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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 180: Coliseum Theatre

Remembering one of the Richmond District theaters, now condos and a drug store.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Jul 9, 2016

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 180: Coliseum Theatre Outside Lands Podcast Episode 180: Coliseum Theatre

(above) Coliseum Theatre, 1968

Coliseum Theatre at 9th Avenue and Clement Street showing Wild in the Streets and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Trudys Casuals store on corner.
Jack Tillmany Collection


Podcast Transcription

WNP180 - Coliseum Theatre

Woody: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, the podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: I'm David Gallagher. Woody?

Woody: David!

David: What's wrong with you?

Woody: I don't know, I'm just feeling low energy.

David: What's the matter?

Woody: I don't know. I just feel..

David: Did you go to a matinee movie and come out and it was still light out?

Woody: Yeah.

David: And you feel real weird?

Woody: Disoriented.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Like I was in a dark room for two hours and now I’m like…

David: Like you went to the Saturday…

Woody: It's three o'clock and it's sunny! What's going on?

David: You went to the Saturday, one o'clock screening of Planet of the Apes or something,

Woody: If only.

David: And now you're all freaked out.

Woody: I would be so excited if I could go to a Saturday, one o'clock screening of Planet of the Apes. In a real movie theater.

David: Are you listening, movie theater operators?

Woody: No, they don't exist anymore. It's all computers.

David: Ah, au contraire mon frère!

Woody: Yes?

David: Because [00:01:00] we are doing a movie theater show, coming up. I think it's coming up pretty soon.

Woody: It is. It's like a week and a half or two. A week and a half.

David: It's very close. It's going to be at the historic Balboa Theater, which is on Balboa Street.

Woody: Which is in the Outer Richmond.

David: 38th Avenue to be general.

Woody: Close.

David: Close.

Woody: Yep, and it's “Streetcar San Francisco: Transit Tales from a City in Motion.” It's all, like, streetcar and transit themed, but it's all old video and home movies and strange commercials and things that we've actually created too.

David: That's right. And it's going to be on July 20th.

Woody: Wednesday.

David: That's 2016.

Woody: 7:00 PM and it might already be sold out. Well, you better check. You better go to our website, which is outsidelands.org. Click on the link that says, “Streetcar San Francisco,” and see if you can still buy a ticket. Hopefully it hasn't sold out.

David: You're probably listening to this on some device that can do that. So, I [00:02:00] suggest you do that right now.

Woody: Oh, I hope it works on mobile, but let’s hope so.

David: Oh yeah, I don't know, maybe not. Probably not.

Woody: Okay! But, come, we'll see you there. It'll be great. We'll be your hosts and we'll be far more entertaining. And I'll have higher energy than I do right now. [deep, exhausted sigh]

David: So, movie theaters, Woody.

Woody: Oh yeah, yeah, right. We were talking about that.

David: Yeah. So, you were sad when we opened this thing, because today we're going to talk about the movie theater of your youth.

Woody: Yes.

David: The closest one.

Woody: Yeah, it was very close to my house.

David: To where you grew up.

Woody: Yeah. It was like block and a half.

David: We're talking about the Coliseum theater.

Woody: Da-da-daaah!

David: On Clement and…

Woody: Ninth Avenue.

David: Ninth Avenue.

Woody: Yeah. Yeah. And it, you know, I think when we first started the Western Neighborhoods Project, this was one of the first things I wanted to talk about or write about. Because to me, growing up in the Richmond, the movie theater was, like, a big central part of being a kid. Of what you did.

David: Oh yeah, yeah.

Woody: You went to school [00:03:00] and you went home, but in between there seemed to be a movie theater.

David: Yeah. I had a movie theater near me in San Bruno. The El Camino theater. At that time, it was the El Camino Fifty Cents Theater.

