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A Photo Tour of the Strand Theater Throughout the Years

The mid-Market venue transforms again, this time into A.C.T.’s crown jewel.

1928: The Strand’s first iteration, where a movie cost 15 cents. 

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1960: The exterior of the Strand—its zigzag sunburst marquee is believed to have been designed by cinema architect S. Charles Lee in 1936

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1986-88: A lone child watching a movie.

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1988: Moviegoers during a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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2012: Leftover artwork from the Strand’s illegal tenants before A.C.T. began renovations

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2015: The building as of press time, with a fresh coat of vermilion paint, which covers the interior of the theater as well.

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In 1963, when Michael Cheney was in sixth grade, kids spent their weekends (and allowance) at the Strand Theater on Market Street. “Either you took the N-Judah to Playland, which ate your money right up,” the retired Muni mechanic explains, “or you could spend an entire day watching crazy movies.” The theater showed triple features every Saturday—B movies like Dracula and Solomon and Sheba—for less than a dollar. It was a little run-down—as Cheney puts it, “You could trust the candy because it was in a box, but you probably wouldn’t buy a hot dog”—but every Saturday the place was packed. “Every kid in town would know what was playing because it was in the papers.”

The Strand’s history is spotty, to say the least, and its many iterations serve as analogs for the changing cityscape of San Francisco. It opened in 1917 as the Jewel and was renamed the Strand in 1928. A decade later, West Side Theatre Company purchased the building and installed a dazzling marquee that lit up Market Street until the ’50s, when home television began to replace moviegoing. The Strand—along with the 79 other theaters in the city—struggled, and its nightly bingo games and Saturday triple bills weren’t enough to keep it going. In 1977, West Side sold the building to a man named Mike Thomas, who converted it into a revival cinema best known for midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But it fell behind again when home video took over the revival market. By 1994, it was under new management as a porn theater, which was shuttered in 2003 after a police raid and, left unoccupied, became a haven for squatters.

This month, the theater reopens under the wing of American Conservatory Theater with a new design: In front of the perforated three-story lobby staircase is a 28-by-18-foot LED screen that’s clearly visible from Civic Center Plaza across the street. “The idea is to welcome the community in,” says A.C.T.’s Denys Baker of the venue, which will showcase performances for the masses by A.C.T. graduate students. At a time when mid-Market’s discount cigarette stores are rapidly being replaced by flower shops and art galleries, the theater’s resurgence is, yet again, symbolic of a new era.


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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