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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.
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 Moviefone.com. The point is that it has a lot to offer. That it's easy to love. That it will be missed. Sort of.
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."
As Lindow learned, it is not hard to gather authoritative testimony about the virtues of communal moviegoing — and the endangerment thereof. "What Is Being Lost?" is the title of her first chapter, in which Solnit refers to a "clear-cutting of complexity and local difference," not at all a good thing. "I like to say that home is everything that you can walk to," Solnit says. "I also feel that democracy requires a sense of belonging and a sense of something in common. ... I think the neighborhood theaters have a sense of going to church. You are in public with your community. At the multiplexes, I look around and wonder where the people came from; it is not really my community."
Or, as local film noir maven Eddie Muller puts it, less loftily, in his own essay for Left in the Dark: "Movie houses were, evidently, an essential part of my education, both cinematic and otherwise." Muller's "The Great White Way in Noir City," takes us on the tour, lamenting that so many of its essential stops have since been "abandoned, demolished, or given over to tax-dodging temples or live sex shows."
Although it may at first seem an attractive, mild-mannered coffee-table compendium, Lindow's book is rich with colorful local moviegoing history. That makes sense, as there's plenty of it. So much, actually, that it spills over into Solnit's book, and into Bruno's film — whose opening shot, tellingly, is a view of Fillmore Street from within the Clay Theatre lobby.
Is now a good time to point out that the Clay has 535 friends on MySpace, but none on Facebook? Apparently, it's not even on Facebook. Maybe the biggest challenge to everyone with a stake in the theater's future is giving up the idea of preserving a culture that no longer really exists.
"The Clay is in the unenviable situation of being a single-screen theater in 2010," Landmark CEO Ted Mundorff says on the phone from Los Angeles. "Most single-screen theaters in 2010 are doomed, if not all of them." And, as Landmark has learned, keeping a theater open for nostalgia's sake just isn't viable. "I love people's memories, and I love that they love to remember the Clay," Mundorff says. "I read the blogs. People love to say that they go to the theater. But the fact is and the numbers tell you that people don't."
Landmark has a policy not to disclose specific box-office figures, but it's safe to assume that the chain wouldn't have given up on the Clay had it been a moneymaker. After the theater's shaky situation became public knowledge, ticket sales improved, but only briefly. "The only weekend that was significantly impacted was the last weekend of August, right after we had announced that we would close," senior regional publicist Steve Indig says, "and I'm sure folks came thinking it was likely their last chance to see a film there." He adds that the Aug. 28 presentation of Rocky Horror, at which the announcement came that the Clay would stay open at least temporarily, "was a full house, also no doubt due to the expected closure." True enough: By that precedent, September's Rocky Horror turnout seemed a lot weaker.
This may explain Jaiswal's apparent reluctance to keep the Clay in its current form — once everybody's anguish over the theater's demise subsides, won't people just revert to not going?
"Keeping it as a theater is not a way for the owner of the property to make money," Kahn says. "It's a way to lose money." It's not that he cares only about the bottom line. It's just that, as he puts it, "If there's going to be a future for the old community film venues in our communities, it's going to require thinking about and responding to different kind of forces than existed when these were first built."
In other words, any viable future for the Clay won't be your neighborhood moviegoing of yore. It'll have to be something else, necessarily a different experience. As Leggat cautioned at the Long Bar rally, "A venue of this size can not be everything to everybody." If the SFFS takes over, for instance, it could become a gilded experience — with the theater as museumlike haven of exotic, festival fare.
As things stand, the Clay needs a new and uniquely qualified operator, and the San Francisco Film Society needs an exhibition venue that can be its base of operations. "The fact that we're 54 years old and still without a home is unconscionable to me," Leggat says. "I wish that my predecessors had felt as strongly about it as we do; we might have one by now." The society's recent efforts to expand to year-round programming have been hampered, he says, by the unruly logistics of working with multiple venues.
But the talks between the SFFS and Jaiswal remain stuck. "Where we stalled ... was on the valuation of the property," Leggat says. "We feel that he's looking at it in 2008 terms and we're looking at it in [current] terms, and the two things are vastly different." Jaiswal, who had spoken to the press only briefly during the early stages of negotiations and encouraged the Clay's friends and neighbors to "e-mail your ideas to: email@example.com," has since said little, and did not respond to several calls and e-mails seeking comment.
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.
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."
With that earned optimism in mind, it seems fair to say that permanent closure of the Clay seems unlikely. As Jaiswal, who belongs to the Fillmore Merchants Association, told the Chronicle in September, "A boarded-up theater is horrible for the street." Although he is reportedly dissatisfied with the compromises by which that fate has so far been averted, his actions do suggest awareness, however begrudging, that a low-paying tenant still is better than none.