Western Neighborhoods Project is dedicated to the history of San Francisco's Richmond, Sunset, OMI and West of Twin Peaks districts.   read more ...
 

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 523: Gary Parks

The Alexandria Theatre's 100th anniversary is upon us, so Nicole talks with theater preservationist and expert, Gary Parks, about his life and movie palaces.
by Nicole Meldahl - Nov 11, 2023

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 523: Gary Parks Outside Lands Podcast Episode 523: Gary Parks

(above) Alexandria Theatre, Jun 1960

[Alexandria Theatre Crew June 1960] 18th Ave & Geary Streets. Concession staff, women dressed in show girl costumes, ushers, and managers posing in lobby. Fred Levin is third from right.


Podcast Transcription

WNP523 - Gary Parks

Nicole: [00:00:00] It's Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of Western Neighborhoods Project. Your weekly dose of friendly neighborhood history.

And hello, Outside Landers. I'm Nicole Meldahl, of course, and it's great to be with you again with another interview podcast, because I didn't have time to do any real research for this week's episode. But never fear, we have a special guest with us today. And if you're listening consistently, then you know that this is the 100th anniversary of our beloved Alexandria Theater on Geary at 18th Avenue. Now, this Levin Family movie palace was once a crown jewel of the Richmond District, until it closed in 2004 and fell into disrepair, thanks to a very negligent owner. And there is a landmarking movement currently underway which just passed a major hurdle. But this is not a podcast about [00:01:00] preservation, because we at WNP are preservationists at heart, but we leave the advocacy up to folks like San Francisco Heritage and the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, who are far better prepared for the fight that is included in that work. No, we at WNP bring the history, and that's why we joined the conversation about the future of the Alexandria by hosting a window exhibition primarily about the theater's past. And I'm so pleased to be joined today by the driving force behind this wonderful exhibition, Gary Parks. So welcome, Gary, to the podcast.

Gary: Well, thank you. Good to be here with you, Nicole.

Nicole: And listeners, you can't see this, but behind Gary is just all this incredible theater ephemera and posters. And I wish we had time to go through every single thing that's on display in your office, Gary.

Gary: Be careful what you ask for, but don't ask.

Nicole: Maybe that's the kind of content people want if we had like a [00:02:00] Patreon or like, you know, but that's a whole other conversation that we won't get into today. Thanks for being with us, Gary. Gary, let's maybe start at the beginning, right? I want to know, as our listeners I'm sure want to know, who the heck is Gary Parks?

Gary: Well, I think for the purposes of this conversation, let's, let’s talk about a little bit of the past. My father, Ed Parks, was an animator. Began working for Disney in 1939. And with a break in World War II, where he did animation for the Navy, he worked on features and short subjects for Disney all the way up until 1960. And then he, because of greater creative freedom and a pay hike, he moved over to Hanna Barbera in 1960. And he remained there until 1978, when he retired a little bit early. Now he had a wonderful memory. He was, I, I had older [00:03:00] parents than most of my peers. Dad was born in 1915. My mom in 1922.

Nicole: Oh wow!

Gary: Yeah. And dad remembered silent movies accompanied by pipe organ and full orchestra at Poli's Palace Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut, which, by the way, was designed by Thomas Lamb, who would later do the San Francisco Fox. And so, Dad saw Poli’s Palace when it was just a couple years old, Crystal chandeliers, organ, all that good stuff, as well as other theaters that he would go to. So, he would tell me vivid stories of what it was like to go to movies then and there. Then, I was growing up in Southern California at the time and remained there until I was 10, then we became Northern Californians, but I would look around at the interiors of movie theaters that we would go to, and a lot of them had been built by Fox in the ‘40s, ‘30s or ‘40s. And they were in places like Long Beach, quite a few in Long Beach, one in Seal Beach. And occasionally we'd go to one in L.A., in the L.A. area, Westwood, or along Wilshire Boulevard. And I didn't really [00:04:00] ask questions about them much, but I had a very visual imagination. And I would see these murals on the walls of maidens standing on top of scallop shells with rolling waves and big leaves and huntresses chasing gazelles and all these things on the walls. And I didn't see that stuff anywhere else. This was just movie theater architecture for me, and there was a fancifulness of it. Also, a big thing that people forget was the old theaters, part of the design was the lighting. So, light changed colors and faded and dimmed and came back up again. And curtains parted, sometimes two or three of them. Even in the ‘60s, when I was a little kid, that still was part of it. So. I have this Hollywood connection through my dad. And then, I did have an aunt who acted mainly on the stage and for TV, a little bit on the big screen. She worked with Alfred Hitchcock for a while.

Nicole: Aah!

Gary: And then, I also had an oldest cousin, also named Gary, who was [00:05:00] a projectionist for United Artists when I was a kid, and then he later on went on to work in Hollywood from the tech angle. Anyway, so there's that foundation. Okay. And then one other ingredient. One day I was in downtown Long Beach with a dear family friend, Mary, who was kind of one of my adopted grandmas. We, we adopted her into the family informally. Well, she had, she had grown up in Long Beach and she remembered the vaudeville and the movies and the silent films and everything like that. And one time she took me to the circus at the Old Municipal Auditorium right next to the Pike Amusement Park. We walked out, and across the street was a boarded-up theater called the Tracy. And it had little gargoyles and little grinning comedy and tragedy masks on the front. The windows were all busted out. It looked haunted. It was creepy. And I've always loved haunted looking things. And, but it had a rusty marquee that was in the same style as some of the theaters I was going to, so it was like, here was this older building with a later thing on it, and I was trying to figure that out and Mary [00:06:00] was talking about how she went there, and she saw the vaudeville, she saw the silent movies, and all that stuff. And so, I just kind of had that in my mind for a long time, and eventually that theater got torn down. Mary wrote me a letter and told me, because I was living in, in Northern California at the time. And I was like, oh, poor Tracy Theater. It's gone now. Well, I grew up also during the golden age of arena rock bands.

