Heart of the City Archives

Harding Theatre: Save it for what?

More cinema tales from nostalgia City
by Hank Donat

Newly-minted Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has vowed to save the old Harding Theatre at 616 Divisadero Street. But the movement to save abandoned neighborhood theatres begs the question, "Save them for what?"

According to the temporary moratorium on demolition of theatres that was passed by the board before Mirkarimi's arrival, these theatres "can serve as important commercial focal points in many neighborhoods by helping to generate pedestrian traffic critical for the economic vitality of surrounding stores, restaurants and other small businesses."

But, except for a precious few, they don't serve as such. The Harding hasn't been used as a movie house for 35 years. The 20th Century left these theatres behind so long ago that it is hardly appropriate to even call them theatres. Many have been closed or reused as churches and other businesses and would require huge investments to rehabilitate them as movie houses.

"One thing that hasn't been made clear," Mirkarimi tells me, "is that my interest is in determining whether there is architectural value worth preserving in these theatres. They are casualties of the culture, but in San Francisco we care about yesterday."

Mirkarimi says that if a theatre can be restored to viability as a movie house it would join the Balboa, Castro, and other smaller remaining houses in San Francisco's yesterday-loving, movie going pantheon. "That's a wonderful vision," Mirkarimi says. But, he adds, it's up to the people who operate theatres and those who consume cinema.

Failing that, says Mirkarimi, sensible reuse is the way to go. He cites the Foreign Cinema restaurant on Mission Street and the former Alhambra Theatre on Polk Street, now a Gorilla Sports gym, as examples of how to honor the historic character of the theatres as they begin new lives as something the community can support. "We owe it to the neighborhoods and yes, to the past, to have these discussions before we knock down any structures," says the District 5 supervisor.

Over in the Castro, the Nassar family, which owns and now operates the Castro Theatre, learned an important lesson when they fired beloved programmer Anita Monga last year. Communities are ultimately made up of people, not structures.

In other movie news, weren't we all appalled when documentary filmmaker Eric Steel revealed that he had filmed 19 suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge last year after lying to bridge authorities to garner permission to film there? Not so fast. I don't know Steel and I certainly have no reason to stick my neck out for him, but I think the case is worth a second look.

Suicides have been part of the Golden Gate Bridge's story since the ribbon was cut in 1937. I, for one, am fascinated by this aspect of the bridge's legend and would love to see a substantive documentary on the subject. Of course, it's not known if that's what Steel plans to produce. With any luck, the film won't be a lurid shockumentary as many suspect it will.

What makes the prospect of a suicide documentary even more compelling is the fact that this has become hidden history for San Francisco. It is known among members of the media that bridge jumping is kept under wraps, presumably for the purpose of not promoting the custom. How many of you were surprised to learn that there were 19 jumps in 2004?

The fact that these desperate acts are the truth and are an integral part of our most visible icon makes it necessary that the story is told. Besides, if we're to make script approval a condition for filming in San Francisco, how would "Twisted" ever have been made? (See last week's column.)

Some thoughts as I head down to observe the presidential inauguration protest at City Hall... Memories of the anti-war demonstrations come to mind; the giant Lion King-like dove puppet, the parents and grandparents marching together, placard after placard, "No war for oil," "War Kills," "Drop Trou not Bombs."

San Francisco was mocked in some parts of the country for its "unpatriotic" stance against what we saw as a war of choice and opportunity, not one in defense of the nation, not as a last resort.

Well, Mr. and Ms. San Francisco, how right you were back then. And how right you are on this day as you denounce a president who pandered to the worst of America with a hateful constitutional amendment and shameless fear mongering. It's no wonder that the parts of the country having the most experience with gays and terrorists voted against him.

In the words of a New Yorker I know, "San Francisco is always right, always visionary, always fab. Wear something defiant and show some skin." I hope you did just that.

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Copyright 2005 Hank Donat
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