Then & Now: 5 Classic Movie Palaces Of The Mission District

Theaters have always played a prominent role in San Francisco's entertainment scene. This is especially true in the Mission, which once housed more than 20 movie theaters—including five across just four blocks.

According to historical city archives, most of the nickelodeons downtown were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire. To fill the void, grandiose play and movie houses quickly rose along Mission Street, “forming one of the greatest cinema rows in all of San Francisco.”

While many of the neighborhood's original movie houses have disappeared, some—like The New Mission Theater—have seen new life in recent years.

Here, we take a look back in time at five great movie theaters of the Mission.

El Capitan Theatre, 2353 Mission St.

El Capitan in 1939. | Photo: San Francisco History Center, SFPL

The El Capitan theater debuted June 29th, 1928.

The 2,578-seat theater—the largest in San Francisco until The Fox came along—was located inside the three-story Spanish Colonial Revival building (with a Mexican Baroque facade) on Mission between 19th and 20th streets, according to Cinema Treasures. The building, designed by William H. Crim, also housed an 85-room hotel and retail stores.

Developed by Ackerman, Harris and Oppenheim—the firm that also launched the Warfield downtown and several other Bay Area venues—El Capitan offered films and extravagant stage productions, including Native American singers, vaudeville acts, comedy skits and accompaniment from a large orchestra, according to the property's historic preservation records.

The theater's opening show, "We Americans," featured 25 artists, 16 showgirls and 5 vaudeville acts, plus several orchestral selections and an organ concert.

The exterior of El Capitan in 1928 (left) and in 1933. | Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SFPL

According to the book Theatres of San Francisco, folks could catch a film and a stage revue for 10 cents at matinee and 25 cents for evening shows. And by the 1950s, this was the first neighborhood theater to showcase CinemaScope, widescreen movies, and Stereophonic Sound.

The front entrance to El Capitan, 1932. | PHOTO: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SFPL

Despite remaining on the cutting-edge, El Capitan was unable to withstand competition from television, and shuttered in 1957. The theater was demolished in 1961, and the space it once occupied became a parking lot in 1965.

Despite a fire in 1994, the facade remains, as well as the (now residential) hotel and parking lot, where vehicles drive into what was once the theater's lobby.

Tower Theater, 2465 Mission St.

The Tower Theater in 1964. | Photo: San Francisco History Center, SFPL

The Tower Theater opened in April 1912 as the 870-seat Majestic Theater. It was remodeled in 1937 in the Streamline Moderne style by architect S. Charles Lee, who is credited with designing more than 400 theaters in California and Mexico.

As the Majestic, the theater specialized in musical comedy.

The internet offers few details on the Tower Theater's heyday, but Cinema Treasures reports that it closed in 1996. The building was used as a church until 2007.

Inside the Tower Theater, 1943. | Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SFPL

Today, the building is vacant and, according to the Urban Group, all 9,939 square feet are available for lease for $15,000/month. However, plans are being developed to turn the former theater into a cinema school that will then be donated to CCSF, Mission Local reported last March.

The Tower Theater's marquee today. | Photo: Brittany Hopkins/Hoodline

New Mission Cinema, 2550 Mission St.

The New Mission in 1943, and in 1991.  | PHOTO: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SFPL

This might be the neighborhood's most recognizable of the theaters, as it recently reopened as the renovated Alamo Drafthouse.

More than one hundred years ago, in 1907, it launched as The Mission Theatre, designed by the Reid Brothers (James and Merritt), who designed multiple theaters as well as the Fairmont Hotel.

Like many San Francisco theaters of the time, it changed names regularly. It became the Premium Theatre in 1911, and the Idle Hour Theatre in mid-1913. Then in 1932, Timothy L. Pflueger gave the New Mission Theater an Art Deco redesign.

Through the '60s and '70s, the movie house showed mostly B movies and children’s movies, and horror flicks like “Night of the Living Dead II” were popular in the ‘80s.

"Poltergeist" and "Cat's Eye" screen in 1986. | PHOTO: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SFPL

The theater closed in 1993, becoming a furniture store for several years.

City College purchased the property in 2001, with plans to gut the theater for a $43 million campus facility. However, the “Save the New Mission Theater” campaign stopped that venture, and City College sold the property to local developers.

Today, the 70-foot marquee is lit up again thanks to Alamo Drafthouse, which opened a five-screen theater—with a full restaurant, bar and table service—in the space in December of 2015.

Photo: V. Alexandra de F. Szoenyi/Hoodline

Roxie Cinema, 3117 16th St.

The Roxie in 1975. | PHOTO: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SFPL

First opened in 1909 as the C. H. Brown Theater, the Roxie also underwent many identity changes. It was The Poppy (1912-1916), The New 16th Street (1916-1920), The Rex (1920-1926), The Gem (1926-1930), The Gaiety (1930-1933) and finally, The Roxie from 1933 to today.

Seating 238, the theater's website boasts that it is the oldest continuously operating theater in San Francisco and the second oldest continuously operating theater in the world.

Photo: Roxie Theater

Throughout the next two generations, The Roxie offered second and third runs of Hollywood films. By the 1950s, German-language films stole the show. And when television threatened its existence in the mid-1960s, The Roxie became a porn theater until 1975, when it was sold and briefly began screening Russian-language films.

Since becoming a nonprofit in 2009, the Roxie Cinema has focused on screening the "coolest/weirdest/most-thought provoking films of the past, present and future," the website says.

While funding gaps have threatened that mission, Roxie's board of directors scored a three-year lease extension in May 2015.

“I hope ... the Roxie is recognized as a permanent fixture of the San Francisco movie house landscape," board member Tracy Wheeler told Hoodline back then. “We'd hate for it to end up turning into some other thing, like the Alhambra, or just sitting vacant, like the Alexandria. For over 100 years the Roxie has been a place for San Franciscans to appreciate arts and culture, and I hope it will continue to do so for a long time still.”

Valencia Theatre, 245 Valencia St.

The Valencia Theatre, sometime between 1908 and 1924. | Photo: San Francisco History Center, SFPL

The Valencia Theatre debuted September 12th, 1908. All 1,800 seats were sold for opening night's stage production “The Great Ruby,” which featured six acts and 14 scenes, an article in the San Francisco Call reported that day.

According to Cinema Treasures, the theater specialized in stage productions until those fell out of favor in the 1920s. While it served as a movie house for many years thereafter, the building was sold to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1962 and became a cathedral.

While it was built following the 1906 earthquake and fire, and considered “San Francisco’s safest and most beautiful playhouse” during its heyday, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed the building, forcing its demolition.

Parishioners raised funds to develop an architecturally stunning landmark in its place, and today construction is nearing completion. Just last May, a helicopter delivered and installed the cathedral's 9-foot, 470-lb cross, Greek news site The Pappas Post reported

Video: Kostas Petrakos Films/Vimeo

The five old theaters are just a handful of the former movie houses that still dot the city today. What's your favorite? Let us know in the comments.

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5 classic movie palaces of the mission district