Nicole: Oh, yeah.

Gary: Yeah, yeah. Then later got into the whole new wave, post punk thing later. But the band Styx, okay, they came from Chicago and some of their members remembered going to the Paradise Theater in Chicago. And one of their members came up with the idea for the Paradise Theater album, which was a metaphor for the consumerist culture and not saving old, wonderful things in America and so forth. And so, I thought the album cover was really cool. But what was trippy, one side showed the theater brand new. The other side showed it boarded up and abandoned. And the design of the fictitious facade they did on that theater, [00:07:00] looked kind of like the Tracy in Long Beach. And I made this connection. It was like, and with the busted-out windows and the gargoyles and the whole bit, I was like, ooh, that's kind of cool. Well, after I got out of high school, my parents and I took a road trip around the country for six weeks, and I decided I'm going to take pictures of the movie theaters we see. So, I did. Some famous ones, some ones that are long gone that were tiny and kind of forgotten. Everything. And I thought, I must be the only one who cares about this stuff. Wrong! Eventually discovered the Theater Historical Society of America. Joined. Was on the board for a while, you know, in the long story short department here, and got very involved and eventually did some articles. Did some books. Helped people with research, got involved in advocacy of old theaters. All the while being an architectural decorative artist professionally. And eventually, I was able to raise my hand if somebody needed etched glass or a mural or whatever for their theater, I could say, hey, guess what I do? So, I think the very first theater I worked on at all professionally [00:08:00] was the, was the now gone Park Theater in Menlo Park. We restored the glass in their box office. So, that's the background.

Nicole: In a nutshell.

Gary: The short version.

Nicole: What? That's a backtrack, but I have a couple questions.

Gary: Yeah.

Nicole: What are, what, are there any films that we can see today that your dad worked on?

Gary: The first, he started with Disney right after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs came out, so really early. He was an in betweener on Pinocchio. For instance, the scene where the, the whale is splashing around, those come, those parts were so complex. He considered it a good day if he got five drawings done. So that's five frames of film and it was so elaborate with all this foaming water and the whale and everything. Worked on Fantasia, again, I think, as an in betweener. But the first sequence he ever drew, it animated every frame on is in the Sorcerer's Apprentice in Fantasia, where [00:09:00] Mickey has just cast a spell on a broom sitting in the corner. The broom vibrates and springs to life. That little part in there, every frame, was my dad's drawing. But then on through the decades, the last feature he worked on was 101 Dalmatians. Cruella de Vil's yellow acrid smoke was his idea.

Nicole: Huh.

Gary: And he put all the dancing spots on the opening sequence. Which is why his name is kind of bigger than normal, because he drew it. So, yeah.

Nicole: I mean, I, I'm pretty sure the Walt Disney Family Museum has cells from that, that scene in Fantasia in the collection.

Gary: Sure, sure. We used to have cells from several things and my parents sold them in the 1970s and got a lot of money for the time.

Nicole: Yeah.

Gary: But they should have waited. We had a bunch of cells from Cinderella where the mice are making, making the dress and a few other things. Yeah.

Nicole: I think Cinderella is my favorite film. But anyways, that's not what this podcast is about.  I was just curious. So, I [00:10:00] took, I took the right turn here. Okay. So, what brought you to Northern California? How did you make the jump from Southern California up here?

Gary: Actually, some of my dad's fellow animators, the animator, Lee Blair, who was…

Nicole: Yeah.

Gary: My parents’ commanding officer in the Navy.

Nicole: Really?

Gary: And they were friends with him and his wife Mary, who did so much work for Disney.

Nicole: Yeah, I love Mary Blair. She's my favorite.

Gary: Yeah, she passed in 1968. I don't remember her, but Lee was very much a presence in my, the latter half of my childhood. He was, he was very encouraging when I was starting to decide what art school to go to and things like that. But he lived in Soquel, on a hill above the village, and we would occasionally go there. And he would go, and, and we especially opened our house to him more often because of, of Mary having passed away. I made a mistake. She did not pass in 1968. They moved to Soquel in 1968. He moved to Aptos in 1973 and mom had always had an affinity for redwood forests. Well, my dad did too. [00:11:00] And Lee Blair and then another animator, Bob Carlson, and there was another animator named Mo Gollub, they all said, Ed, you got to move up to Aptos or at least Santa Cruz County. It's a great place. And you can mail your work down, the studio will mail the work up. You do it, send it back. And so that's what we did. And we'd send it back. I think usually via Greyhound freight. USPS, there were a couple of instances of packages being broken open, unfortunately. So, it was like, see you guys, we're going to do something better, a little different. But yeah, they, they were the ones. So, it was fellow animators and we became Northern Californians. And I was always enchanted with San Francisco as a very little kid. So being closer to San Francisco was cool, because I was taken with the Sutro Baths and the, all this cool stuff in Golden Gate Park and, and so forth. So yeah, that was, that was the Northern California switch.

Nicole: I swear we didn't pay him to say things on the West side, listeners.

Gary: Okay. So, I also liked the Ferry Building. Okay. [00:12:00]

Nicole: That's legitimate. That's totally legitimate.

Gary: Yeah.

Nicole: And you, you move up here with your parents and, and did you go to school? Like, how did you train to become the artist and, that you are?