Woody: Well, yeah, that's the one thing is that, I think we all, you know, kids of our age, at that time, they had these summer programs, where you would like pay whatever, five bucks, and you get to see a movie every day for the entire summer.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And they wouldn't show the current movies. They'd show old Disney movies and weird little kids movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s. But every day you go and it would give you something to do. It was like a summer activity for kids. And we'd all go and we'd all go eat popcorn and candy and try to sneak in the balcony and cause a ruckus. And, yeah, then we would walk outside.

David: And fling your malt lid at the screen.

Woody: All that sort of thing.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But the Coliseum was my movie theater that was like that. And so, I'm sad because it's not around anymore.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But we should talk about the history of it anyway.

David: Okay. Well, you know, I mean it is, and the building is still [00:04:00] there.

Woody: It is.

David: And so, you can see it and it still looks kind of like a theater.

Woody: It does.

David: There’s some theater motifs on the building still.

Woody: Yeah, the top is kind of the same, the top of the facade.

David: So, let's just talk. So, it's at Ninth and Clement, and it's on the Southeast corner of Ninth and Clement.

Woody: Right.

David: It's a great big building and now it's a condominium. It has a Walgreens on the ground floor.

Woody: Right. Walgreens on the ground floor, and there's, like, 14 condominium units built into the building.

David: That's it?

Woody: Now behind it. Yeah. They're kind of big.

David: That sounds big.

Woody: They're nice condos. They're, like, two and three bedroom.

David: And one thing I noticed that’s still on the building is this, kind of, this lyre motif. Up on the top, you know, like the musical instrument.

Woody: L-Y-R-E.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. Yeah, there's a little harp type thing on the top.

David: Yeah, a harp.

Woody: Yeah. And when it was built, that was there. And the Coliseum opened in November 1918.

David: Oh.

Woody: In the middle of World War I.  And, yeah, it was supposed to look like, a coliseum is kind of calling [00:05:00] back to Roman stuff, of course.

David: Sure.

Woody: But it was supposed to look like a monumental sort of theater. And the marquee was really long. It wasn't the one I remember, but it said “Coliseum.” All the letters, all the way up from the bottom.

David: The blade sign they call it.

Woody: Yeah, the blade sign was really tall. And then it had, like, a little kind of overhang lighted thing, and that was all replaced and kind of redone. And then when I was a kid, it was a, it just said, “C” “O” “L.”

David: Col.

Woody: Yeah, big “C” “O” “L” on the side.

David: Yeah, I remember that.

Woody: But what I also remember was you go in, and these theaters would always be redone to kind of try to match the current times. But something that I think was there from the early days was: there was this relief on the roof of, when you sat in the seats, on the ceiling. And it was a woman who had this long kind of streaming hair. And she was kind of a representation of a woman more than one.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And she seemed to be standing on a surfboard. Or at least that's what I thought.

David: Weird.

Woody: And I think it was a Art Deco redo or something, maybe, that was done because [00:06:00] it was very kind of abstract. But I always remember going, “there's a surfer up there,” you know. And surfing wasn’t even…

David: I don’t know if they had surfing then.

Woody: No, they didn't!

David: Yeah.

Woody: But it had a lot of stuff like floral displays and gilded little light fixtures near the bathrooms.

David: So, it was pretty ornate for a neighborhood theater.

Woody: Yeah.

David: I mean, it was big and fancy. I mean…

Woody: Lush carpeting.

David: What, were there any other theaters in the neighborhood that, did it supplant anything? I mean…

Woody: Yeah.

David: Something about theaters on Clement Street, just briefly. Just to say, just to put the Coliseum in context of the time. 1918, they build a pretty big theater. But it's not, it doesn't compare to the downtown theaters, certainly.

Woody: No. But they were big. I mean, the Coliseum opens in 1918, a year later….

David: Yeah.

Woody: Because of demand, the guy who owned it, Samuel Levin, who owned a lot of neighborhood theaters.

David: Right.

Woody: He added a thousand seats to it.

David: Oh!

