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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 8: Surf Theatre

Remembering a little theatre near Ocean Beach that had a big reputation for showing foreign and avant garde films.
Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast - Feb 21, 2013

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 8: Surf Theatre Outside Lands Podcast Episode 8: Surf Theatre

(above) Irving & 46th Ave, 1970s

View north across Irving to Surf Theatre, 4510 Irving, and adjoining cafe. Later San Francisco Grace Christian Church. Building on left (Sunset Liquors) demolished.


Podcast Transcription

WNP8 - Surf Theatre

Woody: [00:00:00] So David, you went to go see Lincoln the other night?

David: That's right.

Woody: Did you enjoy it?

David: Yes.

Woody: It was an Academy Award favorite.

David: Nominee. Yes.

Woody: Yep.

David: I went to see it. I enjoyed it, but it was long and the hero dies at the end.

Woody: Well, I remember you, you said that, because you were gonna come over to our house after the movie. And you said you were going to come over, and I said, how come you didn't come over the next day? And you said, well, the movie ended, we woke up and then we were too tired to come over, so…

David: Nobody wants to have a glass of wine right after they wake up, Woody.

Woody: So, if you just woke up after watching the end of the movie, I don't know how much you could have enjoyed it. Although you [00:01:00] fall asleep in everything though, right? You're asleep right now. Yes. It's the Outside Lands San Francisco podcast. I'm Woody LaBounty.

David: And I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: And we're from the Western Neighborhoods Project. David, what are we going to talk about today?

David: Well, Woody.

Woody: Let me guess.

David: We're gonna talk about…

Woody: Since I talked about Lincoln, we're gonna talk about Lincoln Way, right?

David: Nope.

Woody: Lincoln High School?

David: Nope. There is something appropriate in what we were talking about though.

Woody: Lincoln Logs?

David: We're talking the Surf Theater.

Woody: Ah, movie theater.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Where was the Surf Theater? I assume it's not there anymore.

David: The Surf Theater is not there anymore. It was on Irving Street between 46th and 47th.

Woody: That's right. On the north side as I remember.

David: That's right.

Woody: And, why are we talking about the Surf Theater? It's just another movie theater that has come and gone in San Francisco.

David: Yeah. That's all.

Woody: That's, that's the only reason, and we're [00:02:00] done.

David: That's it.

Woody: Thank you for coming to the podcast.

David: Well, the Surf Theater…

Woody: Yes.

David: Was a groundbreaking theater in its time. Not only was it the only theater out on the west side of town.

Woody: Well at least in the west. In the…

David: In the Sunset.

Woody: Western Sunset. Yeah.

David: But, for a long time it showed foreign films and art films and subtitled movies on repertory style.

Woody: Hmm. So, it was like a little beacon of culture out there in the Outer Sunset district.

David: That's right.

Woody: And what years we were talking about, like when, the ‘60s, 1960s, I think. Because that theater was there long before it became the Surf. It started like back in the ‘20s or something as the Sunset. That was actually the name of the theater they called it.

David: It opened in 1926. I got the facts over here.

Woody: Okay. 1926

David: And it opened as 1926 as the Parkview.

Woody: [00:03:00] Oh, right.

David: And then in 1937 it was renamed the Sunset Theater. And it pretty much was a regular neighborhood theater showing second run movies that had played out at the, you know, at the Market Street places. So, movies would play downtown…

Woody: At a big theater.

David: Big openings at big theaters. And then they would slowly, over time they would move out into the smaller theaters in the neighborhoods. And that’s typically what, what neighborhood theaters were used for. And that is what the then Sunset Theater was used for.

Woody: Right? So, the, the big movie would open downtown at one of the giant theaters on Market Street. And then after it was getting a little old and it was time for the next big movie to come out, they'd send that first movie off to the, the neighborhood theaters where people could kind of see it again or maybe see it for the first time, but, if they missed it down on Market.

David: Right.

Woody: This is before DVDs and VCRs and [00:04:00] TV even. Right?

David: And podcasts.

Woody: And podcasts. So yeah. It was, it was a form of entertainment that you would take advantage of.

David: Right. So anyway, it ran as that until 1957 when it was closed, and remodeled, and then reopened as the Surf Theater. Now, at that time, this is 1957…

Woody: Right.

David: That is when the Surf Theater stopped being a regular old second run movie house and started showing international films.

Woody: Now what, what's the idea here? Is this like something coming out? I mean, why would, why would, I can't imagine the people of the Outer Sunset would be that interested in seeing a movie by Fellini or something back in the ‘50s.

David: Why not?

Woody: I don't know. I just, I, I kind of think of it as like still not an international culture scene going on out there. Especially out, you know, [00:05:00] three blocks from the beach. But there were people, I guess it's also, I think of that stuff happening like in North Beach or something.

