The Library of Congress has been trying to identify this mysterious image since 2016. Pop culture historian Cary O’Dell initially pegged it as an obscure French horror film before observers pointed out that it was clearly taken inside a BART station on Mission Street—but why?
Now Michael Sullivan, resident playwright for the city’s venerable political theater company the SF Mime Troupe, tells KTVU that the still is actually a promotional photo for the Mime Troupe production The Great Air Robbery. Mystery solved.
The Great Air Robbery was a sci-fi detective noir play staged in 1974 and set in a dystopian future where breathable air becomes the world’s most valuable commodity.
The original program reveals an illustration of the the same alien costume with breathing apparatus seen in the photo and that the third act was indeed set in a BART tunnel. The Oakland Museum of California has one of the retro promotional posters with the same illustrations in its archive.
According to UC Davis theater professor Theodore Shank’s 2002 book Beyond the Boundaries, The Great Air Robbery was notable at the time for its casting and anti-capitalist politics:
The Great Air Robbery had a black hero even though it did not focus on a specifically working-class issue. In this parody of a television detective story, Ray Von is hired by Hugh G. Magnum, an oil capitalist, to protect one of his inventors, Violent Mince. When Ray Von goes to her house and discovers her dead, he vows to find her killer.
There’s also a revolutionary group called the Red Bat, a big push for solar power, and, according to the program, Martians at some point. So pretty much the greatest play ever from the sounds of things, although New York Times critic Clive Barnes panned it in 1974, calling it simplistic and naive:
The company seems to believe that a slogan carries more political clout than an argument, and while in demagogic terms this may be true, siogans [sic] never make for exciting theater. [...] The humor is as labored as a broken‐backed donkey. We have a reference to “Rockefeller, D.C,” and an all‐too‐typical joke comes when a character says: “Charge it to my master‐race card.”
But what do critics know? Maybe with the mystery of the misidentified photo solved it’s time for the Mime Troupe to stage a revival and see whether this forgotten gem can clear the air in a new century.