Woody: It was like seventeen-hundred or something. He made it up to like twenty-seven, twenty-eight hundred. And he, like, [00:07:00] expanded the balcony. The demand was there. Before that there were little, tiny sort of shoebox theaters on Clement.

David: Yeah.

Woody: One was called Fisher’s, another was the Palm, and then down the street was, around the corner was the Lincoln on Sixth Avenue.

David: Oh, yeah.

Woody: That was pretty nice.

David: That would become a bowling alley later.

Woody: Yeah. And then farther down the street was the Four Star. So, there was theaters all over.

David: A lot of little ones.

Woody: Right. But the Coliseum is 1918. Then they build the Alexandria.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Over on Geary in 1923, and they just keep getting bigger and bigger. That was the primary entertainment.

David: Golden age for movies.

Woody: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. What was the first movie at the Coliseum?

David: The first movie? I happened to have that committed to memory. No. Well, it was a Mary Pickford film called Johanna Enlists.

Woody: Enlists in what?

David: Well, it was 1918, Woody.

Woody: Ahh.

David: World War One. She enlisted.

Woody: So, it's Private Benjamin…

David: In the Army. Yeah.

Woody: It's Private Benjamin with Mary Pickford.

David: We, [00:08:00] no, we're playing dumb. We just watched it online. You can watch it online. It's very, it's very funny.

Woody: Yeah, it is.

David: It's a Max Sennett, Mack Sennett comedy.

Woody: It's not.

David: It isn’t?

Woody: They showed a Mack Sennett the first night with it, but…

David: Ohhhh.

Woody: It's directed by somebody else, yeah.

David: Oh, all right.

Woody: But it is funny. She's like a farm girl.

David: It's definitely a comedy.

Woody: Yeah. She's a farm girl and she's bored and she wants a boyfriend. And her family is crazy. And then this regiment, on their way to World War I, stop and biovac overnight in their field.

David: Bivouac.

Woody: Oh, bivouac, sorry. In their field. And so, suddenly, she's got 1800 beaus to choose from. And at the end she says, what did she say at the end? “Go get the germ out of Germany!” or whatever.

David: That's right.

Woody: She tells them as they leave. So, it was very patriotic and…

David: Yeah.

Woody: And World War I-ish. But that was the first movie, yeah, they showed. And…

David: Mary Pickford was a titan of early film. Silent film.

Woody: Right. [00:09:00] Even though she was only like five feet tall.

David: Yeah.

Woody: She was a five-foot-tall titan. They did get sound. I mean, it was, like I said, it was silent movies, like you said. And that's what they had until 1929. And then they installed the sound equipment to bring talkies to the Coliseum. And, of course, the first movie they show? Which, can you guess?

David: The Jazz Singer?

Woody: Yeah!

David: Of course.

Woody: Al Jolson.

David: It’s the first Talkie.

Woody: Yeah, it's the first Talkie. So, everybody who puts in the sound equipment shows…

David: Plays The Jazz Singer.

Woody: The Al Jolson movie, yeah. And he sings, he sings a few songs in there. But, so then, it's like movies are still big in the ‘30s and they, like I said, they did this sort of Art Deco redo with all these floral, giant abstract floral pattern panels on the walls. And the ceiling is really crazy. We have a picture on the website, I think from our friend Jack Tillmany, of it. And my uncle, actually my uncle and my father, were both ushers at the movie [00:10:00] theater, at the Coliseum. And in those days, they always had ushers.

David: Right.

Woody: Not ticket takers, of course, but even people inside with little flashlights.

David: Even when I was a kid, I remember that. And it's like, “Keep your feet off the seats.”

Woody: Right.

David: Pretty much.

Woody: You talk about the kids throwing the malt lids. Yeah, they'd have to kind of like be the policemen.

David: Yeah.

Woody: For that. Or people trying to sneak in. And they'd wear little uniforms, and my uncle and dad did too. But when they did another redo or they were getting rid of something, my uncle got one of these giant panels, one of those giant floral panels from the ‘30s, and he took it home.

