Re: Surf Theater in the 60's

12/14/03 - posted by gary meyer

Mel Novikoff was the person who took over the Surf when his desire to open a repertory cinema in Berkeley was foiled by a woman named Pauline Kael who beat him to it.

As a high school kid in Napa, I would drag friends to the Surf almost every weekend. One time the new calendar appeared with Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS scheduled. I asked Doug, the manager, if the owner was ever around. He pointed to a man in the adjacent cafe and I introduced myself to Mel. I offered to lend him photos from my collection and we talked at length. Mel became my mentor. We shared an office for many years when I co-founded Landmark Theatres and I was there when he started to expand, including the Castro which I got to program with him.

For years San Francisco was considered small enough that people drove or bused wherever they needed to see a film. Movies played in only one theater in the city. So going out to the Surf wasn't a problem. The N Judah streetcar unloaded large gangs of movie lovers a block away. You might arrive early enough to have garlic steamed crab at the Vietnamese restaurant by the streetcar stop. And after the show, lively conversations filled the streetcar as dozens of strangers became a discussion group about the challenging movie just screened.

But as Mel acquired the Clay and Lumiere and others revived art houses, the Surf started to struggle and finally Novikoff decided to let it go, though not without heartbreak and difficulty.

My first movie date with my wife was to see 8 1/2 in the front row. We eventually moved into an apartment a few blocks away so we could walk to the movies.

I now operate the Balboa Theatre on the opposite side of the Park and people often come in asking, "Did this used to be the Surf?"

The Western Neighborhoods Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.