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Landmark status for Clay Theatre moves forward, theater may reopen yet

Landmark status for Clay Theatre moves forward, theater may reopen yet
Photo via Clay Theater
By Joe Kukura - Published on July 26, 2021.

Fun fact: The 111-year-old Clay Theatre at Fillmore and Clay Streets was home to San Francisco’s first-ever midnight movie screening in 1972, when the 380-seat movie house hosted the midnight premiere of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. Not fun fact: The Clay Theatre closed permanently in January 2020, well before even the pandemic hit, and its interior has since been gutted.

John Waters himself commented on the Clay’s closure. "It's very sad to me because San Francisco is one of the first places outside of Baltimore where my films caught on,” Waters told KQED last year.  “Pink Flamingos started there, became quite successful there, and was really a help in my career.”

 
 
 
 
 
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Yet just as this theater has cheated death many times, it may do so again. The SF Board of Supervisors Land Use and Transportation Committee voted unanimously Monday to initiate historical landmark designation for the building. The proposal from the district’s supervisor Catherine Stefani notes that “The Clay Theater’s physical structure, with Art Deco design elements and an elegant, simply decorated auditorium that recalls a jewel box, also holds unique architectural and aesthetic interest and value.”

 
 
 
 
 
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It’s not just the Clay’s past, but its future that drew interest Monday. “In early 2020, the owner put the theater on the market and we made on offer to purchase it at the then-asking price of $3.5 million,” San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation vice president Katherine Petrin said before Monday’s vote. “That was an offer that was rejected by the owner, even though we met his asking price.”

 
 
 
 
 
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The Chronicle reported on that offer in March 2020, adding that the owner “would sell at this price only if he can retain the air space over the two-story theater, which he believes could be rezoned residential so he could build condominiums atop the Clay.” In other words, the owner is driving a bargain to put far more lucrative housing atop the building, and it’s easy to see how a compromise could be forged wherein the owner gets his wish, and the Clay survives as more of an upscale wine-bar movie house.

 
 
 
 
 
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The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the last film that played at the Clay, at its final screening. The Clay may do the time warp again, though it won’t be anytime soon. The Historic Preservation Commission will now “consider whether the property or existing structures warrant landmark Designation,” and the committee gave them an extended 180 days to do so.