David: Wow.

Woody: And this was the ‘60s, so it totally fit in, in our living room perfectly.

David: Oh, that's so funny. And where is it now?

Woody: He lent it to a friend who's got it and is holding it for me, and has, for the last fifteen years. She lives in Oakland. So, I got to get that.

David: Well now, I mean, you're a noted West side historian.

Woody: That's right!

David: You should have that in your collection.

Woody: I should. So, I got to get that from her. But like I said, they change. And when we were kids, also, to try to get into the balcony was the big deal. [00:11:00] Because…

David: The loge seating.

Woody: Yeah. Because they pretty much closed it off, because movies just weren't as popular.

David: Right.

Woody: They didn't need it. And the only time they'd open it was for these giant blockbusters. And the first one they had at the Coliseum, which was some weird deal, is they had Jaws.

David: Wow.

Woody: At the Coliseum. Which was funny, because it's a neighborhood theater.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Why would you have it? I can't remember, Jack told me the reasoning that why they got Jaws. But I remember this as a kid, lines went around the block.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Like they went up Ninth Avenue around Geary, all the way around. And people lining up to see the shark eat people.

David: Crazy.

Woody: At the Coliseum, yeah. And then they'd open the balcony.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Because they had crowds that big.

David: So what, so what happened to the Coliseum?

Woody: Yes. That's where you're going. I like the way you're going there. That's exactly right.

David: I mean we know the building is still there.

Woody: Right.

David: But like a lot of other movie theaters, the Coliseum atrophied to death. I know that I went, I feel like I went to see, [00:12:00] like, midnight movies there in the ‘80s.

Woody: Maybe. I don't remember the midnight movies there so much. I remember at the Parkside, they would show things.

David: Yeah, they had them there. But I think, I feel, like I saw something at the Coliseum, like a midnight movie.

Woody: Well, when television and other entertainment options and the consolidation of these giant movie theaters down, I don't know, they started like trying to come up with different gimmicks. They always had gimmicks, right? They used to give away dishes and have contests to get people to come in.

David: Yeah.

Woody: But what killed the Coliseum, although it probably would've gone away because of economics, is something happened in 1989.

David: Not another earthquake.

Woody: Yes!

David: Another earthquake. Really?

Woody: I didn't say 1906 though. Yeah, in 1989, in October, there was the Loma Prieta earthquake.

David: Right.

Woody: And it damaged the Coliseum and it closed. And it's kind of a concrete frame structure. It's a big concrete frame structure, so, it needed so much work. And it wasn't [00:13:00] making much money at the time anyway, that they said, I think it was United Artists ran it at the time.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Said, “Forget it, we're closing it.”  And the last movie, the, the movie that was playing there when the earthquake happened: Field of Dreams.

David: Aww.

Woody: “If you build it, they will come.”

David: And if you don't come, they'll tear it down.

Woody: Exactly!

David: Or build condos on it.

Woody: But that is the good news. They didn't just tear it down. That you could still kind of get the feeling of the theater. And they built the condos which, I think, went on the market in 2004, something like that.

David: Yeah.

Woody: 2003. And I could be wrong, but they have 14 condos, I toured one when they opened them. And they ran in range from I think $660,000 to a million, one-point-one million.

David: That sounds like a lot in 2004.

Woody: It does, doesn't it? But they were kind of luxury condos that they put up there.

David: I'm surprised that there's only 14 in there, cause…

Woody: A couple of them are big. A couple of them I think have dual [00:14:00] levels, and they're like, there's a little deck on the top to look out at the Park and stuff. But they're nice. And the Walgreens is in the bottom and they do have some old photos of the Coliseum in their, kind of, entryway. So, they recognize the history at least a little. And I, and probably people have TVs in there that are as big as the old Coliseum movie screen, so.

