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Growing Up in Noe Valley:
The Movie Palaces of 24th Street
By Paul Kantus
When old-timers reminisce about the good old days, they usually start with, "Now, when I was a lad..."
Now, when I was a lad, growing up in Noe Valley in the 1930s, things were a little different than they are now. For one thing, television was still in its experimental stages, so going to the movies for entertainment was a very large part of our lives.
Even during the worst years of the Depression, our parents could always scrape up 25 cents (30 cents at the Noe Theater in 1938) to attend the neighborhood movie house one night a week, and take their minds off their everyday problems.
But for us kids, who had no problems, on Saturday afternoons the local movie house was ours! The admission was 10 cents, which we could easily earn by collecting old newspapers and old bottles and selling them to the junkman, or by having a paper route, or selling Liberty magazine or the Saturday Evening Post.
For our dime, we got to see a cowboy movie with Buck Jones or Tex Ritter, or maybe G-Man with tough James Cagney, plus a cartoon, a newsreel, a two-reel (20-minute) comedy, the "Coming Attractions," and most important of all, the latest chapter of an cliffhanger serial such as The Clutching Hand.
In those days, there were no candy or popcorn concessions in the lobby. So we kids waited until the "love stuff" came on the screen (fortunately, there was not much of that in a Tim McCoy western) to send one of our contingent out for treats. He would run up the aisle to the lobby, ask the doorman if he could go out for a minute, dash across the street to the soda fountain (now Herb's Fine Foods), spend the nickel we'd each chipped in on popsicles or frozen bananas, and dash back to the movie, breathlessly asking, "What happened while I was gone?"
To drum up attendance on slow weeknights, the neighborhood movie houses featured such draws as Bank Night or Screeno Night. These were games or contests played between the two main features. Screeno was a cross between bingo and Wheel of Fortune, but the number dial and a giant spinning needle were projected on the movie screen. Patrons were handed their cards and a toothpick used to punch out the winning numbers when they entered the theater.
But the event that always drew the biggest crowd was Ladies Dinnerware Night, held Mondays at the Castro Theater and Wednesdays at the Noe Theater. Every female patron received a free dish or bowl or cup, enabling her to build a matching set of dishes after weeks of regular attendance. Invariably during the movie, there was a crash, as a plate slid off someone's lap and onto the floor. Sorry, ladies, only one to a customer.
"Downtown" Noe Valley had its share of movie houses over the years. First, there was the Acme, a few doors down from Seymour Drugs on 24th near Castro. Then, there was the Vicksburg, which, we are told, was on one of the lots formerly occupied by Dan's Gas Station (which is about to become the Noe Valley Ministry's new parking lot) at 24th and Vicksburg.
Theater owners Muzio and Faro ran the M and F, which became the Palmer Theater, located on 24th between Noe and Castro, where Rite Aid is now. Finally, there was the Noe Theater, located near the bank at 24th and Noe. Back then, the bank was a gas station, and the theater was right next door (where Just for Fun and Ritz Camera are now).
In 1950, The Toast of New Orleans, a musical starring opera singer Mario Lanza, was playing at the neighborhood’s last remaining movie palace, the Noe Theater, located on 24th Street near Noe. Photos courtesy of Paul Kantus, Noe Valley Historical Archives.
The Noe Theater opened in 1937 with a Wallace Beery movie called Old Hutch. It was a definite improvement over the old Palmer Theater--the Noe was spacious, had comfortable seating, and a larger screen. Its greatest marvel was the drinking fountain, located in a little alcove in the lobby. As you bent over the fountain (without touching anything), the water miraculously shot forth--into your nose if you bent too close. When you straightened up, the stream of water stopped! It was absolutely amazing. The secret was an electric eye, built into the alcove. When the light beam from the eye was interrupted, the water turned on. Old stuff today, but to us kids back then, it was the miracle of the age.
The Palmer Theater closed a few months after the Noe opened. It seems our Depression-era neighborhood could support one movie house, but not two. (After the Palmer closed, it became an automobile repair garage, and for a while, the mechanics parked the cars on the theater's slanted floor.)
The Noe Theater ran movies until the 1950s, when that great hypnotizer, "free" television, began to keep people in their homes. Oh, for the days of racing down to 24th Street for a movie adventure. Sigh.
Paul Kantus, a veteran of World War II and Korea, is still living in the house in which he was born and raised at Douglass and 21st streets. He is a film collector, president of the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club, and keeper of the Noe Valley Historical Archives located within the Noe ValleySally Brunn Library at 451 Jersey Street. To meet him in person--and to see a fascinating collection of Noe Valley memorabilia--drop by the Noe Valley History Day open house on Saturday, Nov. 15, 1 to 5 p.m. There will be historical films, a photo display, cookies and refreshments, and a Rock-It Science children's program starting at 3 p.m.