Happy birthday Balboa Theater! 

Hundreds are expected to turn out for a birthday party tonight — but the party isn’t for a person, it’s for one of The City’s few neighborhood movie theaters.

The Balboa Theater, which has been owned and operated by Gary Meyer since 2001, is celebrating 81 years of business at a time when many of San Francisco’s independent and neighborhood movie theaters are struggling to compete with large multiplexes — the Metreon, the AMC 1000 Van Ness and the Century.

There are only about a dozen neighborhood theaters, according to Alfonso Felder, president of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. Of those, only six are independent — the Balboa, the Red Victorian, the 4 Star, the Presidio, the Roxie and the Castro, according to Meyer.

In the last 15 years, for example, independently owned theaters such as the Coronet, Metro, Harding, New Mission, Alexandria and Coliseum have all shut their doors, having succumbed to pressures from multiplexes.

"How do you convince people from the many things you can do [nightly] — downloading movies, watching DVDs, going out to a movie? The options that we have as consumers continue to expand, and I have to figure out how I can convince people that a documentary from Africa is something they should see," Meyer said.

But the Balboa doesn’t just show documentaries — it shows a mix of new releases, classics and special screenings. Priding himself on customer service, Meyer said he makes sure his admission prices stay low — charging $8.50 for general admission when the Metreon charges $10.50.

Originally a single-screen theater, the Balboa added an extra screen to the Spanish-influence building in the 1970s to keep up with changes to the industry. It was built in 1926 by Sam Levin, who also built other single-screen theaters such as the Alexandria, the Coronet and the Coliseum.

Irma Levin, Sam Levin’s daughter-in-law, said the intimacy and comfort of small theaters are something every San Franciscan should experience — because there is no telling how much longer they will be around.

"A lot of [the theaters] are sold — the Coronet is gone, the Coliseum and Metro are gone. When television came in, they thought all the theaters would close, but they didn’t. Now, so many things are going on, I can’t tell the future," Levin said, adding that in her 90 years, she has never visited a multiplex theater.

Tonight’s celebration at the Balboa Theater will re-create the glory days of silent film, with two showingsthat include two Buster Keaton films, "Sherlock Junior" from 1925 and "The Playhouse" from 1921. In true silent film fashion, a live score from Frederick Hodges will accompany the films. Magician James Hamilton will also entertain along with vaudeville star Suzanne "Kitten on the Keys" Ramsey. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.balboamovies.com.

eeconomides@examiner.com

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