On the last Saturday in September, at a few minutes before midnight, anticipation ran high outside the Clay Theatre. Overhead, reflected headlights glinted along the cables of the 22 Muni line like a Jacob's ladder. Eager voices filled the air. It's usually true that Fillmore Street nightlife drops off dramatically as you climb the northbound hill into sleepy Pacific Heights. But on this night, the Clay was lit up and lively as people gathered for the weekly screening of the cult classic, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Notwithstanding the recent Onion headline, "Rocky Horror Picture Show's Cult Following Just Doesn't Have the Energy Anymore," it seemed like a fine turnout. And even if all these scantily yet decoratively clad bodies wound up filling less than half of the theater's 340 seats, it still counted for a perfectly respectable not-Netflix, not-the-multiplex moviegoing experience.
"We are still here at the Clay Theatre," the emcee shouted just before the show got going. "We love the Clay!" As a cheer swelled up from the crowd, he added, "'Cause this is the show that wasn't supposed to happen!"
Indeed, just a month earlier, the Clay's managers had surprised and delighted the regular Rocky Horror crowd with the news that their beloved venue would not be shutting down that week after all, as had been widely reported. A reprieve, albeit temporary, had been granted.
By then, the whole city had heard that the Clay, operated by Landmark Theatres since 1991, was hemorrhaging money and ready to close. With its lease expired, Landmark had finally decided to get out.
"For the record, we did not increase Landmark's rent when we bought the building," said landlord Balgobind Jaiswal, the Clay's owner since 2008, in a prepared statement. "We were naturally surprised and disappointed when they told us they intended to vacate."
Meanwhile, the San Francisco Film Society, presenter of America's oldest international film festival — along with several younger and smaller but increasingly frequent festivals, some of which have screenings at the Clay — had arranged to temporarily subsidize Landmark's losses and keep the theater afloat while negotiating a takeover of the lease or an outright purchase from Jaiswal. The landlord was also open to talking to any other theater operator (say, Sundance Cinemas) who might want to do business with him.
The Film Society seemed a logical next tenant. "Not that anybody wants to run a single-screen theater these days, except for us," executive director Graham Leggat says. "It doesn't appeal to commercial entities, and as a vanity project for individuals it's not a good idea. So there are relatively few organizations besides our own, or individuals, who would take this on." That's bearing in mind, too, that the Clay is already overdue for expensive upgrades, including ADA-compliant restrooms and an overhaul of its electrical and ventilation systems.
And yet, after several months and multiple offers, negotiations between Jaiswal and the Film Society hit an impasse. The parties could not — and, as of this writing, cannot — agree on what the Clay is worth.
Obviously the theater is worth something to someone. Even as its fate remains uncertain, there has been a flood of concern from the neighborhood and beyond. In that short window between the grim prognosis and the temporary reprieve, the blogosphere throbbed with grief. Commenters on the website of The New Fillmore newspaper, for instance, bemoaned the theater's impending closure as "just another step in the relentless move towards depersonalizing our city streets" and demanded, "Are we just going to let everything die a quiet death and just sit around and say 'Remember when?'"
The Clay is one of only five functional single-screen theaters in the city. The others — the Castro, the Roxie, the Victoria, and the Vogue — have adapted their business models significantly in recent years. Others haven't been able to evolve. In the past dozen years, the Alexandria has closed, the Coronet has been demolished, and the Alhambra on Polk Street became a gym.
Meanwhile, other single-screen movie theaters seem stuck in perpetual hibernation, like the New Mission, or the Metro — the official birthplace, more than half a century ago, of the San Francisco International Film Festival. When the Metro went dark in 2006, the plan was to turn it into another gym. Four years later, it's still in limbo, boarded up.
So it's not entirely unreasonable to ask how much it matters, really, if there's one less venue for the genteel, grown-up-friendly foreign films that once kept Landmark buoyant, plus the zillionth monthly midnight-movie showing of Rocky Horror. Are the enthusiasts of such offerings just prolonging an inevitable demise by trying to keep them on costly life support?
Certainly, the Clay has had to evolve since its 1910 beginnings as a nickelodeon, where noisy throngs paid five cents a head to watch short, shallow motion pictures with live musical accompaniment. At the time, in a manner that will seem familiar to anyone who sees online entertainment as a threat to traditional moviegoing, these novelties were considered dangerous to the livelihood of live theater — dangerous, even, to the social order.
"There is no question that the great number of moving-picture shows constitutes an evil in this city," a Chronicle editorial carped that year. By 1926, the showgoing masses had acquired a taste for slightly more sophisticated fare such as The American Venus, a beauty pageant comedy co-starring Oakland's Fay Lanphier, the first Miss California to become Miss America. By 1935, the theater had reopened as the Clay International, a foreign-film showcase, and continued cultivating a brand of regional urbanity thereafter.
High on its hill and averting a wave of redevelopment that wiped out a handful of theaters further south on Fillmore Street in the 1970s, the Clay also became a mainstay of San Francisco's midnight movie scene, drawing crowds for years not just with Rocky Horror but also with such delicacies as Re-Animator, Pervert, Leprechaun, Conan the Barbarian, and Cannibal Holocaust. It briefly belonged to the Surf Theaters repertory cinema chain, founded by esteemed exhibitor Mel Novikoff, for whom a San Francisco International Film Festival award was later named. There is uncertainty about whether he actually booked John Waters' Pink Flamingos at the Clay in 1972, on account of being personally frightened by its dog-shit-eating, drag-queen star Divine. But for the Clay's 1985 world premiere of director Paul Bartel's Lust in the Dust, Divine and co-stars Tab Hunter and Cesar Romero appeared in person to much fanfare.