Behind the Scenes

Bridge
3010 Geary (at Blake)
352-0810
Admission: $7.50, $4.25 kids/seniors,
$4.25 matinee
Parking: none

The Bridge opened in 1939 with an Astaire-Rogers souffle, The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle. The art deco landmark (misidentified as the "Ridge") merits an entry in Luis Bunuel's piercing autobiography, My Last Sigh, for a 1978 "terrorist" (as he called it) incident provoked by That Obscure Object of Desire. (The damage necessitated a renovation of the living room-style lobby.) Landmark took over the inviting 400-seat theater from Renaissance Rialto (see Grand Lake) in 1991, and the fare now is primarily English-pedigreed art films like The Madness of King George and Emma. Like one abandoned for a sexy younger lover, the Bridge maintains its homely dignity and older, literate audience even as its corporate parent and the younger set fawn over the new Embarcadero Center. The Bridge's screen is high but not particularly large, so the closer you sit the better. The main attraction of the Bridge is Tyrone McCloskey's art: The Bridge staffer's wonderfully creepy paintings of fringe filmmakers like William Castle transform the lobby into a gallery. The legendary Samuel Z. Arkoff recently dropped by to examine his portrait on the "King of the B's" wall; what are you waiting for?

California
2113 Kittredge (at Shattuck), Berkeley
(510) 848-0620
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: none

The California is a Berkeley art triplex now owned by Landmark. It has a fairly nice room downstairs, two hastily divided smaller ones upstairs; the latter are extremely steep and far too narrow, and not reconfigured for the new screens, giving a feel that's at once vertiginous and askew. There's been a hole in the downstairs screen for some time; screens aren't that expensive to replace. People tend to feel affectionate toward the theaters, though; perhaps it's the staff. They're friendly and professional, taking questions and complaints seriously.

The Casting Couch
950 Battery (at Green)
986-7001
Admission: $8.50
Parking: none

The Casting Couch Micro-Cinema, as it is officially called, is a "luxury screening room" that shows high-end video and laserdisc in a small (50 capacity) but tony environment. The seating is on couches and love seats; the waiters bring the snacks to you. Owner Edgar Marroquin says the room is on hiatus through the end of the year for private use, but will be back in 1997 with a lineup of independent films and special events.

Castro
429 Castro (at Market)
621-6120
Admission: $6.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: ha!

The 1,500-seat Castro, with its heroic facade and irrepressible clientele, remains the great art-house moviegoing experience in San Francisco. The theater was built by the Nasser family, a key Bay Area exhibition force in the first half of the century. It cost $300,000 in 1922, back when that was real money; it's one of architect Timothy J. Pflueger's four extravagant Bay Area theatrical concoctions. (The others are the Alhambra, the Oakland Paramount, and the Alameda, which is no longer in operation.) Pflueger, who lived from 1892 to 1946, was educated at the Beaux Arts School of Design and was a key Bay Area builder: He also did the Pacific Telephone building on New Montgomery and the nightclub Bal Tabarin (now Bimbo's), and was also on the design team for the Bay Bridge.

In the 1980s, the Castro was the flagship and darling of Mel Novikoff's Surf Theaters, which included the Surf, the Lumiere, and the Clay. Before his death, in 1987, Novikoff was planning to plex it, saying he couldn't afford to keep it open. But the theater then went to the Blumenfelds (see Regency), and its existence now seems secure. The company's oversight of this now venerable house is sometimes disparaged by theater buffs, apparently on the grounds that it should undertake a complete restoration. But this is a pricey proposition, and the building has not been allowed to decay. The Castro is run as a stand-alone operation with its own booker and technicians and a sympathetic staff unlike those at the other Blumenfeld rooms in town. Now extremely successful, the Castro is carefully booked to include neighborhood crowd-pleasers, series that emphasize the theater's size (like the wide-screen program set for the last weeks of December), and special events. Inside, the lobby is disappointingly cramped, but this is compensated for a bit by a snazzy mezzanine lounge. The interior is spectacular, if a bit dusty. The seats are famously uncomfortable, and only get worse in the balcony.

Cinema 21
2141 Chestnut (at Steiner)
921-6720
Admission: $7.50, $4.50 kids/seniors,
$4.50 matinee
Parking: none

The Cinema 21 is a nice place. It's owned by the Century company, formerly known as Syufy, an S.F.-based chain of some 500 screens. Most of these are so-so multiplexes (quite a few of them dot the burbs); but the company now says it's embarked on an ambitious building plan of new-generation high-quality multiplexes that might double its size by the year 2000. The Cinema 21 and its sister, the Presidio, are the company's two classy single-screen affairs. The 21 has a tee-riff curved screen and one of those old-fashioned interiors with a standard lower house and then a steeply raked loge. It's comfy, too. The company says the 21 and the Presidio are successful neighborhood operations, but others in the film industry say they wouldn't be surprised to see Century sell them.

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