Gary: Yeah, I graduated from high school in 198. Majored in art there and then. Went to Cabrillo College for a couple of years, did all my humanities stuff, took some film history classes there, some studio art, but a lot of art history. That was really my unofficial major there for two and a half years. And then, transferred over to what was then California College of Arts and Crafts, which was then just in Oakland, although by the time I was getting ready to graduate, they had moved a little bit over to, what was it, 17th and De Haro, this old industrial building.

Nicole: Yep.

Gary: And now, of course, they've expanded and become this big thing, and the old campus is just sort of a, a time capsule. But yeah, so I majored in illustration. And then, in the middle of that, I needed work really bad and I answered a job in the San Jose Mercury News, because I was living in Fremont by then, for, for an artist. And it turns out it was this little mom [00:13:00] and pop stained glass shop and they wanted to move the design work over to somebody else. And then I learned sales and stuff, but I was always finding that I was kind of a frustrated architect. So here was an opportunity to interface with architects and contractors and interior designers and decorate buildings. Nothing against illustration, and I still do it, but most illustrations, whether on screen or on paper, only get looked at for a few seconds. Whereas a building lasts a long time. And you do a mural, you do etched glass, or stained glass, it's gonna be there for a while. I know some of mine are gone by now, I was in the business that long, and I still am, but, you know, some are, some are gone. Fire, remodeling, whatever. But yeah, that was my thing. And then it was natural to also do that for theaters, so that that comes in as well.

Nicole: Yeah. So, what kind of work do you do? Like, what, what does a typical year look like for you? What kind of projects come in now? If I'm like, oh, gee, Gary seems like a nice guy and I'd like to hire him for, [00:14:00] I don't know what, tell us what it is, Gary.

Gary: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I've got to say I worked full time in the architectural glass industry for 24 years. And then, after that, it was just the place I was working folded due to internal strife, I had nothing to do with it. But anyway and I had to kind of hunt around for a career to, you know, pay the bills a little more steadily, because stuff on my own was, was really haphazard. And so, for almost 10 years, I worked at a private learning center, helping kids with learning differences learn how to read, write, spell and comprehend. And so, I did that and then still did as much artwork as I could do. Quit the teaching a little over a year ago and now am back into doing artwork. It goes up and down. We'll put it this way, I'm glad my musician wife also works in tech so that the gaps can be well filled. But, you know, now that I'm kind of officially [00:15:00] kind of in the senior category, you know, I'm not looking at retiring ever, really, I'm just going to keep doing this stuff. But it's time to, you know, do this stuff while I can still climb ladders and scaffolding and help hang light fixtures and glass. And, as well as sit in an office at home and do drawing. So that's what I'm doing now.

Nicole: Because I know you had an interest in theaters from a young age, but it seems like the career you picked managed to get you inside theaters that maybe wouldn't have been accessible to other people. Because one of the cool things about you is you've been able to acquire, like, bits and bobs from so many different theaters. And like, whenever you talk about a theater and you're like, gosh, I wonder where this went, someone inevitably says, well, maybe you should call Gary Parks, because, he probably has something or knows where it is.

Gary: Right.

Nicole: Is that right? Is it because of your job that you've been able to track this down?

Gary: Partly, and several people I got to know. And I got a big, if I can do shout outs, I know that's cliche. [00:16:00]

Nicole: Please. Do it.

Gary: Well, I did a, some very simple period appropriate Spanish-style leaded glass windows for a house in Millbrae belonging to a gentleman who was in the antiques business. I walked into his house and I said, what, what year is this? He said, oh, 1927. Oh yeah, great. I'm thinking, oh, same year that the California Theater in San Jose opened. Isn't that nice? You know, these dates stick in your head.

Nicole: Yeah.

Gary: And I said, the living room, the stenciling on the ceiling, it's like, it's like a theater. And those, those mica and iron sconces, dah, dah, dah, dah. And I kept saying theater, theater, theater. Well, the guy turned out to be a really nice client. Very fair, very cool. And he said, well, you need to meet my stepson, Mark. And he says he's in the antiques biz also. And he loves Hollywood memorabilia, the Brown Derby and old movie theaters. And he does architectural salvage and so forth. So got to know Mark, became a lasting friendship now going on near 30 years. And so, he and I have salvaged stuff from theaters being torn down. For instance, the Market Street [00:17:00] Cinema, when that went down, that's originally Grauman's Imperial Theater. We saved the huge stained glass window, which is now on display in the lobby of the condo tower that stands on the site. You can see it from the sidewalk on Market.

Nicole: Amazing.

Gary: We were involved with doing stuff for the Strand when ACT took over the Strand. And that's my segue to my good friend, Greg King, who became a friend of Mark's as well. And we teamed up and Greg used to co-own and operate the Strand on Market and was also involved there with Mike Thomas and running the Embassy in its last days before Loma Prieta. And the Electric Theater as well. And to some, some connections with the Warfield as well. And so, there's another person that became a part of my little kind of coven of old theater people where we can get together and do things professionally.

And, and then, when things from an old theater have to be salvaged, when say the effort to save it, if there was one, doesn't happen, we go in there and we try to, our priority is to find [00:18:00] homes for these light fixtures or poster cases or whatever they are in other theaters. Now, that's not always possible. So, there are, there's homes. There's hotels. There's some things that we saved from some theaters in San Francisco that are now in the Lake Merritt hotel. Stuff, stuff from another is down in a theater in Monterey. You know, some went into some custom homes, stuff from the Midtown on Haight Street went into a custom home in Daly City. And then, in the case of the Harding Theater, two of its lobby light fixtures over the stairs wound up going right back to where we had taken them out in 2002. So, when it became, when it became this video arcade place and an event center and restaurant and bar, I approached the owner and I said a colleague of mine has two fixtures that we took out of there along with bunch of others. They're elsewhere now, but there are two. Would you like to purchase these? We'll restore them for you, make sure they're energy conservation okay. And all that good stuff. [00:19:00] And we put them right back exactly where they had been. You can see the outlines in the paint and we was like, yep, just there. Perfect! And there they were, with new etched glass, because the old stuff was all broken, so we did what we could to replicate that. Yeah.

