This morning I was thrilled to read that the Strand Theater is soon to be revived. American Conservatory Theater has purchased the building to re-open as a live theater venue. The Strand holds a special place for me in that on my very first day in San Francisco I spent the afternoon watching a matinee, but there is more to the story.
It was October of 1981 and I was temporarily staying with a college friend in Santa Cruz. I drove up for the day to investigate the City. I knew San Francisco was gay, but I had no idea how gay it was. I didn’t know there were gay neighborhoods, I didn’t know there was a gay parade, or gay gyms, and I had never seen a gay bar with windows.
At the time, my friends and I would go to movie matinees a couple times a week, so that activity was part of my routine for a day off. With no iPhones or internet to check theater listings, I saw a flyer for the Strand theater but didn’t know the address. I went to a payphone (!) and called Information for the number.
If calling 411 from a payphone is not antiquated enough, there were still live operators that looked it up for you. Directory Assistance was robotic even before they actually became robotic, but on this occasion when asked for the number of the Strand Theater, an extremely nelly voice jumped out of the phone exclaiming, “Oh, you’re going to the Joan Crawford Double Feature!” Not only was I already taken aback by that statement, but what he said in the next breath when he switched to a deep, sexy voice absolutely floored me:
“Front row of the balcony. Here’s your number.”
I was too naive and nervous to actually investigate the balcony that day, but I will never forget that story.
Throughout the 80′s the Strand Theater was a legitimate choice for 2nd run films, often showing double and triple features for one price, and one of the last theaters you could walk in or out between scheduled show times. I remember seeing “Eraserhead” there, a film that would never get shown in a theater if it were released as first-run today. It was also the place to see “Rocky Horror Picture Show” at midnight for many years.
Here’s what CinemaTreasures.org says:
This theatre opened on October 27, 1917 as part of the Grauman chain. It changed hands shortly thereafter and would change hands again in 1925 and 1939.
The West Side Theatre Company operated the Strand Theatre from 1940-1977. With the advent of television in the 1950’s and Market Street starting to decline in the 1960’s, the attendance at the theatre dropped (along with a change in the audience). Programming was triple bills, changed daily, with nightly bingo games.
Mike Thomas and a partner bought the Strand Theatre in 1977. (Thomas would also acquire and operate several other Market Street theatres around this time: the Warfield Theatre, the Crest Theatre, and the Embassy Theatre. He would later start up the independent film distributor Strand Releasing.) Thomas redid the theatre and hired security to help clear out undesirables. In June 1977, Thomas reopened the Strand Theatre with a revival of the Howard Hughes production of “The Outlaw” (which premiered originally down the street in 1943 at the United Artists Theatre aka Market Street Cinema). The show sold out and the Strand Theatre would become a well-known venue for revival cinema. The Strand Theatre also became a popular venue for midnight showings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.
The mid-1980’s took a toll on the Strand Theatre. Home video took a bite into the revival theater business. Market Street would decline further. Then the October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake would cause the Strand Theatre to close temporarily. (Its neighbor, the Embassy Theatre, wasn’t so lucky, as it was too badly damaged to reopen.) When the Strand Theatre reopened, it was sold to Silver Screen Amusements. (Thomas would still book the theatre.)
In June 1994, the Strand Theatre closed, only to reopen weeks later as a porn theatre showing projected video. The theatre deteriorated even further as it became a haven for crack dealers and hookers. Finally, in early-2003, the city of San Francisco would raid the theatre and shut it down for good. This was also the end to theatres that showed movies on Market Street.