Final Cut?

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

Upon reflection, it's easy to see why most people might have hesitated to buy a single-screen neighborhood movie theater in 2008 at all; even before the recession, the writing seemed to be on the wall — and in Bruno's film and Lindow's book, both begun years earlier. It's hard not to wonder whether Jaiswal really didn't know what he was in for, or, alternatively, whether he furtively intended all along to phase the Clay out of operation as a movie theater and into something more potentially profitable — much to the community's chagrin.

Of course, it is Jaiswal's prerogative to prevent his property from bankrupting him. His challenge is to know with certainty what his community really wants, and what it really will pay, then to find an operator with an equal working knowledge. Understandably, any multimillion-dollar real estate transaction, in an already uncertain sector of an already down economy, will take time. But in any case, Jaiswal's rent reprieve can't last forever. And in the coming weeks, something's got to give. No amount of commemoration, no matter how eloquent, can change that fact.

A few weeks after the initial elation over the Clay's reprieve, things seemed to be back to normal. The well-reviewed French film Mademoiselle Chambon had enjoyed a decent enough run, but inevitably, the audience had dwindled. At a recent early-evening midweek show, there looked to be fewer than five people in the house. And they were older folks, people who'd probably been home in bed during that last Rocky Horror show.

Kimberly Sandie
As Rebecca Solnit’s “Cinema City” map shows, only a handful of the 74 theaters available to S.F. moviegoers in 1958, when Vertigo was released, remain open today.
As Rebecca Solnit’s “Cinema City” map shows, only a handful of the 74 theaters available to S.F. moviegoers in 1958, when Vertigo was released, remain open today.

Longtime staffer Antoinette Maher was at her post behind the concession counter, exuding unhurried affability. "Everybody loves it. Everybody wants to come, but they don't come," she said. "It's like, 'When were you here last?' 'Oh, last year.' It's not a habit like it was. And they're not big on concessions, either. They're older. They have high blood pressure." She seemed not resigned, but rather pleasantly pragmatic. "In the good old days, we'd need five staff members just to handle the crowd. Not anymore."

Maher talked through her catalogue of Clay memories. "I've seen Yoko Ono here. Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein. I mean, it's a Pacific Heights theater," she said. "With Life of Brian, we had evangelical protesters outside the door. But we filled the house. Oh, and we had a great time with The Piano. The drama got so intense, people were passing out. We had bodies everywhere. We had to bring in the fire department. Yep, we've had some rip-snorting times."

One patron, a slender, middle-aged woman, approached the counter to buy popcorn. She joked with Maher about having to resist buying snacks elsewhere and sneaking them in, even though it might be cheaper. "I like the theater," the woman said. "I want it to stay alive." Maher grinned.

"I understand DVDs," Maher went on. "It's easier, it's less expensive. But in a theater like this, you attend a movie. I always loved this theater. I had a choice of where to work, and I chose this."

Showtime was nigh, and the woman slipped inside to take her seat in the near-empty house. Another staffer pulled the lobby curtain closed behind her.

"I'm sad about it," Maher said, "but I've been here a long time."

Whatever happens, cinema persists. As the commemorators' efforts remind us, all urban public spaces, like cultural proclivities, have natural life cycles. "Not all single-screen historic movie theatres can be saved as venues for film," writes Left in the Dark contributor Katherine Petrin, an architectural historian and member of the nonprofit San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, which rescued the Vogue in Laurel Heights a couple of years ago. "But when one is lost, it will never be replicated."

Even the lucid nostalgist Muller recognizes the essential transience of even the most permanent-seeming cultural cornerstones — including the similarly cherished studio-owned downtown movie palaces of the 1940s. "In truth," he writes in his piece, "motion picture pleasure-domes were a fantastic aberration, built on avarice and illusion and misconceptions — like the fortunes made and lost decades later during Reaganomics and the high-tech boom." Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky to have enjoyed the more modest venues' relative versatility and longevity at all. A neighborhood theater, unlike a downtown multiplex, must cater to neighborhood needs. And some needs will change.

If the Clay is to go away, we can be sure that it won't be forgotten. For one thing, this recent wave of commemoration is useful to posterity. It's a nice funeral, with meaningful souvenirs. What Bruno, Solnit, and Lindow and her contributors share is an impulse to go deeper than the usual hand-wringing over economic and technological and demographic challenges to cinema, and to be purposeful instead of merely nostalgic. "We did this to inspire people," Lindow says. "To give hope and to not just be sad about the past. To not just be consumers and observers, but seek out communal experiences. We really wanted to build community." There is real value in mourning bygone modes of culture, as long as it allows for moving past denial: "I started out despondent, but the process of working on the book really changed my outlook."

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