Nicole: That’s amazing. And the old Harding, that's on Devis, right? Next to the Independent?

Gary: Right, next to the Independent, it's now the Emporium S.F. Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Nicole: That’s awesome. And that's what I really appreciate about you, Gary. Like, you don't just like do the work. You do it right. You go the extra mile to make sure these pieces find their forever homes again, which is so amazing.

Gary: Yeah, yeah. So.

Nicole: And like the salvage conversation kind of leads us back to the Alexandria.

Gary: Right.

Nicole: Which, which is what brought us together here today, Gary. And for our listeners, I want to give you a little bit of background on the Alexandria just to sort of orient you to what we're talking about. So, we mentioned earlier that the, the theater is 100 years old. Opened in November 1923. It was designed by the Reid brothers who were also responsible for the 1909 Cliff [00:20:00] House, that we still partially have today, the Speckels Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park, and so many other prominent buildings. And it was designed for the Levin family. And one or two years ago, we did an oral history with Fred Levin and you can go way back to podcast episode number 81 for a full history on the theater. And it had this incredible Egyptian theme to it, which Gary is most definitely the expert in. And I want to know how you first heard about the Alexandria, Gary, like what's, how you became connected with this specific theater?

Gary: Right. Well, I haven't, I have a parallel interest, although only extremely rarely has there ever been a professional connection. I see Egyptology, I saw the re-release theatrically in 1972 of Cecil B DeMille's 1956 epic, The Ten Commandments. Why did we go see it? Because my dad was the special effects animator. Disney loaned him out to Paramount by contract, because Walt and Cecil were [00:21:00] friends. And my dad animated the pillar of fire effects in that movie. And so, we saw it. And I was already reading sanitized versions of Greek mythology at school, and so it was a natural step to Egypt. And I just got really into Egypt in 3rd grade because of seeing that movie. It just blew me away. Never mind it playing fast and loose with history. Visually it was just so rich. So, later on, much later on when I really got into theaters, one day, we were driving down Geary, I was with my folks, I wasn't driving yet, I know it was with my folks, and here's this Egyptian-style theater. Okay, it's got, you know, kind of moderne marquee and neon on it, you know, and I didn't even know the term moderne back then. But here are these, here are these papyrus blossom columns on the corner. Those are papyrus columns, not lotus, folks. Ha, ha, ha. Trust me. And these cavetto moldings and so forth and I'm going, and it's called Alexandria. Oh my gosh. The city that Alexander the Great, you know, founded [00:22:00] on the, on the Nile Delta coast. And I thought someday I got to go there. Well, it was probably another eight years before I went in there and, get this, okay. This is, this is how long ago it was. It was in the ‘80s. I went to the Alexandria for the first time to see what would be the final re-release theatrically of Song of the South.

Nicole: Ooh.

Gary: Cute, adorable movie you know. It's more, and this is my opinion, it's more because there are lots of stereotypes in that movie, cultural stereotypes that it's like, ooh, we gotta be careful with this.

Nicole: Yeah.

Gary: You know, there's no direct insults, but, you know, it's, it's of its day. Actually kind of progressive for its day. But yeah, today does it wash with a lot of people? No. But I'm glad for decades.

Nicole: Yeah, banned for decades.

Gary: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. So, you know, technicolor the color was beautiful, you know. [00:23:00] But yeah got to see it on a big screen. So, there you go. Probably will never get to do that again. But it was upstairs in one of the upstairs theaters, and I remember there was intermission going on downstairs, so I took a peek of the downstairs theater and went, oh, wow, cool. But I have to say, I was kind of disappointed. Where's the Egyptian architecture inside? It's all moderne. Oh, I mean, it's beautiful. It's really cool. But back then I didn't know enough about theaters to know that they would sometimes go through complete remodels when they were 10 or 20 years old, you know. So, yeah, so that was that, that was that deal. And then, you know, I went to it a handful of times just when there was something I wanted to see. It was like, it's at the Alexandria. Cool, I'll go. And then, until it closed, I didn't really start going, uh-oh, you know, there needs to be something, you know, to advocate this place. And then, oh, 1995, when doing architectural salvage on the Metro, there were [00:24:00] some things that they weren't going to keep when United Artists redid the place and put quite a lot of money fixing the place up. There were some things, well, these we don't want, we're just going to throw them out. No, you're not, we'll take them. And that was Mark and me. We then got into a contact for going in and doing a little bit of very limited architectural salvage at the Coliseum Theater. And another friend of mine from Southern California, not Southern California.

Nicole: Yeah.

Gary: Monterey Peninsula, went with me to, with a representative from United Artists to do a little bit of salvage in the Coliseum Theater on Clement. And they didn't know what they were going to do it at the time. And then, after that, he said, you know, I have to check some things over at the Alexandria, you want to go with me? Duh. And so, we went over there, got talking with the manager and he told me, he said, you know, if you jump up on top of the lobby drinking fountain to re-lamp the light fixture, that's in the niche above, and stick your head up through that aperture, you can see the original lobby walls. There's a row of Egyptian columns and blocks of faux stone. And there's some other artwork and he didn't really get [00:25:00] specific on that. It was like, really? He said we, you know, we're open for business right now, you, you can't go in there. And so, this guy we were with, he says well I have to check some OSHA stuff on the passageway leading to the to the attic. So, I got to go in the attic and from there I could see where the old organ chambers had been jackhammered out and the walls changed to make those curved walls where the sea nymphs are today, or hopefully they're still there today. And when the whole train had been redone, it was like, oh, the dome on the ceiling is definitely from the ‘20s. I can see the difference in workmanship and so forth. And we saw the crank where the chandelier could be lowered and all that stuff up the catwalks. And so, that was really intriguing.

