Walking along San Bruno Avenue in Portola, it’s hard to miss the Avenue Theatre. Decorated by a bright neon sign, retro marquee, and art deco details, the building’s facade stands nearly three stories taller than the blocks of restaurants and boutique shops lining the rest of the commercial corridor. When it opened in 1927, the theater was a glorious 1,000-square-foot movie house.
Inside, murals covered the walls to the left and the right of the screen, and the ceiling was populated by nymphs, urns, maidens, and garlands. An orchestra pit sat at the foot of the stage. In the 1960s, decades after the advent of talkies, The Avenue was still showing silent films — soundtracked by the warbling tones of a Wurlitzer Organ, which had been shipped to San Francisco from the State Lake Theatre in Chicago. In 1984, the theater closed its doors after a series of financial difficulties.
In the decades since, few people have been able to peek behind the curtain. An ice cream startup called Churn Urban Creamery moved into a space on one side of the ground floor where a candy shop once sold sweets in the 1930s and ’40s. Their rent is offered at a discount through a sublease with the Portola Neighborhood Association. A church called Channels of Blessings operated in the theater for a short while but left in 2013.
The building’s owners were waiting to advertise the space to tenants until the facade was renovated and the neon sign, requiring specialist attention, was lit in 2017. However, in the last four years, nobody has expressed serious interest in breathing life back into the nearly 100-year-old theater.
In the meantime, the Portola Neighborhood Association is hosting a youth poster competition now through April 9. Three winners, announced on April 16, will have their art displayed in the poster boxes in front of the theater for pedestrians to enjoy. Students aged 7 to 18 are invited to submit a design that recalls their “happy place,” whether that be a location in the neighborhood, online, or in their imaginations. Entries that don’t win will still be recognized via an online community zine.
“I love working with kids, and I love being part of the community, so I thought, why not have kids be involved in their neighborhood, and display student art?” says Gabriela Hernandez, an illustrator born and raised in the Portola Neighborhood and a board member of the Portola Neighborhood Association.
The association’s Arts and Beautification Committee has been working hard over the course of the last year to brighten up this southeastern San Francisco neighborhood. In 2020, three large murals were funded through a partnership between the committee and an Economic and Workforce Development program called Invest in Neighborhoods. Two interpret the neighborhood’s moniker, the “Garden District,” with flowers and vines in vibrant, electric shades, while the third shows an aerial view of the neighborhood. Another mural, funded by the nonprofit Paint the Void and illustrated by Phillip Hua, adorns the front of the now-closed banquet hall Imperial Garden.
But the poster competition is the first time the Arts and Beautification Committee has turned to the neighborhood’s schoolchildren to decorate the neighborhood. The hope is not only that children will feel more involved, but also that parents will find a new appreciation for the block, too. Though Arts and Beautification Committee Chair Lisa Magruder says there isn’t any urgent deadline for finding tenants for the Avenue Theatre, she is still driven by finding the ideal tenant that can liven up the corridor.
“It would be such a great thing for this community to get some life back into that building,” says Magruder. “Maybe a venue for live theater, live music, a multi-purpose space, or something fun like that,” she suggests.
As restaurants along the corridor begin to reopen and foot traffic increases pace, hopefully, the new posters will grab the right person’s eye. Until then, Portola residents will benefit from the added color and community feel created by artwork from some of their youngest neighbors.
Veronica Irwin is a contributing writer. Twitter @vronirwin