David: Yeah. Well, I mean, I'm glad they didn't tear it down. I am not, it doesn't surprise me that they don't show movies there. That it stopped being a movie theater.

Woody: Yeah.

David: But I'm glad the building is still there. And you can say, “That was a movie theater and look at, look at the motif on the top.” And…

Woody: Yeah, that's still there.

David: It looks kind of like it. You know and it keeps, it keeps the feeling for the neighborhood.

Woody: The character. One thing I didn't mention, you know, it was such a big deal, movie theaters were such a big deal to neighborhoods and anchors of neighborhoods. Not only in our lives, but just in presence. I remember I was looking in the, [00:15:00] the directory in, for the Coliseum, the City directory in 1937. And if you look under “Coliseum…”

David: Yeah.

Woody: In the City directory, there's like eight businesses that have the name “Coliseum” in them that aren't the theater. Coliseum Bakery. Coliseum Beauty Shop. Coliseum Fur Company. Coliseum Haberdashery.

David: Right.

Woody: Coliseum Market. Coliseum Shoe Store. Coliseum Pharmacy. It's like everybody took their name, the little businesses, from the theater.

David: Right.

Woody: Because it was like such a landmark in the neighborhood. And people knew what it was. So, if you heard of Coliseum Shoe store, you knew it was near the Coliseum Theater.

David: Yeah.

Woody: So they, yeah, they were a big part. And people, restaurants, businesses, you know, people go see a movie, they have dinner before, they go for a drink after.

David: Buy some shoes.

Woody: Yeah, they're kind of important economic engines though, for the, for these little neighborhood corridors.

David: For sure.

Woody: Yeah, so.

David: They're an anchor.

Woody: Yeah. So, we got to keep the Four Star going. That might be a lost cause. And the Balboa, I think, is pretty safe right now.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And the one in West Portal for sure. We want to…

David: The Empire.

Woody: Go to your, [00:16:00] go to your neighborhood movie theater and keep it going. Is what I say.

David: That’s right. But, if we don't, you could, we could live there!

Woody: Yeah. We both have houses, we don't have to do that. But David, we do have stories about the Coliseum. We have some memories, including, I think we have Pat Swenson, who's passed away, but she wrote memories of going to the Coliseum as a kid. And they actually had, for the kids, a little thing she called “the skate vault.”  Which was like a coat check, but for roller skates.

David: Oh, so funny.

Woody: Yeah!

David: What a thing.

Woody: So, she remembers that. And so, go to our website and look, just put “Coliseum,” you'll find all sorts of messages, photos, interesting stories.

David: So that's outsidelands.org.

Woody: That's absolutely correct. And what else can somebody do there?

David: Woody, they can become a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project by clicking the “Become a Member” link at the top of any page. And I know we say this every week, and here's something new:

Woody: [gasps]

David: If you have already become a member, you're already a member. “Stop wasting my podcast time with [00:17:00] this!” I know you may have already turned it off, actually. But go and find us another member. Go share the Western Neighborhoods Project with a friend who might be interested. Or, if it's someone who might not be interested, convince them why they should be interested in doing the, in the good work that we're doing out here!

Woody: Sharing is caring.

David: Yeah. So, get us a new member and then let us know.

Woody: Do we have our 500th member?

David: We do not!

Woody: Oh, come on, people. We're so close. We're like six away or something. All right. Well, 500th member, we're going to, we're going to throw a party for you.

David: Yeah.

Woody: At the Coliseum theater. We're going to have a movie showing…

David: Maybe.

Woody: In the Walgreens.

David: Maybe in the Walgreens.

Woody: On our phone.

David: DVD section.

Woody: If they still have those. All right, David, I hope to see you next week!

David: All right, Woody. I'll see you next week too!

Ian: Outside Lands, San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley at Hadley Studios in the glorious Inner Sunset.

Woody: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods [00:18:00] Project and more about San Francisco history, go to outsidelands.org.

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