And then, a few years after that, a friend in the American Research Center in Egypt, Joan Knudson, who is the registrar, or was at the time, I'm not sure if she still is now, I think so, for the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, she said, well Gary, you, since you like theaters as well as Egypt, we just had some people, this couple come in, and they had [00:26:00] salvaged these pieces of broken plaster from a theater in San Francisco. And they thought that maybe some of our undergrad students could learn reassembling archaeological material by piecing these pieces of plaster together. And Joan was like, well, it's a little bit outside of our scope, but I know where these can go. So that was over 15 years ago. I acquired all these fragments and realized that they were all taken from Egyptian originals copied as best as possible. Really elaborate form of plaster casting. And if they're from a theater that's Egyptian-style in San Francisco, that could only be two places, the Alexandria or the Egyptian on Market Street, which later became the Studio, then the Guild, and then the Pussycat. Building is still there, theater’s gone. That theater I found out through another member of the Levin family. Steve was very basically decorated just with stenciling and a couple of columns at the entrance. [00:27:00] And so, it was like these beautiful pieces of plaster depicting Egyptian gods and nobility and stuff can't be from there. Then, as I studied the pieces, I realized that they had still been intact behind another wall surface, because there was mildew on them. And they, and water damage where water had leached through the plaster and pushed the paint outward. So, forensics here, architectural forensics. And I could tell they had been broken from behind. Now I knew from, for a fact, that sometime in the late ‘90s, the storefronts in the Alexandria building had been completely gutted out and remodeled. And in that remodeling, I saw from plans done in one of those developer proposals for the Alexandria…

Nicole: Yeah.

Gary: That walls, the modern walls of those storefronts had been pushed right up against the 1940s walls.

Nicole: Oh!

Gary: If there are ancient stuff behind there, you know, ancient with quotes around it, older wall stuff like columns, there [00:28:00] had to have been room for columns and faux stone walls and other artwork. According to this manager years ago, that was gone and examining the plaster pieces, you could see they had been impacted by demolition people from behind and pushed outward.

Nicole: Right.

Gary: So, it's like that. And the fact is, as this was the only elaborate Egyptian-style theater in San Francisco, here's where they come from. They're now provenanced.

Nicole: Yeah. And very exciting to announce to our listeners that those pieces can be seen at the WNP clubhouse at 1617 Balboa right now. And, I mean the exhibition, Gary, you've done so much work on this exhibition, helping us like curate it and giving us all of our, our expert information, but these pieces in particular are so special and correct me if I'm wrong, they've never been seen by the public in this type of way before, right?

Gary: Well, last time they were on public view was in, just [00:29:00] before the Alexandria lobby was remodeled in the early ‘40s. Yeah.

Nicole: Which makes this a world exclusive. For what it’s worth.

Gary: Right.

Nicole: And you've done so much amazing research about the actual Egyptology behind all these pieces. And then, when you put them on display alongside actual Egyptian pieces, they're thousands of years old from the Global Museum's collection, thanks to Lindsey Hanson, who was the other driving force of this exhibition. You and Lindsey are the two all stars that made this happen. And she, of course, is a graduate of the Museum Studies program at S.F. State, which works closely with the Global Museum. So, this is what happens when friends all work together and all sort of align.

Gary: Like with my theater people, the Salvage and the Restoration folks. That's the thing. It's all community, you know. And I don't think we even have time to share how [00:30:00] that's, for me, melded into the Neon community as well, and people that I don't know. Yeah.

Nicole: Well actually, you know, we'll make space for it, Gary, because you also helped design a really amazing enamel pin with Randall over at SF Neon, so maybe you can tell folks about that a little bit.

Gary: Yeah, a commemorative pin of the front of the Alexandria. That's right. And so, that, that will be available for people. And one will decorate one of my jackets.

Nicole: It's being shipped to one of our homes as we speak. So, we'll have it available. And this is all, like the exhibition, Gary's work, Gary's pieces on display, this is all part of a community effort in which, you know, we've been meeting about for what seems like five years now, but it's really just been a few months. WNP's kind of brought all these folks together so that we could remember this amazing theater. Because, I'll be honest, it's, it's not going to be around how it's been around for much longer. I don't know that for a fact, but the building has degenerated [00:31:00] to an insane degree, thanks to a lot of neglect, and we're all very unclear what is still inside to salvage.

Gary: Yeah.

Nicole: And the developers are very keen on putting housing there in addition to the housing they already installed on the parking lot in the back. So, what we've always known as the Alexandria Theater will no longer be in the next few years. So it's really important to all of us, you Gary, WNP, folks in the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation who do so much amazing work. Fred Levin was in part of these meetings which is so amazing to have his presence in the room. And San Francisco Heritage, Woody allowed me to strong arm him into being part of this. And then, the San Francisco Neon folks who were so distraught when that neon sign came down in January. And for folks who don't know the background on that, it was determined that the neon blade at the Alexandria was now dangerous. It had detached partially from the building and it was sort of [00:32:00] taken down in the dead of night, although it was during the day, but as an emergency measure. And a newspaper reports made mention of, oh, don't worry, we're going to save it. But like, no one could get in contact with the people who owned it. As it turns out, they actually chopped it into a bunch of different pieces with a handsaw.

