Noe Valley Voice September 2002

Florence's Family Album
Ode to Some Bygone Silver Screens

By Florence Holub

Editor's Note: This fond recollection of the movie theaters of Noe Valley was originally printed in the October 1989 issue of the Noe Valley Voice. It is among the hundreds of columns written over a 20-year span by Florence Holub, who lives with her husband, well-known photographer Leo Holub, on 21st Street. If by chance you are a newcomer to Florence's Family Album, you also should know that her mother, Lena Mickelson, died of cancer in 1938, when Florence was just 19.

As we sit comfortably in our homes watching movies on the TV screen, I can't help but remember the early days and imagine how my mother would have enjoyed television had she lived longer, for her greatest pleasure was a family outing at the movies. The silent black-and-white films of the 1920s were short and amateurish (compared to today's standards), with black specks and threads that wiggled distractingly on the screen. However, they were new and exciting, often hilariously funny, and extremely popular.

To meet the huge demand, movie houses sprang up all over, and a succession of theaters thrived on 24th Street, starting with the Nickelodeon in 1915 (before my time), followed by two more silent movie theaters -- the Acme at 24th and Castro, and the Vicksburg on 24th between Vicksburg and Church.

During the Roaring Twenties, my brother and I would walk over to the tiny Glen Park Theater (actually a converted store, with seats and screen added) for the children's matinee, which cost us 10 cents apiece. Usually it was a cowboy western followed by a cliffhanger serial -- which assured our return the following week.

Although the films were silent, with captions that passed too quickly for us little kids to figure out, we always knew who the heroes were, because a person who'd been hired to play the piano played high notes when the good guys appeared and low notes when the bad guys hit the screen.

One Saturday, we brought along Roy, a 5-year-old neighbor boy who had never been to the movies before. He sat wide-eyed and motionless as the stagecoach came bouncing toward us and the horses' hooves pounded to a closeup. Then he ducked under his seat in terror, to keep from being trampled. Although my brothers and I invited him, Roy never accompanied us to a movie again.

In the late 1920s, our family saw The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson -- the first all-talking film. The "movies" then became known as the "talkies."

By the mid-1930s, the Palmer Theater, on 24th between Noe and Castro [where Rite Aid is now], and the Noe Theater, on 24th between Sanchez and Noe [where Just for Fun is now], had opened their doors. And I recall several other movie houses situated in southern Noe Valley. The small Rita, located in the building that today houses the Holiness Temple of Christ at 28th and Church streets [now the Church in San Francisco], featured German films, and was later renamed the Del Mar, switching to American movies and Saturday cartoon festivals for children. Another, the Lyceum, was a much larger modern theater located a few doors from 30th Street on Mission, where Safeway's parking lot now stands.

I remember vividly a landmark film from the early '30s titled The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and starring Sylvia Sydney. Gloriously beautiful, it was the first movie to be photographed out-of-doors and in Technicolor, a process introduced just a few years earlier.

Sound, color, and the rise of movie "stars" all combined to usher in Hollywood's Golden Age. As audiences grew, sumptuous movie palaces were erected, and the grandest in the Mission District was El Capitan, located on Mission near 20th, where people waited for hours to be admitted. I remember getting in line at the corner of 20th Street to buy a ticket at the box office, then waiting inside the entrance, through the lobby, up the broad stairs, and across the balcony, until we were led to our seats by one of many pretty, uniformed usherettes.

In addition to the featured film, there would be a Pathé newsreel, a cartoon, and a live stage show, with Jay Brower and his big band playing the popular songs of the day. It was an enormous, luxurious theater, but the combination of plush seats and red-blooded patrons attracted tiny carnivorous fleas, and I can remember going home scratching! Today, El Capitan's gutted skeleton still stands, but it houses only a parking lot.

The greatest, most elegant theater of them all, the Fox, was erected on Market near Polk Street. We three growing children were first taken there as a reward for good report cards by our happy parents. We had to wait until an earlier show let out, but the time spent in the lobby was pleasurable because of the extravagant decor -- thick red carpeting, brass handrails on the stairway, lots of gold leaf, finely carved mahogany woodwork, and walls and ceilings covered with oil paintings of cavorting nymphs in flowing drapery and garlands of flowers.

Eventually we were seated, to see a cowboy movie that did not merit such an elegant setting. But 10 years later, my man-to-be, Leo Holub, took me there to see Gone with the Wind, the most celebrated film of all time and worthy of the ambiance.

Sadly, the Fox was later demolished, over great protest, and replaced by a highrise. As the newsreel commentator used to say, "Time marches on!"

In 1938, 65 percent of the population attended the movies, but with the popularity of television, only 10 percent went in 1968. Today the movies are still with us, but more than ever we choose to watch them in the privacy of our homes, where with the help of cable TV and VCRs we can see a broad range of films -- classic or current -- at the flick of a remote control. My mother would have loved it!