There was a time, not too long ago, when the neon glow of a marquee designated the beating heart of a neighborhood: a place for locals to gather, mingle, and enjoy the latest Hollywood production. And in the Outer Richmond, at least, that still holds true.
The Art Deco-inspired lobby of the Balboa Theatre (3630 Balboa St.) is a glimpse back in time, filled with historic movie posters and eye-catching curiosities from yesteryear. The week’s movies are inscribed in chalk behind a long counter that serves as both the box office and concession stand. Concessions include the usual popcorn, hot dogs, and soda, as well as some unique treats—where else can you get It's-Its and Capri Sun at a movie theater?
As one of the city's oldest operating movie theaters, the Balboa has provided entertainment to generations of San Franciscans over the years, screening everything from silent films to summer blockbusters to cult classics. Its location at 38th Avenue means it’s not always the most convenient place to catch a flick, unless you live in the area. But for many city dwellers, the 90-year-old theater is a local favorite, and a lasting remnant of the days when neighborhood theaters were king.
The Balboa's history begins in 1926, when theater operator Samuel H. Levin hired renowned architects James and Merritt Reid to design what was originally called the “New Balboa,” in order to distinguish it from a theater with the same name in the Sunset.
It was an era when new movie houses seemed to be popping up every month. "Most of these theaters were operated by the same few families, like the Levins," explains Alfonso Felder, president of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation (SFNTF). "Not everyone knows that, but the ties between some of our theaters go back almost a century."
The New Balboa’s design was modest compared to most of the other local theaters the Reid Brothers had built: its exterior, reminiscent of a Spanish mission, was simple and unadorned, blending into its suburban surroundings.
In its early days, the Balboa was a destination for eager moviegoers to see the latest silent films, with a single auditorium that sat up to 800 people. Along with nearby Richmond venues the Alexandria and the Coliseum, the New Balboa found success by providing the city's westside residents with an ever-changing rotation of popular films.
Over the years, the theater saw the transition of film from silent to sound, from black and white to vibrant Technicolor. It also adopted its present name, after the original Balboa became the Westwood. As the movie industry evolved, the small Richmond establishment adjusted its offerings, but kept its core business model the same.
"The Balboa has always been a neighborhood theater in the truest form," says Felder. "These types of theaters would show popular films after they debuted on Market Street, bringing those movies to the people in the neighborhoods."
After a fire damaged much of its original interior in 1978, the Balboa turned its one large auditorium into two smaller screening rooms, and has kept the same layout since then.
Over the next few decades, the Balboa would survive the boom of multiplex theaters that threatened and ultimately claimed many of its contemporaries, including the neighboring Alexandria and Coliseum. It stayed in business thanks to a succession of devoted owners, starting with local film enthusiast Gary Meyer.
Under Meyer's watch, the theater underwent a series of much-needed renovations. It also began hosting events and themed programming, which brought in a new wave of interest.
In 2011, Meyer passed the reins to Adam Bergeron and his wife, Jaimi Holker, who continue to own and operate the Balboa as part of CinemaSF.
"With a small theater like this, it's really a labor of love, something you do because you enjoy it," Bergeron explains, noting that neighborhood theaters are not the most lucrative businesses to operate.
Prior to taking over the Balboa, Bergeron had run businesses in the music and restaurant industries. But the management of a movie theater came with a whole new set of challenges, from getting clearance to screen the latest films to figuring out how to fix the theater's historic neon marquee. "When things like that break, they break in a very expensive way," he told us.
In 2013, the Balboa faced its biggest hurdle yet, when it was given a deadline by distribution companies to convert its projectors from film to digital. "After January 1, 2014, they would stop making 35mm films, and everything would need to be converted to digital," Bergeron says. "Without meeting the distribution companies' requirements, you couldn't show new movies."
The costly upgrade compounded the existing financial strains of small theaters across the city, leaving many of them with no choice but to close their doors after decades of operation. If it couldn't make the leap, the Balboa faced a similar fate.
So, together with Felder and the SFNTF, Bergeron launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the digital conversion. He'd hoped to gather enough to replace at least one projector, but the result far exceeded his expectations: a total of 1,063 supporters raised over $100,000, with backers coming from as far as Germany.
"People came out in droves," he says. "The neighborhood, community, friends ... It was mind-blowing, how many people cared enough to contribute."
The Balboa is now fully equipped with digital projection and surround sound. It shows a combination of first-run feature films and themed screenings, along with family-friendly movies every Saturday morning and classic films on Thursday evenings.
Bergeron and Felder have an ongoing list of plans for the Balboa, including special events and continued renovations. Over the course of the summer, they're partnering with San Franpsycho and Anchor Brewing to show several 1970s-set movies, paired with themed beers. (The first film in the series, Almost Famous, screens tonight.) In the fall, Bergeron plans to curate a series of unique films, accompanied by live music from local bands.
"Our main goal is to continue to have this great resource for the people in the Richmond," says Felder. "We were able to make those necessary improvements with the help of the community, so now, we want to ensure the theater can serve the neighborhood for many years to come."