Gary: Yep.

Nicole: Which is not what you want to do when you’re moving neon.

Gary: I got to see some pictures of those pieces lying just inside the lobby. I also got glimpses of the fact that the lobby walls are plastered with graffiti pieces.

Nicole: Yeah, there's a lot of, there's a lot of damage inside. So, we're all kind of holding our breath to see what pieces the developer will be forced to save. What is actually still available to save.

Gary: Right.

Nicole: You know, what the city tells a property owner it must do and what the property owners end up doing are not always the same.

Gary: Right.

Nicole: But we'll see.

Gary: Yeah, a little glimmer of hope. I mean, yeah, [00:33:00] when the Harding was boarded up and closed, it got plastered with graffiti as high as anybody could reach. And that, with the renovation of that building, and I call it a renovation, even though they saved what was left plasterwork wise and even restored some of it, but actually a lot of it, you know, at the same thing happened with graffiti at the New Mission when it was closed.

Nicole: Right.

Gary: And look at it now. You know, it's beautiful. So, so, you know, as long as the, the, the fabric of the ornamental plaster is still intact, those relief sculptures from the ‘40s that are that are on the stairway and so on, if those are still there, great. I mean, even if they are caked with graffiti paint, you know, it could, they could be salvaged and, and, and redone. You know, maybe by Mark and me or other somebody else. We don't want to, we don't want to monopolize, but we have done worse. But, you know.

Nicole: If anyone can, you can.

Gary: But, but no, you know, what I really [00:34:00] hope is that they didn't, if, if the auditorium got hit too, that they didn't get up onto those murals of the sea nymphs, because, you know, it may not be the original Egyptian, but it's very historic in its own right. I can only say delightful murals. These frolicking figures in the waves. They're just fun. Very typical of the period. But how many have survived? You know, they used to be everywhere. But you know, yeah.

Nicole: While we all wait to see what happens with the Alexandria, you can stop by the office 1617 Balboa to see Gary's incredible collection. We are open, our open house is on November 18th, so in a couple weeks, and, or by appointment. You can email us at podcast@outsidelands.org to, to stop on by. We're there three days a week mostly, although the holidays will throw a wrench into those works a little bit. But, and you can see it at night, it's totally lit up and you can also see a neon clock at our office that was designed by Randall of San Francisco Neon that says “It's History Time.” So, [00:35:00] I encourage you to drop by and see Gary's amazing collection and work. And Gary, now I hope you'll allow me to ask you some incredibly hard-hitting questions that get to the core of who Gary Parks is.

Gary: Okay, do I need, do I need a baseball bat or just a badminton racket?

Nicole: I think a badminton racket will do.

Gary: Okay. I'm pretty good at that. Yeah. All right.

Nicole: That’s right listeners, this is our Barbara Walters section. RIP. Okay Gary, first question, are you ready?

Gary: I am.

Nicole: What is the best meal you've ever eaten in San Francisco?

Gary: That's a tough one. I've had many, many good meals in San Francisco. The first one that springs to mind, and I don't remember the name of the restaurant, but it was someplace not far from Lombard, somewhat west of the Millard Sheets old Home Savings building, it was Spanish food, and it was, and not just tapas. There was, [00:36:00] there was other stuff. And it was just really terrific made with all kinds of ingredients. It was sort of a sampler plate, because it was my first time having Spanish food. But it was so good that it was like, this has got to be able to stand next to really, really good Spanish food in Spain, okay? So that, that, that springs to mind, yeah.

Nicole: What time period are we talking, Gary?

Gary: Oh, when, when we went to this restaurant during the reign of Rameses the 2nd, sorry, sorry, sorry. No. All right. No, this was probably, oh, 2010, 2012, sometime in there. Yeah. Yeah.

Nicole: Okay. Listeners, this can be a fun game. What restaurant did Gary go to around 2010 on Lombard that serves Spanish food? Please email us your answers. Okay, question number two. What is your favorite place in San Francisco? The one place you return to again and again?

Gary: Ooh, okay. Now this has very personal connections. [00:37:00] The crenelated parapet at Sutro Heights Park.

Nicole: Aww.

Gary: Why?

Nicole: Why?

Gary: Because that's where I proposed to my wife, Rebecca.

Nicole: Aww.

Gary: And I'd already made reservations at the Cliff House to coordinate right at sunset and that's where we sat. And with the exception of once during COVID and once this year due to personal health reasons, but which are now cleared up. Yay.

Nicole: Yay.

Gary: All the other years since 2002, we have always sat there as close as possible to the, what we call the proposa-versary. So, for personal reasons, I keep returning there again and again and again, but it's right next to the ruins of Sutro Baths, which I probably explore nearly every year, no matter what, for somebody, for some reason, and with someone, ever since 1972.

Nicole: That’s awesome.

Gary: And that whole area there, [00:38:00] from where Playland was all the way up to Point Lobos is sacred to me in sort of a spooky, creepy, sort of goth way, but I gave it a reason to be sacred because of the proposal. It's like, this is a special place for me, and so we're going to give it an event and a reason.

Nicole: That's awesome. That's one of my favorite answers to this question so far. Congratulations, Gary.

Gary: Oh, thank you. So, and what car do I win? No, no, no.

Nicole: Absolutely no cars.

Gary: Hot Wheels?

Nicole: But I will buy you a baked good the next time you're at the office.

Gary: That has been a wonderful, a wonderful perk to stopping by. I will look forward to it.

Nicole: See friends and listeners, if you work with WNP, we don't have any money to give you, but we will buy you donuts.

Gary: It will, I can vouch for that.

Nicole: Okay, number three. What is the one thing out-of-towners shouldn't miss? Like where do you take people when they visit?

