Most of us enjoy going to the movies (it’s getting a bit pricey with admission and snacks, but that’s an argument we can have anytime), but a true tourist seeks for more captivating outlets and if you bypass the usual patterns of busy multiplexes for more of the stylish and highly individualistic cinema houses in the city, then you’ve allowed yourself an aesthetic treat.
This suggestion has been benefits beyond the immediate, because almost by definition, a savvy tourist will know that it’s not just the history and baroque designs of such cinema houses (oh, the chandeliers of the Castro!) that are the attraction, but the unique, perhaps even challenging programming that differs from the fare playing at the local suburban shopping mall and allow trust, San Francisco can hold its own for this one.
The guide below may not be definitive, but it’s a surefooted, vibrant step in the right direction. Let the curtain rise, here’s the list for vintage cinema house hopping and really dive into this one, maybe even catch a movie, you’re on holiday after all.
Castro Theatre. Well, let’s just start with what almost everyone knows. The Castro is all but legend in the city as the grandest of cinema houses, with a style all its own. You feel like you’re about to approach an old movie set piece when you gaze at that large, vertical marquee right outside the doors. The stand alone box office, art deco chandeliers, scrafitto wall designs and the Mighty Wurlitzer organ that can descend under the lobby floor once the film starts, makes this one a must see on anyone’s list. Noted retrospective film festivals like Noir City and the San Francisco Silent Film call this place home for its sheer effortless ambience. Established in 1922; 1,400 seats; 429 Castro St. at Market St.; 415-621-6120; castrotheatre.com,; Muni Subway: K,L or M line, Muni Bus: 24 or F train Trolley/Bus.
Victoria Theatre. Truly Victorian in the tasteful sense (i.e. their interior doesn’t overdo it with ersatz memorabilia), just let this classic red brick building with its tall vertical sign (that was the style then) and entrancing wood paneling interior ease you into the proceedings. The appeal with the Victoria is that it, in the tradition of an old vaudeville house, aims for a nice variety: original plays, concerts, film festivals, musicals and readings, more so than any other on this list. Trivia note: There’s an awesome glimpse of the theater’s interior in one scene of Stuart Rosenberg’s gritty crime drama, “The Laughing Policeman” (1973) starring Walter Matthau. Established 1908; 480 seats; 2961 16th St. at Mission St.; 415-863-7576; victoriatheatre.org; Bart Station: 16th and Mission, Muni: 21.
Roxie Theater. Not surprisingly, there’s a second historic theater just down the road from The Victoria. It’s not surprising because both are located in the Mission District, one of San Francisco‘s oldest and more colorful neighborhoods – yet, any similarities between the two cinema houses ends there, for the Roxie wears its indie cred boldly. Indeed, underground film fans aid there needful craving here, all one has to do is see the film festivals to get the idea: Indiefest, Docfest , Frameline and even Noisepop for alternative music. Although it’s relatively smaller, with a main theater and a side theater that combines less than 300 for seating capacity, the intensity of the crowds here are anything but small. Established in 1909; 238 (main), 49 (side); 3117 16th St. at Valencia St.; 415-431-3611; roxie.com; Muni Bus: 22, 53.
Balboa Theatre. Every neighborhood is always better off with something like the Balboa Theatre. Casually resting in the middle of the engaging Richmond District, Balboa is the perfect matinee place, playing second-run films, as well catering to small film festivals (love the offbeat horror material) and if you wish, light opera, all served in a cozy vibe. You simply can’t find this charm in the shops. Oh, and like all great neighborhoods, there is an amazing array of places to eat around there: restaurants, delis, sweet shops, bars…you get the point, so go light on the popcorn. Established in 1926; 533 seats; 3630 Balboa St., off 38th Ave.; 415-221-8184; balboamovies.com; Muni Bus: 18, 31, 38.
4-Star Theatre. Lee Neighborhood Theatres owns a few of these family operated theaters in town and for nearly 50 years, they’ve made an enjoyable run of it. Not to pick out one over the others (the Marina and Presidio theaters are fine), but if we had to, its the 4-Star that wins out for the sheer funk factor. Just walk right in and let the line-up hit you. Terrific Asian cinema abounds (did the Chinese characters in dark saturated red on the building tip you off?) and critically acclaimed arthouse fodder rule the stable here. Also, the crowd at 4-Star seems to have a knowing sense of where to go for “afters” on the wrong side of midnight. Established in 1919; 400 seats; 2200 Clement St. at 23rd Ave.; 415-666-3488; intsf.com/4-star_theatre Muni Bus: 1, 2, 28, 29, 38.