David: Well, it would show. Yeah. Well, I mean, okay, so not only international films, but it would show some classics, some older films like The African Queen.

Woody: Okay.

David: Or Modern Times.

Woody: Right.

David: Well, Metropolis played there also, which are still kind of avantgarde films, even back in the ‘50s, early ‘60s, but they're old.

Woody: Right. I think of that stuff happening in the late ‘60s, but even the late ‘50s, they were showing old films to, for, for that sort of stuff. That's interesting. And I think before we move on to that, because I know you're gonna talk more about that, the, it's interesting the way they named the theater. So, it's like Parkview because I guess it was in view of Golden Gate Park.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Sunset because it was in the Sunset District.

David: Yeah.

Woody: And now the Surf, because it's right out there, almost at the beach.

David: Right. You could always find this place.

Woody: But before it was actually, before it was the repertory theater. I remember old timers, I think Pat Cunneen told me, they used [00:06:00] to call it the Flea House because it had sand fleas in it. It was kind of a rundown little movie theater. But it had this renaissance in the late ‘50s.

David: Right.

Woody: Right. So, they're showing these foreign films, they're showing these art films. I heard you could even get an expresso.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Which blew my mind.

David: This is kind of cutting edge for, I mean, it's something that we think of now as, as okay, you know, as normal. But back then, the, the owner ,whose name was Mel Novikoff, he opened the Ciné Cafe right next door.

Woody: Is the Ciné, or the Cine?

David: The Cine, we don't know.

Woody: Like the Cinema Cafe.

David: Yeah. c-i-n-e, the Cine.

Woody: And you could get an espresso.

David: I think you could get an espresso and probably a…

Woody: Macchiato?

David: Something else.

Woody: I bet you couldn't get a latte. I think the lattes were later.

I David:  don't…

Woody: I think they were serving.

David: I don't have a good coffee drinks idea of the history of Italian and…

Woody: You [00:07:00] don't?

David: Coffee drinks.

Woody: Don't you remember the days when you'd had to go to like North Beach to get an espresso that it was like…

David: Yeah.

Woody: It was like a destination. You know, you go there to get it and now you can get espresso drinks on every darn corner.

David: That's because they're so good.

Woody: So, but they, but anyway, so there was this little tiny, like beacon of North Beach beatnik, espresso drinking, living out in, in the Outer Sunset.

David: It was an outpost.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Well, I think it appealed, you know, I mean the, as we've said in other, not in other podcasts, but certainly in other, other, other forms in our, on our website. And I think that the, that the ocean draws an eclectic crowd. And being so close to the ocean, it's not such a crazy idea that you would have this eclectic sort of establishment. Which we see repeating now out there in the, in the Outer [00:08:00] Sunset.

Woody: Yeah.

David: At the beach.

Woody: Yeah. I guess it's something about the, the giant waves and nature, whatever. It draws people who are a little counterculture, a little different way of thinking, a little more broad minded, artistic, that sort of thing.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Right. So, what happened? The Surf, how come it's not there anymore? What, what happened?

David: It…

Woody: Did you ever go to the Surf?

David: I did.

Woody: Ah-hah.

David: I did go to the Surf Theater and I don't remember what movie I saw and I probably didn't understand it, but I went there…

Woody: Did you fall asleep like at Lincoln?

David: I don't know. Back then I wasn't falling asleep as readily.

Woody: So, what was your experience then at the Surf? What? You don't remember the movie? You don't remember if you fell asleep. You don't remember if you liked it.

David: I…

Woody: But you remember going there.

David: Yeah. That's about it. I…

Woody: Was there ample parking?

David: Well back then, so there, there was ample parking. What did we do? We used to, so back then, all the repertory theaters, like the, like the [00:09:00] Cento Cedar Theater and the, even the Parkside, they all printed out their own broad sheets with every movie that was playing. And…

Woody: Monthly calendars.

David: Monthly calendar. Yeah. And so, I do remember going to the Surf at least once, but I don't remember what I saw, and I don't remember anything else about it.

Woody: Do you think we went to, I know people in the old, old days went to movies a lot more than today, but do you think that somebody in our age bracket, almost 50, do you think we go to less movies? Did we go to more movies back then? Because I feel like I went to a lot more movies than I do now.

David: I used to go to the movies at least, at least once a week in the early ‘80s, kind of in college.

Woody: Right.

David: And just outta high school when I, when I had a car, I would go to the movies regularly.

Woody: Yeah. Now we have Netflix, but I mean, I feel like we, I used to, as a kid, go to a movie every week almost. I mean, it felt like that. I'm sure it wasn't. But my friend and I, we would go to [00:10:00] different theaters all over the city. We'd get on Muni and, and try to find a theater just to go see a movie in a different part of town.