Gary:  I probably shouldn't say Sutro [00:39:00] Baths ruins because I actually do that. Okay, I will give you my favorite non-theater building in San Francisco. And I have to share this with tons of other people who love it, and that is the Palace of Fine Arts.

Nicole: Oh, yeah.

Gary: Yeah, PPIE is magical. Everything about that is just enthralling to me. I first saw, when my dad took me to San Francisco when we were still Southern Californians, we went into, say, Musee Mecanique when it was underneath the Cliff House, and there were some stereo opticons with these hand tinted stereo views in them. And there was one that was just of the PPIE. I had no idea that it ever existed, and it was like, oh, 1915. Dad, you were born that year. And I was like, old pictures. Whoa, Dad's old. But here are these pictures. And I remember the Palace of Fine Arts buildings and Tower of Jewels and all that other stuff. And I would learn about that stuff later. But then dad and [00:40:00] I were, dad and I were driving out to just drive across the Golden Gate Bridge and just kind of, you know, look at the view, and here was the Palace of the Fine Arts dome. And I'm going, that's that building from 1915. Whoa, it's still there. You know, and I'm like eight, so, I'm just having this major, you know, enthusiastic fit in the car. And it's like part of it's still there, you know. And then later I would learn, and then at the Santa Cruz library, I found the book, San Francisco's Enchanted Palace, which was about the Palace of Fine Arts by somebody who remembered it from their childhood and everything. But yeah, that unquestionably is my favorite non-theater building in San Francisco.

Nicole: I love that place too. My uncle took me there when I came on my first solo flight when I was 12. And he took me there. He liked to, weirdly took me on a tour the rest of my life. He like took me there. I ended up working there for the California Historical Society for like a few months, to City Lights bookstore. He took me over to the Marin Headlands, all kinds of things like that, where [00:41:00] I ended up working with the GGNRA. So, it was like a very weird, like, Nicole Meldahl, this shall be your life.

Gary: Wow, prophetic,

Nicole: Yeah, but I totally agree, it was, it was magical. It didn't feel like it was in the United States. It was so incredible.

Gary: Yeah, there's something, it's, it's enchanted, mournful, creepy feeling about it. Probably partly because, usually when you're there it's enshrouded in fog, but that lends some, but even without that, I think there's something about, I think it's everything from the fair all the way down to, say, the windmills in Golden Gate Park. That whole bit of coastline and bay front has something about it. There's just some vibe there and yeah.

Nicole: Totally agree. There is a vibe there. So maybe it's PPIE, but question number four is what's one San Francisco thing you would bring back if you could.

Gary: Easy. Fox Theater.

Nicole: Oh yeah. It had to be a theater. Of course it was going to be a theater.

Gary: The wrecking [00:42:00] ball started swinging when I was three months old and living in Los Angeles. But, you know, other than some pieces of it that I've seen in collections, and I have two pieces from it, but, but I know a lot of people who have a lot, it, you know, it was huge. Market street as a theater district was built out. It was almost ridiculous to build yet another theater, but people forget that there was supposed to have been an enormous hotel built over it. And that never happened. Had that hotel been there, it probably would have been renovated. Nothing against Davies Symphony Hall. It’s a prime piece of postmodern architecture. But had the Fox lived, it probably would have been the Symphony Hall, as well as home to a lot of other things.

Nicole: Yeah.

Gary: You know, it was meant to be a cultural resource, not just one of William Fox's let's build a big theater here to best everybody else, which he did. And some of those huge theaters are still standing elsewhere and have been commercially successful. The Detroit Fox, [00:43:00] which is the same size as the San Francisco Fox, it's sort of Byzantine Hindu style, whereas the Fox in San Francisco was French. That is again and again, year after year, the most commercially successful concert venue in the country that is a, is a renovated movie palace. The Fox could have worked with the right kind of marketing and so on. But, you know, we have the Golden Gate, the Warfield and the, and the Orpheum. And they are movie palaces too. And they're serving a need as well. So.

Nicole: It's true. We are pretty lucky. I mean, we get focused on the things that we lost or the things that are in danger now.

Gary: Yeah.

Nicole: But we are pretty lucky to have a lot of cool theaters left.

Gary: Indeed. Yeah. Oh, for sure. For sure.

Nicole: All right, question number five is a real humdinger, Gary, are you ready, humdinger?

Gary: Humdinger, here we go.

Nicole: Why is history important?

Gary: Without it, we will be completely subject to the whims of [00:44:00] international corporate taste.

Nicole: Ooh, that's a good answer.

Gary: And so, you know, I love Disney. I don't mind what it's become. It's become this corporate monolith. But, you know, the things that they've absorbed, like Star Wars and things like that, and the fact that they duplicate historic buildings, they've built replicas of movie palaces at their parks, I love that. That's great. But, and wonderful people work there and at Pixar, I've met some of them, you know, but it is corporate America. And it's one set of tastes. It has its own agenda, whatever that may be basically to make a lot of people happy and make a lot of money, which is why movie palaces were built, if people forget that. But we will be subject to those whims and it will be to, to lose history, just because corporate America doesn't think it's [00:45:00] happy. It's, it's a happening thing. Means we lose something that maybe 100 years ago will experience a revival. And even if not, it will still, you know, we need to keep our downtown buildings in a city like San Francisco, because after all, the pyramids have made it this long. So has the Parthenon and the Pantheon and Big Ben and, you know Notre Dame, et cetera. Why not, why not save, you know, will, will there be a movement to save the Salesforce building 150 years from now? I don't know.

Nicole: Let’s hope not.

