Cinema Treasures in the Marina

October 28th, 2020 No Comments »

The Presidio Theatre at 2340 Chestnut Street.

The Marina District has two distinctive movie theaters, both dating back to the birth of its commercial area in the 1920s and 1930s. Each have had a range of owners, remodels, and revitalizations, but today continue to serve their original purpose. Both the Presidio and Marina Theatres remain closed temporarily, but you can visit the website of Lee Neighborhood Theaters, their operator, for further updates. For an extensive deep-dive into the histories of both theaters (and others across the city), we recommend Bill Counter’s San Francisco Theatres blog.

Alfonso Felder, Founder, San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation on both theaters:
“The Marina and Presidio Theatres have been neighborhood anchors for almost 100 years.  Generations of Marina residents have been entertained within their walls and they’re great gathering places for the Marina and adjacent  neighborhoods.  They’ve outlasted just about everyone on Chestnut Street.  Let’s hope we can get popcorn at the Presidio and sandwiches at Lucca for another 100 years.”

The Presidio Theatre (1937)
2340 Chestnut Street

El Presidio Theatre, San Francisco, California, c.1939. Displayed on marquee: NINOTCHKA, 1939; Selected Short Subjects; and Cosmetic Night, featuring Constance Bennett Beauty Aids. Tom B’hend and Preston Kaufmann collection, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Sciences.

Originally known as El Presidio, this Marina District theater opened in 1937 as a third-run neighborhood house and remained a single screen theater until 2003. Designed by W.D. Peugh and John H. Ahnden in the Streamline Moderne style, its initial purpose was to supplement the nearby Marina Theatre which, at that time, was strictly a second-run outlet for major titles. Two sets of existing blueprints show that Presidio’s builders chose between two architectural visions: one in a “High Deco” style with with panels and moldings of either geometric borders or stylized floral patterns, and the Streamline Moderne version that exists today.

Two blueprints from the Gary Parks collection, both created in 1936, show two visions for the theater. The High Deco vision (bottom) was structurally similar to the theater that ended up being built, but was slightly taller.

In 1951, Gerald Hardy bought the theater and shorten the venue’s name to the Presidio Theatre. When he retired in the 1960s, the Art Theatre Guild became the new operator. During this time, the Presidio starting running pornographic films, running films such as “I Am Curious (Yellow)” and “Deep Throat.”

(click image to watch) KPIX Eyewitness News report from December 2nd 1970 by Mike Lee and Ben Williams featuring the first San Francisco Erotic Film Festival. Includes scenes of people arriving at the Presidio Theatre for a premiere, Hibiscus and Tahara from The Cockettes singing ‘By a Waterfall’ and interviews with organizers and Supervisor Dianne Feinstein, who states: “The thing that I regret … is that this whole field is jeopardized right now because of the irresponsibility of certain money hungry people … who are capitalizing on sickness to sell their very depraved wares.” Bay Area Television Archive, San Francisco State University.

Century Theatres acquired the lease for the Presidio in the mid-1990s. In addition to giving the theater a remodel, the chain also shifted the Presidio to a first-run cinema. After Century’s lease expired in 2003, the Presidio remained closed for nearly two-years, and groups such as The San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation successfully advocated for its preservation. Frank Lee of Lee Neighborhood Theaters bought the Presidio in 2003, and undertook a half-a-million-dollar remodel before reopening the theater on Christmas Day 2004. The theater reopened as a four-screen, first-run cinema.

The Presidio Theatre prior to its renovation in 2003. Photo from the Syufy Enterprises collection.

According to Bill Counter’s San Francisco Neighborhood Theatres blog, the auditorium’s original sunburst chandelier was removed to accommodate the triplexing (a fourth screening room was created from space not part of the main theater). The large downstairs auditorium still features the theater’s original large screen and the original proscenium (the structure that frames the screen). Two auditoriums were created in the former the upper-tier seating area of the theater, each seating around 100.

The theater building today also houses two neighborhood businesses, the restaurant Causwells and optician Ocularium. Its neon sign remains in good condition.

The Marina Theatre in 2020. Heritage photo.