David: Right. And well, I mean, I grew up in San Bruno and I would go to the El Camino Theater regularly. And often, my earliest memories were great big movies that played there and lining up down San Mateo Avenue to see the Jungle Book, for example. And then later on I, it, it became kind of a 50-cent movie house and we would go, we would go all afternoon on Saturday. I remember the strange feeling of walking in at one o'clock and then coming out at five and having it be twilight or something.

Woody: Yeah, it's like a time, a time zone lapse or something.

David: Strange.

Woody: It's like you're in a different world. Yeah. We'd go to double features and we'd sneak into other movies and you're right, we'd get in there at 10 in the morning and, and then it would be dinnertime.

David: Yeah.

Woody: What happened? And my butt would get tired. I remember that. Yes. That doesn't happen anymore.

David: Did you throw things at the screen?

Woody: No, I didn't. [00:11:00] Although I would often go with friends. I remember going and seeing the Bad News Bears, probably at the Coliseum Theater in the Richmond. And we had some neighborhood kids who were a little rambunctious and did throw things and would sneak people in the side door, the exit door, and get the ushers on us. And now I think about it, I'm like, I'm so glad I wasn't an adult at one of those movies because…

David: Terrible.

Woody: It was just a riot.

David: I remember. I remember them stopping the movie at the El Camino Theater from time to time. Yeah.

Woody: Yeah. And I've interviewed other people who remember in the ‘50s watching movies and going up to the balcony and kids raising a ruckus and all that. And I remember the, it was always sort of a, the, the forbidden zone in the, in the place you wanted to go was…

David: In the loge.

Woody: In the loge or the balcony? Yeah, because it was often closed when I was around. Unless it was a big show.

David: Yeah.

Woody: We'd sneak up there and was like going some hidden place.

David: So, so out in the Sunset, where could you go to the movies then?

Woody: Well, I live in the Richmond, but in the Sunset, yeah, I went to the, I went to the Surf. I went…

David: Okay, the west side of town.

Woody: Okay.

David: Where could you go to the movies?

Woody: The Parkside. [00:12:00] Which was the Fox Parkside over on Taraval and 19th.

David: And that existed as kind of a repertory art place.

Woody: Everybody remembers The Who movie.

David: At the end.

Woody: Everybody remembers The Song…

David: The Song Remains The Same.

Woody: Everybody…

David: Played there at midnight every Saturday or something.

Woody: Forever. And then, I, I don't remember the Irving that closed down before I was around, but that was on Irving Street near the St. Anne's over there. And, but in the Richmond, we had a billion movie theaters. I mean, we had the Coliseum, which was my neighborhood theater, the Bridge, the Coronet, the Alexandria, which was giant, and the Balboa. And that was just, you know.

David: That's a, that's a lot of big theaters too, I mean.

Woody: The Alexandria was huge before they split it into a triplex. I remember going and seeing The Towering Inferno there, and I was sitting there in like the back row of the lower section, and I looked back, I, I think it seated like 1600 people or something. And I just felt like I was in one of the most [00:13:00] majestic places. Like I was in a, a cathedral in Rome or something. It was so big and grand, you know? But, but we don't have many left. I mean, what's left? When you think about it, we’ve got the Balboa still.

David: Yep.

Woody: The Bridge just closed in December, so we don't have that anymore.

David: The Coliseum and Coronet are both…

Woody: Gone.

David: Gone.

Woody: And Alexandria's closed and has been closed almost 10 years now. It's terrible.

David: I don't think there's a way to reopen a great big theater like that with one screen or even with three screens.

Woody: Yeah. You think of the, the days of the big movie house are gone.

David: Gone. But I think there is a space for a place like the Surf Theater. And like the Balboa. The Balboa is starting to, is trying to offer more, other attractions. They're gonna have some different food. I think they're gonna have beer and wine there.

Woody: Yeah.

David: Which…

Woody: That'll help.

David: That’ll… [00:14:00]

Woody: You used to drink beer.

David: I don't know. I think I might have fallen asleep earlier at, at Lincoln, if I was drinking a beer during it, but…

Woody: Yes. But I know you were sneaking beer into the Surf when you were a young man, so it's kind of the same as that.

David: That's true. That is one thing I remember about it.

Woody: Began the statute of limitations is, probably expired there, so you're okay.

David: Yeah. But I could imagine, you know, a small movie theater, showing films that you don't get to see too often, with a connected cafe and, you know, and beer and wine.

Woody: Well, the other thing I think, and this is me just talking off the top of my head, but…

David: Special popcorn, a shake and things.

