Electric 'Avenue' — Classic Portola Movie Palace Gets New Neon

After years of community work, a big day in the revival of a historic movie palace in Portola is fast approaching.

On Wednesday, September 13th, Mayor Ed Lee will join District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen and community members to switch on a new neon sign at the Avenue Theater, a long-vacant but historic theater at 2650 San Bruno Avenue (between Burrows and Bacon streets). 

"It's all coming together," said Luke Spray, corridor manager for the Portola Neighborhood Association. "When we flip the switch, we'll be able to show the community what we've been working towards for the past five years."

PHOTO: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY

In 2015, the PNA reached an agreement with the building's owner.

"We’d help them turn the neon back on, and in return, they'd empower us to activate the theater's retail space and attract a tenant to the theater," the organizers of a June crowdfunding campaign wrote. "With support from city leaders, we applied for a grant and won funding for the project in early 2016." 

According to Spray, the campaign ultimately raised $10,000 to buy new marquee letters, repair poster cases and install new lights in the lobby.

Support from the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development throughout the process was crucial, Spray added. 

"None of the community contributions would have even been possible if OEWD hadn't enabled us to get to that point," Spray said. "It was their early commitment to the neighborhood that enabled us to receive the grant in the first place."

Since then, contractors have been repairing the theater's sign in preparation for this week's ceremony. 

By analyzing the capacitors in the sign, the neon sign contractor was able to recreate the Avenue Theater sign's original flashing sequence.

Photographer Christopher Michel captured the theater's fresh new look while the sign was tested last week.

Even before it's been switched on, the new sign has already attracted some attention for the theater's two vacant spaces.

Movie palaces, popular in the first half of the 20th century, have proved to be difficult challenges for communities who like the buildings' appearance, but struggle to fill them with new businesses.

While Oakland's Fox Theater and San Francisco's Alamo Drafthouse are used as theaters, others—like Avenue Theater and Ocean Avenue's El Rey Theater— have proved trickier to repurpose. Even those in use as theatres, like the Balboa, have found it difficult to find an audience

 A new tenant has not been lined up for the theater's main 12,000-square-foot  space, although there has been some interest, Spray said.

In recent months, Churn Urban Creamery expressed strong interest in moving into the theater's smaller 1,000-square-foot space, which was used as a candy store and later as a barbecue restaurant. 

Despite what the future may hold, the revitalization of the Avenue Theatre marks a new chapter for the neighborhood. 

"Every night, community members will be able to look up and say, 'I did that,'" said PNA's corridor manager Luke Spray. "[The sign and theater will be] a source of neighborhood pride."


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Avenue theater neon unveiling