Gary: But, but you never know. Yeah, I know. I wish they'd, I wish they'd put it tip on the top. It’s just…

Nicole: That’s just Salesforce, we will take all your money and it just, yeah, if you're interested and you’re listening to this podcast.

Gary: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Exactly. But they're cool though, because they put the Eye of Sauron on there at Halloween. Now see, I love that.

Nicole: Yeah, I can see that from my bedroom window and I don't live anywhere near it, and that kind of annoys me, but it's true. That's art on top of that building, so I'll take it. [00:46:00]

Gary: But yeah, no, it's, you, you have to have a lot of the craftsmanship that was done in quote unquote, “the old days,” can't be done again unless you have major, major, major money. And even then they don't always get it right. They occasionally do, but there isn't the, you know, architects by and large in architecture school and designers in design school are still being taught Bauhaus principles. Then they get out into the world and people say give me Corinthian columns. So, they do and the acanthus leaves looks like they're made out of bread dough and the column shafts are too narrow for the capitals and the whole thing looks like the pediment is going to cause the whole thing to collapse. Nobody taught them Vitruvius and the laws of mass and proportion and the golden section and mean. We got to keep history because a lot of these things can't be duplicated.

Nicole: Yeah. Totally agree. Well, Gary, I think that's a great place to end the Gary Parks portion of this, this Gary Parks podcast.

Gary: Yes.

Nicole: So, thank you for, thank you so [00:47:00] much for being with us. You can hang out. I have to now like…

Gary: I will, but I will just, I will just chill. Yeah. I've had a great time. It’s been great.

Nicole: This was amazing, Gary. Thank you so much. Gary's going to chill and I'm going to jam through all the WNP business that many of you already know is coming because you are devout listeners and we appreciate you very much.

So now it's time for Listener Mail. So, I think you already know, but just in case you don't know, you can send us Listener Mail to podcasts@outsidelands.org. You can also send it to podcasts, plural, @outsidelands.org, because people did that and then the emails didn't get to us and then they got mad at us and then we had to figure it out and so we just made a different email address that took care of that problem. You can also reach us on all of the social medias that we're on, Instagram, Twitter, or whatever we're calling it now, and Facebook. We post a podcast there, more regularly on Facebook than we do on Instagram, but [00:48:00] leave us a comment, it will get back to us.

And after appearing as a guest on the podcast for episode number 518, Michael Durand passed along some very kind comments for us to share, including this one, and I quote, “this was absolutely delightful. I found myself smiling the entire time. I and the neighborhood appreciate you and Nicole greatly. I am lucky to know you and to work with you and very much value people who lead with the heart, which isn't always easy, but truly a gift and something I strive for as best I can.” Thank you for being you, Michael. So, and let's give a shout out to Michael Durand right now. He's recovering from some pretty hefty medical issues with his little, with his heart. So, you know, we love you, Michael, if you're listening and we wish you a speedy recovery.

So now we're going to jam into the benefits of membership and donating. So listeners, if you clickety, clickety, clack the big orange button on the top of any single one of our of the pages [00:49:00] on either of our websites, outsidelands.org or OpenSFHistory.org, and you donate $50 or more, you get all the perks of being a WNP member. And that includes a quarterly membership magazine, which we will physically mail to you if you ask for that. You also get discounts on events and other exclusive perks, but also your membership supports all the stuff that we do that we don't charge anybody for. And that includes this podcast, the OpenSFHistory photo archive, the Cliff House collection, its care and exhibition, which is totally insane, y'all. And you know, when you do that, you just get the satisfaction of supporting all the good work we do. So, I encourage you to donate if you're able. If you're not, you know, $5 makes a difference. And I know KQED says stuff like that to you all the time, but it truly, truly is true. So please consider a donation to support our history work.

And speaking of that history work, I have some announcements. [00:50:00] Unbelievably, we're almost to the end of the year, but, and we're kind of slowing down what we're doing in terms of events, but we do have a few more public programs up our sleeves. So, make sure you keep in touch. You can find out details on our website. Again, that's outsidelands.org. You can sign up for our monthly newsletter there, which is a really great way to stay in touch with what we're doing. But you can also join over 400 followers on WNP's Eventbrite and join our monthly email list, which I already told you about, and I accidentally put in twice in my notes. But, and, of course, follow us on all the social media at outsidelandz with a Z, because that was super cool to do in the ‘90s, and OpenSF History. Now, like I said, we're slowing down, but we do have our big fundraising drive that is coming towards the end of the year, and for the first time ever, we're trying an online auction, so you can take care of all of your holiday shopping needs while also supporting your community history non [00:51:00] profit. So, keep an eye on all of our channels because more information on that is coming soon.

But I'm going to cut it short this, this week because we had such a great long interview with Gary. So, I'm going to zoom, I'm going to zoom past all the rest of the announcements and I'm going to go straight into the preview for next week. Which is, we will bring you the promised podcast about a local baseball legend that keeps getting deferred. So join us then.

Until next time, I'm Nicole Meldahl, and this has been another episode of Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of Western Neighborhoods Project. Thanks for being with us, Gary.

Gary: Thank you.

Nicole: And thanks for being with us history friends.

 Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find [00:52:00] us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

More Podcasts
  • Podcast # 144: Jordan Park

    The story behind the wide streets and stately houses of Jordan Park in the Inner Richmond (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Oct 18, 2015)
  • Podcast # 516: Bazaar Cafe

    The Bazaar Cafe at 5927 California Street is celebrating its 25th anniversary, so Nicole & Arnold look at the history of the building and its occupants. (Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast Sep 16, 2023)
All Podcasts...

The Outside Lands San Francisco podcast is also available as a subscription via iTunes and by RSS feed.

Save SF History