On Tuesday, July 18, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance that designated the El Rey Theater as a city landmark. The ordinance must pass one final level of review after this vote before it can receive official landmark status. Nevertheless, last week’s verdict marks a success for residents of the surrounding neighborhoods — Oceanview, Merced Heights, and Ingleside — who hope to see the building become a community arts center or theater.
With the new landmark status, community members hope to bring theatrical arts back to the building: The El Rey’s owners — investment groups Ricci Ventures and Greenpoint Land Co. — have contacted local theater groups about leasing the space for performances, and architect John Goldman has been assigned the project of restoring some of the theater’s original art deco designs and repairing damaged areas.
Additionally, becoming a landmark will make the El Rey eligible for certain property tax reductions, which will help offset renovation costs.
Though the theater has been a neighborhood icon since it opened in 1931, the El Rey has undergone a number of changes in ownership and overall purpose. At its opening, the El Rey screened The Smiling Lieutenant, a movie about a lieutenant who must marry the princess of Austria after accidentally winking at her. Spoiler alert: The film ends with the lieutenant’s old girlfriend giving the princess a makeover so that the lieutenant will fall in love with her.
The theater closed in 1977, and a Christian organization called the Voice of the Pentecost purchased the building, using it as a church for the next several decades.
But in 2015, the church, now known as A Place to Meet Jesus, failed to pay its property loans and fell into foreclosure, ending up in the hands of the investment group. In spite of these events, A Place to Meet Jesus Pastor Richard Gozowsky remained determined to eventually buy back the building, saying, “We will probably be in that building until Jesus Christ comes back.”
California law states that churches cannot become historic sites without the church’s consent, which A Place to Meet Jesus never gave. But because the church shows no signs of resurrection in the foreseeable future, in June, the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee voted unanimously to make the El Rey Theater a landmark. This committee’s decision brought the landmark proposition to a higher level of review with the Board of Supervisors, and after this final review there will be a vote among the Board to decide the outcome for the El Rey. Hopefully, after years of the El Rey Theater supporting its neighborhood community, San Francisco can return the favor and vote to protect the theater with city landmark status.