history fact: Before the opening night revival screening of Star Wars in 1997, a female organist here died at the keys, mid-performance.


Photo by Brock Keeling

The Metro Theater

2055 Union, SF

The second of SF’s movie-palaces-turned-gyms, the Metro Theater in Cow Hollow, retains its vintage exterior and marquee despite transforming into an Equinox Fitness in 2013. Opened as the Metropolitan in 1924, the theater officially became the Metro after a 1941 remodel, and later would become one of the early homes of the San Francisco International Film Festival, which was founded in 1957.

The Metro outlasted many other neighborhood cinemas in town, ultimately closing in 2006. The red and yellow neon of the marquee light up nightly, despite there not being a theater here anymore, but under an agreement with the city, the space still has a retractable screen and can be rented out as an auditorium for neighborhood screenings.


Photo by Thomas Hawk

New Mission Theater

2550 Mission Street, SF

We have local preservationists, an incentive grant from a next-door developer, and the runaway success of Austin-based theater chain Alamo Drafthouse Cinema to thank for the glorious renovation of the New Mission Theater and its towering neon sign—a sign which had sat dark and rusting at 21st and Mission for 25 years before reopening in 2015 as Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. The theater was designated a landmark in 2004, thwarting an earlier effort by City College of San Francisco to raze most of the building, and preservation efforts finally paid off a decade later when Alamo Drafthouse stepped in.

Another example of a theater owned by the Nasser Brothers (whose descendants still own the Castro Theatre) and designed by noted architect Timothy L. Pflueger, the New Mission is the Art Deco counterpoint to the Spanish style of the Castro Theatre, following a 1932 renovation (the theater began as a silent movie house and was built in 1916, minus the grand marquee).

When the neon is turned off, the deep red sign tower of the New Mission evokes the Golden Gate Bridge, but at night it’s a show of white, green, and yellow. Though originally home to just one big screen, the space now has five screens, with four smaller auditoriums carved out of the former balcony and second level—and as you probably know, Alamo Drafthouse offers full-on food and beverage service at your seat.


Photo by BWChicago
Photo by Dave Schumaker

Paramount Theater

2025 Broadway, Oakland

The Paramount in Oakland is easily the most impressive, purely Art Deco movie palace left in the Bay Area, if not the country, even though it is primarily a music venue these days (they still screen classic movies on occasional Fridays; check the calendar). Completed in 1931, the Paramount had the same principal architect as the Castro, Alhambra, and New Mission theaters, Timothy F. Pflueger, and it’s clear that he took great care in designing something in the most modern mode of the era. The grandeur of the lobby alone rivals that of Radio City Music Hall, with its towering Deco columns and lights.

The vertical neon sign outside, rising four or five stories, is accompanied by two giant mosaics of Egyptian-like figures as well as dancers and other performers.

While the nearby Fox Theater was left to languish during the same period, the Paramount was saved from decay in 1973 when it was purchased by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra Association, carefully restored, and then purchased by the City of Oakland two years later. It remains home to the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and you can get inside to see the amazing sculpted ceiling of the auditorium all year round, if you buy a ticket to a show or take one of the semi-monthly Saturday morning tours.


Photo by Jeremy Brooks

Presidio Theatre

2340 Chestnut

It may not be as impressive as some of the bigger marquees in town, but the Presidio Theatre’s vintage sign and marquee remain charming and intact over in the Marina. And despite seeming like it might close in the last decade, the Presidio is still operating as a movie theater after the 2004 addition of three smaller screens. The Presidio opened in 1937 as the El Presidio, and was a last-run neighborhood movie house until transforming into a porn theater (as many smaller theaters did) around 1970.

Fun fact: The Presidio was home to the First International Erotic Film Festival in 1970, and you can see some vintage footage from KPIX here, including the green neon of the marquee, red carpet arrivals, and an interview at the 1:45 mark with a grim-faced Dianne Feinstein, beginning her political career as an anti-porn crusader.


A post shared by Ana Farrer (@palomitasalerosa) on

Rafael Film Center

1118 4th Street, San Rafael

One of the oldest local movie house gems is up north in Marin County, where the Rafael Film Center began life as the Orpheus Theatre in 1920. It suffered a fire and was reborn as the Rafael Theatre in 1938, and got a facelift at the hands of the California Film Institute, which rechristened it the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in 2003. It’s now the primary home to the Mill Valley Film Festival each October, as well as the Doclands documentary festival every May. The neon signage and marquee are reminiscent of the Grand and Metro theaters in SF, with the white vertical letters of “RAFAEL” topped off with a red neon Deco-style swoosh.


Photo by Thomas Hawk

Roxie

3117 16th Street

The tiny, humble Roxie has been the Roxie since 1933, and now is a non-profit that specializes in independent and foreign films. It began life in 1909 and would later survive a brief stint as a porn theater in the late ’60s and early ’70s before assuming its current management in 1976. It’s hard to image 16th Street without the glowing white and pink neon of the Roxie’s signs, and hip neighborhoods across the country wish they had a cool indie house like this down their block.


A post shared by Juan Topete (@thejuantopete) on

The Stanford Theatre

221 University Avenue, Palo Alto

Down in Palo Alto, film geeks look no further than the Stanford Theatre for their fix of classic cinema, and like a couple of its counterparts to the north (Castro, Grand Lake), this old movie house still has its pipe organ, as well as a modest but charming marquee facing University Avenue, with “Stanford” in white neon script. Built in 1925, the Stanford was fully restored in 1987 thanks to help from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and now operates as a non-profit, enabling it to exclusively show classic Hollywood films.


A post shared by Siena Aguayo (@sienatime) on

Uptown Theater

1350 Third Street, Napa

Built in what’s called the “Streamline Moderne” style in 1937, downtown Napa’s Uptown Theatre is one of the historic treasures of the North Bay. Its vintage, three-story neon sign and marquee were restored as part of a major renovation in the last decade, when the shuttered movie house was transformed into a venue for live music and comedy that opened in 2010—and this small venue pulls in a lot of big names, including the likes of Eddie Izzard, Boz Scaggs, Arlo Guthrie, and David Sedaris all in the coming months. So even though the marquee doesn’t have movie titles on it, Napa residents are proud to see this theater back in its original 1930s shape, and that towering neon sign shining red, yellow, and pink every night.


Photo by Lynn Friedman

Vogue Theatre

3290 Sacramento, SF

Smaller in scale but like the Uptown and a few others on this list, the Vogue’s signage and marquee are in the Streamline Moderne style. This neighborhood movie house in Presidio Heights began life as the Elite Theatre in 1910, and more recently has joined the Balboa under the umbrella of the non-profit San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation. They show first-run movies here as well as classic and foreign films, and they host several festivals, including the Mostly British Film Festival every February. (Note: The neon in the theater name still functions and glows red, but lately it’s looked like the rest of the marquee’s neon may need some replacing.)