The Marina Theatre (1928)
2141 Chestnut Street

The Marina Theatre opened on September 21, 1928 as a 1,050-seat cinema. At the time, many of the city’s first-run theaters were found along Market Street, and neighborhood theaters like the Marina were second or third-run (like the nearby Presidio Theatre). It was designed by architects the O’Brien Brothers and Wilbur D. Peugh in the Moorish Revival style.

A 1928 project rendering from the architects, from the Jack Tillmany collection. The facade ended up more ornate than in the rendering. There is no photographic evidence suggesting that the ornate roof billboard was ever built.

A Marina Theatre calendar from March 1931 featuring films from stars such as Gary Cooper, Jackie Coogan, and Harold Lloyd. Bruce Goldstein/Film Forum Collection. 

A view of the auditorium after the 1952 renovation. The new murals are visible along the walls.

After being sold a few times, in October 1951 Gerald Hardy bought the Marina Theatre and proceeded to undertake extensive renovations on the property (the same year he purchased the nearby Presidio Theatre). This included enlarging the theater lobby, improving the acoustics, reinstalling the floors (the floors had settled significantly due to the fact that the Marina was built on filled-in marshland for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition). The auditorium was painted in deep orange and chartreuse tones, and artist Ashby Eckels painted murals depicting various stages of San Francisco history, from the Barbary Coast days and the Palace Hotel during the Gold Rush to the modern fishing industry and Golden Gate Bridge.

The exterior of the theater was rebuilt in a simple, modern design, with a new stainless steel marquee.

A look at the Marina Theatre’s marquee after the 1952 remodel illustrates its transformation from revival-style picture house to a modern theater. From the Jack Tillmany collection.

The Marina Theatre’s new CinemaScope screen in 1954, which was placed in front of the original proscenium. Jack Tillmany collection.

The Marina Theatre was also one of the first neighborhood cinemas off of Market Street to get the CinemaScope treatment. This included installing a new screen that sat in front of the original proscenium, with the sides of the image cropped slightly to fit the auditorium space.

The Marina Theatre, now Cinema 21, on March 3, 1968. OpenSFHistory / wnp5.50558.jpg

Those who remember The Marina Theater in 1965 say that this was the year the theater ceased being a strictly neighborhood theater. It was at this time that the Syufy chain acquired the theater, renamed it Cinema 21, and began running exclusive first-run films. Jack Tillmany recalls the problems that arose from this change on Bill Counter’s San Francisco Neighborhood Theatres blog:

“Gerald Hardy who was getting along in years, began selling off his theatres, and Marina fell into the hands of the Syufy chain, who changed the name to Cinema 21, raised the admission prices, and instituted a policy of exclusive first run attractions. This meant that anyone in San Francisco who wished to see a film playing at Cinema 21 had to travel there to do so; it would be shown nowhere else in the city. But there was no parking provided, and so visitors to the neighborhood circled blocks in search of parking places, much to the chagrin of the locals, who, in turn, deserted the theatre almost entirely because it now showed the same film for weeks, even months at a time, at uncomfortably higher prices, rather than change weekly as it once did.”

A look at the theater in 2002, a year after it had closed. The marquee was removed in the the theater’s 2008 renovation. Patrons are encouraged to “Please Visit The Presidio Theatre.” John Rice photo.

Under these circumstances, it is surprising the theater held on as long as it did; it finally closed on September 20, 2001. After a long battle to prevent the loss of the theatre, the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation developed a compromise plan with the building owner to preserve the theater while adding a ground-floor retail use. After a successful campaign and remodel, the theater re-opened in 2008 as a second-floor, two-screen, first-run theater with 350 seats, with Walgreens becoming the ground-floor retail tenant. Its name was also restored to The Marina Theatre, and, like its fellow Presidio Theatre, it is owned and operated by Lee Neighborhood Theaters.


Thanks in part to:

Counter, Bill. San Francisco Theatres, 26 Oct. 2020, sanfranciscotheatres.blogspot.com/.

San Francisco Neighborhood Theatre Foundation, 26 Oct. 2020, https://sfntf.squarespace.com/.

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