Ken Garcia: Metro Theatre screen goes dark in latest blow to cinema palaces 

When San Francisco’s Metro Theatre underwent a stunning renovation eight years ago, one of the architects involved called it a "bow to the romance" of the large, single-screen theater.

But like so many Hollywood romances, this cinematic union could not last. A little more than a week ago one of The City’s most glorious and elegant movie theaters faded to black, the latest in a sad trend that has seen the curtain come down on some of San Francisco’s grandest film houses.

The closing of the Union Street mainstay had long been rumored, even shortly after its well publicized renovation. United Artists, which ran the theater for years,filed for bankruptcy after the work was done, and Regal Theaters took over the lease. But Regal specializes in multiplexes, and the building owner appeared bent on turning it into a retail space, so that uneasy situation did not bode well for the Metro’s long-term future.

In the past few years some of the most beautiful and historic theaters in San Francisco have dimmed their lights, including the Alhambra, the Royal and, most recently, the venerable Coronet Theater on Geary — which set box-office records with its run of "Star Wars" movies.

Few American cities have been hit harder by the demise of single-screen neighborhood theaters than San Francisco, which has lost 40 film houses in the last 25 years. That troubling trend was showcased several years ago by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington when the agency placed The City at the top of the country’s most endangered list for disappearing single screen theaters.

But even though the Metro’s doors are shut, the battle over its future is not. In an attempt to preserve some of San Francisco’s most stately movie houses, city supervisors last year passed an ordinance that requires any conversion of a theater to non-theater use to go through a conditional permit review. And as anyone who has dealt with zoning and permit issues in this town can attest, the words "smooth" and "efficient" don’t come to mind with regard to planning issues — especially when there is a fair share of community opposition.

That will explain how the 4 Star Theater on Clement was bought by a church but is still running recently released movies inside its dimly-lit hall. Will it ever be a church? A lot of people are praying that it won’t.

"Our goal is that the owner will reach a deal that everybody can feel comfortable with," said Alfonso Felder, president of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation. "The Metro is as good as it gets when it comes to a great citytheater. It has significant architectural resources and character, which distinguishes it from probably every theater in San Francisco other than the Castro."

That may be why there is no guarantee its future is gone with the wind. The Metro has been a Union Street fixture since 1924, when it served as the gilded centerpiece of the area’s Daylight Block, one of the first big shopping districts in San Francisco. The Metro was designed by the exceptional Reid Bros. architectural firm, which listed among its credits the Fairmont Hotel. The firm also crafted a number of memorable theaters around the Bay Area, including the York in San Francisco, the art deco-tinged Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, the Sebastiani in Sonoma and the Sequoia in Mill Valley.

The Metro was designed only for "photoplays," according to its owner, Samuel H. Levin — it did not have a stage so it could not be used for vaudeville shows like other theaters. A few decades after its opening, it was shuttered for an upgrade by famed architect Timothy Pflueger, who is noted for his work on the Alhambra, the Castro and Oakland’s jewel, the Paramount Theater.

When United Artists did the restoration in 1998, workers discovered a gorgeous Egyptian motif mural that had been covered over for more than 50 years and even some of the original lighting fixtures were found and recrafted. And many of the art deco details were refurbished, transforming the aging jewel while giving it modern features, such as banked seating and disability access.

So it would be hard to dismiss such a gem without sound or ample reason, and that is certain to be at the crux of talks between the owner and city officials.

Felder is trying to find someone to try and make the family trust that owns the theater an offer it can’t refuse. The rest, so far, is unscripted.

Ken Garcia’s column appears weekends in The Examiner/Independent. E-mail him at kgarcia@examiner.comor call him at (415) 359-2663.

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