Behind the Scenes

Empire 3

85 West Portal (at Vicente)
Admission: $7.50, $4 seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: none

The Empire 3, at West Portal, is a triplex owned by Century (see Cinema 21); it has a good-size theater and two awkwardly shaped smaller theaters created out of the balcony. In these two smaller theaters, if you're sitting on the wrong side of the center aisles, you have to view the movie from an odd angle. Not only that, you have to watch the Century chain's self-promotional trailer before each movie. (It outdoes the AMC chain's Blade Runner-esque trailer in annoyance. The new UA one is worse, however.) The Empire is currently in the midst of a renovation to make the larger-screen theater, the lobby, and the restrooms wheelchair-accessible; thus the men's bathroom currently comprises four Portosans on the street in front of the theater. However, the West Portal neighborhood is good for a before- or after-movie walk, with many restaurants and coffeehouses.

Four Star
2200 Clement (at 23rd Avenue)
Admission: $7.50, $4.50 kids/seniors,
$4.50 matinee
Parking: none
See "Last of the Independents."

1285 Sutter (at Van Ness)
Admission: $7.50, $4.50 kids/seniors,
$5 matinee
Parking: nearby garages, about $3
with validation

The United Artists' Galaxy theater, the Van Ness operation with the 75-foot glass-cube atrium, is a fourplex that opened with a great deal of fanfare in June 1984. The local film industry doesn't mind the two larger rooms, each of about 650 seats and nicely proportioned. The other two rooms (each about 225 seats) are cramped. This is a typically careless UA operation. On a recent visit, the picture was strikingly murky. We actually dragged a manager in to look at it. "It's supposed to be that way," she assured us. Oh. Then there are the commercials before the movie, a pernicious practice. There's sales pressure in the lobby, too: Ask for a Coke at the concession stand and you immediately get hassled to buy a bigger one.

Geneva Drive-In
607 Carter (at Geneva), Daly City
Admission: $5.50, kids free
Parking: lots!

Hear about the couple who froze to death at the drive-in? They went to see Closed for the Season. Ha-ha. That's not an issue in most parts of California, but here in San Francisco we've got another party crasher: the fog. Just make a quick barometer check before you drop $5.50 a head at the Geneva's gate. Inside the compound, you'll find four screens and all the parking you could ever want. It's easy to romanticize drive-in theaters, but the fact is that the Geneva is a dump. The potholed, unmarked lots are in terrible condition; the bathrooms, near a dark stand of eucalyptus trees, are ill-kept and seem a likely hide-out for Freddy Krueger; and the FM-radio sound, while an improvement on the old-style speaker boxes, is rather muddy and garbled. The concessions are nothing special either. But who cares? The appeal is for indulging in the sort of eating, drinking, and lip-smacking in the privacy of your own car that would get you ushered out of a movie house before the previews ended. And despite its flaws, Geneva is a both a novelty and a bargain: If you start early enough, you can see three films for one low price, even cheaper if you stuff your date in the trunk.

Grand Lake
3200 Grand, Oakland
(510) 452-3556
Admission: $7, $3.75 kids/seniors,
$3.75 matinee
Parking: free evenings

Traditionally the illustrious center of mainstream filmgoing in the East Bay, the Grand Lake is a true palace restored nicely by its proud father, Allen Michaan. Michaan began by showing classic movies at rented auditoriums; he eventually dropped out of UC Berkeley to go into business at the Rialto, a grungy converted warehouse with, eventually, four screens. He expanded aggressively, and at his peak in the mid-'80s his company, dubbed Renaissance Rialto, had 40 screens in 19 locations and was the largest art-house proprietor in the Bay Area.

The Grand Lake was built in 1926 by Kaliski & Karski as a 2,100-seat stunner on one of the most visible corners in Oakland. (It's since been obscured by I-580.) It eventually wound up as part of the Mann chain in the 1970s; when that company turned its attention to suburban multiplexes, Michaan picked it up for $300,000. A few years later he spent another $750,000 refurbishing the main room and plexing off the balcony. In 1984 he added two smaller theaters on Grand Avenue, and in 1991 a pair of spectacular Tiffany windows and a Tiffany mosaic. Michaan made international news in 1993 when he kicked out a bunch of Oakland schoolkids who were being disruptive during a showing of Schindler's List. The Grand Lake remains quite an operation; when showcasing, for want of a better term, movie movies, like E.T., The Last Emperor, or Jurassic Park, it offers a giddy moviegoing grandeur. Once one of the Bay Area's top-grossing locations, the theater is now said to be suffering from competition from Emery Bay and the Jack London Cinemas.

Great Star
636 Jackson (at Columbus)
Admission: $6, $3 kids
Parking: none

The 700-seat Great Star is one of two Chinese-language theaters left of what were once many in Chinatown. It's owned by the Mandarin Theater Corp., an affiliate of the Shaw Brothers, of Hong Kong, but like the World Theater it's managed by Asian Film Releasing, an associated company of Tai Sing, the largest distributor of Hong Kong films in the United States. Most of the films are in Cantonese, with English subtitles.

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