Final Cut?

No one wants the Clay Theatre to close, but few are lining up to see movies there either.

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.

The Clay seemed to have hit its stride then, although red flags may have begun fluttering as early as 1982, when camp extravaganzist Marc Huestis reportedly bolted from a Castro Theatre screening of his own locally made romp, Whatever Happened to Susan Jane, yelling, "They'll go see this garbage, but they won't come see the Truffaut at the Clay!" Still, its special moviegoing moments have continued apace. Last year brought, among other unique offerings, the world premiere of local yarn-spinner Robert Mailer Anderson's "punkabilly horror" flick, Pig Hunt, and a lively, crowd-pleasing Q&A between director Michael Moore and SF Weekly contributor Michael Fox.

As Landmark's official website points out, the Clay has been named the city's "Best Movie Theatre for Making Out" by San Francisco magazine, its "Best Spot for a Rainy-Day Matinee" by 7x7 magazine, and, perhaps a tad less declaratively, "One of San Francisco's Best Movie Theaters" by The point is that it has a lot to offer. That it's easy to love. That it will be missed. Sort of.

Pictured here in the mid-1960s, the Clay Theatre had outgrown its humble beginnings as a nickelodeon and was on its way to prominence as a midnight-movie hub.
Pictured here in the mid-1960s, the Clay Theatre had outgrown its humble beginnings as a nickelodeon and was on its way to prominence as a midnight-movie hub.
San Francisco Film Society executive director Graham Leggat 
wants his organization to take over the troubled Clay.
Kimberly Sandie
San Francisco Film Society executive director Graham Leggat wants his organization to take over the troubled Clay.

It was a cool gray evening, portending autumn, when Long Bar, an upscale Upper Fillmore watering hole, convened a rally to save the Clay, with feedback invited and affirmations exchanged. Attendees of note included Leggat, Jaiswal, and Charles Kahn, the Berkeley-based architect who'd offered an advisory consultation for refitting the Metro, and whom Jaiswal has retained to evaluate the Clay's adaptive prospects as well. These include converting it into a triplex of 50-seaters, building condos on its roof, or both. In the meantime, there remained the matter of figuring out what actually did work in the Clay's business model.

"It's so different from the vending machine of the multiplex," Leggat told the tightly packed crowd. "It's more like a picnic." That practiced talking point put it quite charmingly, but also registered the essence of the challenge: In our accelerated, complicated, belt-tightened age, picnics aren't very practical.

"Will they serve wine and beer?" someone asked.

"Tell us if you want wine and beer," Leggat replied.

"Yes!" someone else shouted.

"How much more patronage is needed to make it viable?" a third asked.

"We would have to get back to you on that," Leggat said.

"Serve booze!" the second guy shouted.

But under California law, that would mean restricting admission to people of drinking age — a new and complicating variable. And, as Kahn said, "If no one comes to the theater, what's the point?"

"The programming's the point," a woman answered sharply.

Jaiswal didn't say much, but he listened. And even if the audience came off as fickle and snappish, they seemed united by a desire to see the Clay stay open for another century.

As it happens, that flood of neighborhood concern has recently grown into a citywide tsunami of cultural commemoration, specifically with regard to the evolution of San Francisco cinema culture. It arguably began with local filmmaker Christian Bruno's Strand: A Natural History of Cinema, a documentary-in-progress about Bay Area moviegoing, for which photographer R.A. McBride compiled a series of pictures of the insides of local theaters, including the Clay. They later became an essential part of local author Julie Lindow's recently released book, Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theaters, which arranged them alongside essays by various interested parties — academics, journalists, exhibitors, and others. Among them was local author Rebecca Solnit, who was in turn inspired to include a page in her own book, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, comparing the city's current population of operating movie theaters with that of half a century ago: Of the 74 theaters available to San Francisco moviegoers in 1958, only 10 remain. (Similarly, only six of the 60 venues photographed by McBride for Left in the Dark operate as movie theaters.)

"There's a zeitgeist right now," Lindow says. "We're in this critical moment. In cinema studies, there's a lot of interest in the communal experience, and breaking out of theory boxes." More specifically, and closer to home, that interest has focused on cinema's changing place in San Francisco culture. She recalls her pleasure at discovering what she calls "the incredible diversity of perspectives and stories," which, taken together, reveal "how integrated the theaters have been in our social landscape."

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