Wait Until Dark
Thanks to a visionary master plan and enormous political will, Chicago saved three of its downtown movie palaces in the late '80s. New York preserved a couple of its great 42nd Street single screens through a diligent grass-roots campaign that began with designating the theaters as landmarks and climaxed with a blend of low-interest state loans and Disney money. But in San Francisco, when the Grim Reaper calls on neighborhood theaters during a boom time -- as he will on our own Coronet, Presidio, Metro, and Cinema 21 in the next six to nine months -- it's almost impossible to muster the muscle and dough to stave him off.
Or is it? Back in March, Gavin Newsom, chairman of the Board of Supervisors' Small Business, Economic Vitality, and Consumer Services Committee, held a lively but ineffectual hearing to examine the factors dooming the single screens. In the interim, the supervisor/restaurateur apparently recognized he's better off fighting to preserve vintage theater buildings than lobbying to keep the screens lit. When he convened a second meeting last Friday to coincide with the visiting convention of the League of Historic American Theaters, Newsom said, "None of us wants to see large box chain stores take the place of these wonderful institutions."
Noting Godzilla Sports' tenancy at the former Alhambra, League Executive Director Terrence Demas said, "Structurally and architecturally, gyms are better than national drugstores." The drug chains, he added, are interested solely in location and always level or gut the building.The color returned to Newsom's face when Melanie Blum, self-described project manager for the restoration of the Army theater in the Presidio, spent her allotted three minutes spreading smoke and flashing mirrors on behalf of a proposed Sundance Film Center. "Sundance is very committed to working with the [nearby single-screen] theaters," she said. If you buy that, try this: The multiplex, Blum said, would answer indie filmmakers' demands for more venues to show their work (as if the movie business actually operated that way). Finally, she promised that the for-profit multiplex would support the nonprofit Sundance Film Festival and Institute.
Bill Banning of the Roxie addressed the supes a few speakers later: "None of the art-house theaters -- the Castro, Red Vic, Clay, Bridge, Four Star, or Roxie -- is really endangered by the multiplexes," he said. "The greatest threat to these independent theaters is Robert Redford's stealth megaplex. The market is not growing, and by almost doubling the number of [art] screens in town, they'll put some or all of these theaters out of business."
Supervisor Alicia Becerril offered some innocuous and disposable comments, and Newsom closed the meeting. "I am encouraged, not discouraged," he said, about the chances of maintaining San Francisco's character. By housing rent-challenged dance and performance nonprofits in shuttered theaters, he implied, a couple of problems could be addressed simultaneously. The city would have to play a role, but Newsom seemed to relish the notion. He smiled and said, "That's the one missing link in politics today, isn't it, that sense of community?"
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