Back in the 1920s, movies were the popular form of entertainment. Radio was only just beginning, and television didn’t really exist. Just about everybody went to the movies on a regular, almost weekly basis. To meet demand, movie theaters were springing up everywhere.
Everywhere included San Francisco, where first run movie palaces lined Market Street and smaller neighborhood houses of varying size dotted the city’s outlying districts (including the Castro). Drive down Mission Street or Geary Blvd. and you’ll see the facades of a number of San Francisco’s once grand though now shuttered movie theaters.
Today, the Balboa is one of the last neighborhood theaters still operating in San Francisco. To celebrate its opening in February of 1926, the Richmond District theater is marking the occasion with the screening of a classic silent film along and other festive goings-on.
The Balboa’s 87th birthday celebration — presented in association with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival — takes place on Sunday, March 3. The evening’s entertainment kicks-off at 7:00 pm. Doors open at 6:45 pm. (A special family matinee will also take place earlier in the day at 4:00 pm.)
But first a little history. The Balboa Theater (located at 3630 Balboa Street near 38th Avenue) originally opened as the New Balboa Theater in order to distinguish it from the already open Balboa Theater then on Ocean Avenue. The New Balboa, part of a local chain owned by Samuel Levin, was designed by James and Merritt Reid, renowned architects who also designed the Cliff House, Fairmount Hotel, Spreckels Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park and numerous other theaters including the Alexandria on Geary. The Levins owned and ran the Balboa until 2001, when local film maven Gary Meyer took over. Meyer has helped refurbish the theater in recent years.
On Sunday, the Balboa will screen Peter Pan (1924), Herbert Brenon’s classic film adaption of the story of a boy who never grew up. Released by Paramount Pictures, this silent-era telling of Peter Pan was the first film adaptation of the famous J. M. Barrie play. The film has an “all-star” cast which includes Betty Bronson as Peter Pan, Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, Mary Brian as Wendy, Esther Ralston as Mrs. Darling, Philippe De Lacy as Michael Darling and Virginia Browne Faire as Tinker Bell. Anna May Wong, a groundbreaking Chinese-American actress, plays an Indian princess named Tiger Lily.
At the time of its release, the film was celebrated for its innovative special effects — notably the illuminated fairy Tinker Bell and showing Peter Pan fly. The legendary James Wong Howe served as cinematographer. In 2000, the film was deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The Balboa will screen a 35mm print from the George Eastman House, where the film was restored in the 1990s. Peter Pan will be accompanied by pianist Frederick Hodges, who will perform an original score, and preceded by a program of short subjects.
Also on the bill for this special birthday occasion will be a live vaudeville show featuring magician James Hamilton and songstress Linda Kosut. Audience members are encouraged to dress in their best period clothing had they attended a night at the movies in 1926. Vintage cars will be parked out front.
More info: The Balboa Theater is located at 3630 Balboa Street in San Francisco. Advance tickets are on sale at the Balboa and online at www.CinemaSF.com/balboa. Admission is $10.
Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts and entertainment writer and early film buff, as well as the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has organized exhibits, contributed to books, appeared on television, and introduced the actress’s films around the world – including once at the Balboa.