Woody: Jalapeno popcorn. I, I think like there's so many people though, it's so easy to make movies and documentaries and there's so many filmmakers out there that you could almost show like neighborhood films. Right?

David: Right.

Woody: Or local filmmakers at a place too, and draw an audience, I would think, but…

David: Hey, that reminds me. [00:15:00]

Woody: Yes?

David: That as, I mean, I hesitate to call us local filmmakers, but we do have a video series called the SF History Minute.

Woody: SF West.

David: SF West History Minute.

Woody: Right.

David: And we will be showing some of those along with a lot of other interesting things at the Surf. No…

Woody: No, the Balboa Theater.

David: The Balboa Theater.

Woody: Which is still running.

David: Yeah.

Woody: We're gonna do that. It looks like April 9th, which I think is a Tuesday night, and our tentative title is Secret San Francisco, Adventures in History.

David: We're gonna see some…

Woody: What do you think?

David: Very interesting clips that people haven't seen in quite a while, I think.

Woody: Yeah, old news reels and home movie snippets and all sorts of kind of odd films.

David: And some of our videos.

Woody: Some of our, which are also odd. Yes.

David: Yes.

Woody: That's April 9th. You're right.

David: Hopefully they'll have beer there by then.

Woody: Right. Well, I don't know.

David: Seems [00:16:00] unlikely.

Woody: Yeah, but don't sneak your beer in. That's illegal.

David: No.

Woody: But what happened to the Surf now? Now I remember Dennis O'Rorke telling me that right next to the Surf was one of the first women's bars in the area out there.

David: That sounds pretty good.

Woody: Yeah. Well, it wouldn't have been that good for you. I think it was more of a lesbian bar. But that out in the Outer Sunset in like the ‘60s, late ‘60s, there was a woman's bar right next to the Surf. But so it was, it was operating into, like I said, I went there, you went there, into the early ‘80s, I would say, and then it closed.

David: It closed in 1985. Oh. So right in the middle of the ‘80s.

Woody: And I think it's a church now.

David: Right.

Woody: Or at least a church occupies the space. I don't know if the…

David: And you have a personal connection to the closed Surf Theater, don't you?

Woody: Sort of. You know, when I was a younger man and I was in a, a vaudeville juggling-type group, comedy group, we'd rehearse in the dance studio right next door to where the Surf was, which might have been the Cine Café.

David: [00:17:00] Is that the café?

Woody: I don't know. Yeah, it might. Yeah, it was the café and it was called Duet Dance Studio at the time, and we rented space there. Now I don't…

David: Did you ever get into the theater part? Was it a church then?

Woody: I think it was a church then. And on the other side was the Busy Bee Market, which is now Mollusk Surf Shop. But it was the Busy Bee Market forever and ever and ever, an old corner market. That little strip is sort of a little hidden strip of businesses and kind of has a lot of rich history just on that one block. But it still surprises me that people could find that theater in the old days because you'd really have to take the N-Judah out and then walk over and…

David: Yeah. One, the one thing I do remember about it was that I felt like it was very remote. Hard to find.

Woody: Yeah, you have a foggy night and it's, the fog horns are going and you're kind of walking on a dark street and then there's this movie theater. But that's kind of nice mystery.

David: Yeah.

Woody: Atmospheric. It's kind of nice and, and I know a lot of people have memories of the Surf, so if you have memories of it and you wanna leave it on our message board [00:18:00] on our website, or you wanna learn more, you can go to outsidelands.org and do all that there. And if you have a subject, a podcast idea, that you'd like us to talk about, intelligently, which maybe, I don't know if we did…

David: Really? Is that required?

Woody: You can send us mail. You can contact us through the website as well. I do have one piece of mail actually from one of our previous podcasts, David.

David: What is it Woody?

Woody: Our friend Angus MacFarlane wrote in about our…

David: Let me get it out here.

Woody: Yeah, that's great. It was an email. Our friend—ding, you have mail— our friend Angus MacFarlane was responding to our first podcast about Kezar Stadium.

David: Right.

Woody: Remember I said, I didn't know if Mary Kezar pronounced her name Kezar?

David: Yeah.

Woody: He has heard that she pronounced her name like geezer. So, Mary…

David: Keezer.

Woody: Keezer.

David: Keezer.

Woody: I don't know if that's true, but he writes in to tell us that. So, if you have any comments or ideas or questions or…

David: Complaints.

Woody: [00:19:00] Yeah, you can send those to us through our website outsidelands.org at the Western Neighborhoods Project. But that's it for this week. We're done, right?

David: Yes, we are done. I'm David Gallagher.

Woody: I'm Woody LaBounty. We'll tell you more about our April 9th movie Night, in coming weeks.

David: Thank you.

Woody: Learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more about San Francisco history at outsidelands.org.

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