Neon Revival: Portola’s Avenue Theater Returns

After a quarter million dollars in grants and community fundraising, the neon sign at Avenue Theater will finally be turned back on.

Stroll through any neighborhood in San Francisco, and you’d be hard-pressed not to find an old movie palace. Divisadero Street has the Harding, Ingleside has the El Rey, Presidio Heights has the Vogue, and the Mission has too many to count. Some have found renewed purpose, such as the Alamo Drafthouse taking over the New Mission Theater, while others, like the Tower Theater one block up Mission Street, have crumbled into disrepair.

Until recently, the Avenue Theater on San Bruno Avenue in Portola fell into the latter category. The old movie house was built in 1927, adhering to the glamorous Art Deco architecture of the era. Delicately carved molding lined the edges of the stage, the ceiling was painted in a mosaic of colors, and rows of wooden seats curved gracefully around an orchestra pit at the foot of the stage.

In the 1960s, Edward Millington Stout III bought the theater and began a long run of silent films, accompanied by a Mighty Wurlitzer organ. A show calendar, presumably from the late 1970s or early ’80s, listed movies such as Charge at Feather River (1957), Son of the Sheikh (1926), Speedy (1920), and the humorously titled The Gay Divorcee (1934).

Despite its popularity as a silent-movie destination, the Avenue closed its doors in 1984. In the years since, it’s fallen into decay, its facade graffitied, the paint peeling, the 400 seats rotting where they rest. But as the Portola neighborhood has received some attention in the past few years — a new library opened in 2009, and the local rec center was renovated in 2013 — the neighborhood association turned its attention to the aging theater, which, even in its dilapidated state, dominates San Bruno Avenue’s commercial corridor.

The work required to return the Avenue Theater to its original glory is expensive, and a risk for developers who would most likely only value the space for its potential to be replaced by housing. In recent years, successful restorations have relied on wealthy companies or families to do the work. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain renovated the New Mission Theater, and the Harding Theater is undergoing a multi-million dollar repair and facelift thanks to two Chicago brothers, whose family had been in the theater industry for decades.

But those two possess an important quality that the Avenue doesn’t: a hot location. With no BART station or transportation hub nearby, Portola might not rival them as a destination. Convincing a developer to fund the full repair of the theater was a long shot, but the neighborhood didn’t want to give up hope that it was possible. In 2015, the Portola Neighborhood Association created a deal with the Avenue’s owners: If the community raised enough money to renovate the old neon sign, the owners would support the search for a tenant who would restore the theater.

Luke Spray, corridor manager for the neighborhood association, has overseen many of the repairs.

“The Avenue Theater is the physical and figurative heart of the Portola, and while no one person can claim to have spearheaded the project, it has been led all along by the Portola Neighborhood Association,” he says. “Reviving the neon sign is a crucial step toward preserving the building’s history, a great way to celebrate its legacy, and a straightforward way to attract a new tenant. The community really wanted to pay homage to the sign, as it seems like everyone old enough to have gone to a movie at the Avenue has fond memories of how striking the sign was.”

Working closely with then-Sup. David Campos — and his aide Hillary Ronen, who now represents the district — the neighborhood association secured a $250,000 Asset Activation grant from the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development. Contractors commenced work on the renovation last spring.

A sneak peek of the old theater’s new neon sign. (Courtesy of Portola Neighborhood Association)

As is the case with most construction projects, and particularly those in San Francisco, expenses piled up faster than anticipated. Letters for the marquee, flashing neon, and improvements for the street-facing retail space added up. So financial support from the owners and the neighborhood’s residents supplemented the grant money.

“We initially planned on only raising $7,500 [from the neighborhood], but we were overwhelmed by a number of folks who wanted to contribute,” Spray says. “The community’s enthusiasm, along with the contributions from local businesses has put us on track to raise over $20,000 through our community-led efforts.”

The Avenue’s facade is still covered in scaffolding, and there is still a lot of work left to be done. While hesitant to give SF Weekly a solid launch date, Spray hinted that he hopes to have “a big, bright, and fun unveiling ceremony on a warm Indian summer evening in early September.”

If the plan seems a little too idealistic for the ruthless development of San Francisco, consider this: It’s not the first time a community has rallied to renovate a sign to save a theater, and it’s worked. The Fox Theater in Oakland received a $350,000 grant for its marquee, and the neon flipped back on in 2002. After sitting empty for more than three decades, $75 million in state funding was then allocated to reopen the 2,800-seat music venue in 2009.

“Our city has lost far too many historic theaters, and as the old saying goes, ‘They don’t build them like they used to,’ ” Spray says. “Losing a theater of the Avenue’s size and importance would have been a loss that simply could not be replaced.”

Check out more stories from our Portola issue here:
Cutty Bang: The Real San Francisco Treat
It’s a DIY alcohol adventure with a hip-hop sensibility.
Eating Your Way Down San Bruno Avenue
From Four Barrel to loco moco, the Portola’s commercial strip is extremely diverse.
Portola Has the Coolest Librarian in San Francisco
You can’t be more dedicated to the kids than Nicole Termini Germain
Urban Agriculture or More Housing?
One block of greenhouses is all that remains of Portola’s garden industry, and its future is uncertain.
Portola’s Pronunciation Quandary
This neighborhood’s name is at the center of an oratorical debate.
Reimagining (Tiny) Vacant Lots
Through grants for public artwork and landscaping, Portola brings new life to empty land near the highway.
McLaren Park Wants to Step Out of Golden Gate Park’s Shadow

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