Bay Area/ San Francisco/ Arts & Culture
Published on March 09, 2022
Clay Theatre on verge of historic landmark designation as SF’s ‘first dedicated foreign film theater’Image: Andrew S. via Yelp

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors moved forward Tuesday to give historic landmark designation to the Clay Theatre, and the theater could win that designation by this time next week. 

The SF Historic Preservation Commission completed a thorough study showing that the now-shuttered Pacific Heights movie theater that opened in 1913, and in our day became a midnight movie destination, is “historically significant for its association with the initial development of neighborhood theaters during the pioneering period of moving picture theaters.” More importantly, they found the “Clay Theatre is significant as the first dedicated foreign film theater in San Francisco.”

Even if the Clay gets the historic landmark designation, though, it may not ever reopen as a movie theater. Even though the Chronicle reported in March 2020 that the Neighborhood Theater Foundation has offered to buy the place for $3.5 million and keep it a theater, that offer was rebuffed. 

Screenshot: SF Planning Commission


The property remains for sale. Hoodline has found that the cosmetics brand Glossier requested a permit to make the place a cosmetics store in October 2021, but withdrew their request a couple of weeks later.

The Historic Preservation Commission’s full 84-page report on the Clay Theatre confirms that the theater is historically significant, notably as SF’s first full-time international film movie house. “The Clay-International [opened] in 1935, is significant as the first dedicated foreign film theater in San Francisco and as an important exhibitor of foreign and independent art house films through the late 1980s.”

The Commission also found the theater is architecturally significant, for its “Shaped parapet, projecting cornice, and plaster ornamentation on the primary façade.”

Now for the bad news. The report debunks many claims we’ve always believed about the Clay: The theater is not as old as we thought it was, it did not host San Francisco’s first midnight movie, and it was not the first place John Waters’ Pink Flamingos played as a midnight movie.

The Clay Theatre did not open in 1910, as we’ve always believed. “Various sources list the theater as opening in 1910, however, research undertaken for this report indicates that the building permit [was] issued in 1913,” the Historic Preservation Commission found. “The building is depicted on the 1913 Sanborn Map with small stores flanking a space used for ‘moving pictures.’”

“The property was in operation as the Regent Theater by December 1913, showing the motion picture In the Bishop’s Carriage, starring Mary Pickford,” the commission notes.

It is also often claimed, even by John Waters himself, that the Clay hosted San Francisco's first-ever midnight movie with a Pink Flamingos screening in 1972. Sorry Divine, but this is incorrect on multiple counts.

First, midnight movies date way further back than that. “Midnight movie showings in San Francisco date to at least 1911, when the Alcazar Theater (260 O'Farrell Street; no longer extant) showed what was described as a ’midnight matinee, the first ever offered in San Francisco,’ a special program intended to enable members of the Moving Picture Operators’ Union to see popular shows,” the commission found.

Our modern notion of the cult-hit midnight movie arrived here 60 years later. “In San Francisco, by 1971, the Clay, Larkin and Music Hall theaters were all showing George Romero’s horror film Night of the Living Dead at a midnight-only run, and the Times Theaters (1249 Stockton Street, extant but significantly altered) was showing Invaders from Mars on midnight-only weekend runs,” according to the commission. “61 Horror films were on the schedule at midnight at the Balboa Theater by 1972, and the release of A Clockwork Orange that year prompted many midnight showings of the film around San Francisco.”

Moreover, Pink Flamingos played several other midnight movie runs before it hit the Clay. “Pink Flamingos was released in March 1972. The Clay appears to have been closed from around July 1972 through October 1973,” the commission explains. “Starting in May 1973, the Music Hall Theater was advertising special midnight showings of Pink Flamingos on Fridays and Saturdays. The film played at a midnight showing at the Presidio Theater in May 1974, and then a four-month run of midnight showings at the Clay Theater from July through November 1974.”

Yes, John Waters told KQED in 2020 that “Pink Flamingos started there.” To which the Historic Preservation Commission retorts, “He also says in the same interview that he basically does not remember the 1970s.”

The Clay Theatre’s landmark status is scheduled to go before the Land Use and Transportation Committee on Thursday, March 10, and could get a full Board of Supervisors vote as early as Tuesday, March 15.