The Picture Palace

October 11, 2010 at 2:02 am (General blather, Photo Gallery)

The groundbreaking. Here, on San Francisco’s Market Street, would be built the largest, grandest and most opulent Fox Theater west of the Mississippi.

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In the late silent era, two dominant trends were underway in the movie business. One was the transition to soundtracks. The story of Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone, and its triumph in The Jazz Singer (1927), is well known. But the rival process, Fox’s Movietone, sounded just as good and never went out of sync. Fox didn’t have Al Jolson, but it did have sound footage of Charles Lindbergh taking off for France, and that was just as compelling to audiences of the time, if not more so. In the end, Movietone won.

Anyway, the other big trend was the race to build showcase theaters in every large American city. Here again Fox was a leading player, and the success of Movietone encouraged the company to spend whatever it took to show up the competition.

It made sense to scale up. The theaters cost a fortune to build, but they could seat thousands of upper- and middle-class patrons paying top dollar for the experience of a first-class show. With a little luck, an outfit like Fox could make a profit on its latest film just by showcasing it in the company’s flagship theaters; afterward, the film could make the rounds of the neighborhood and small-town theaters, and gross even more.

The San Francisco Fox was built to be the last word in film presentation. It seated over 4600 customers. The lobby alone was eighty feet long, forty feet wide and seventy-five feet high, and had its own pipe organ, so customers could enjoy music on the journey to the auditorium.

The auditorium boasted a pipe organ so enormous that only four others in the country compared, and none was larger. The domed ceiling was 110 feet up, and the throw from the projection booth to the screen was 212 feet. High up in the back of the auditorium was a private theater with enough seating for several dozen executives or visiting celebrities.

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The lobby, under construction. Early 1929.

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High above the lobby floor, serial star Ruth Roland balances on a two-by-four, a can of gold paint in one hand and a brush in the other. May 13, 1929.

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Opening night: June 28, 1929. The feature presentation is Fox’s premiere of Behind That Curtain, a talkie featuring a then-obscure detective character named Charlie Chan. But that’s only the icing on the cake. There are also dedication ceremonies, a full-scale musical presentation on stage and Hollywood stars in attendance.

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The Fox opened very late in the silent era. Fox had gone virtually full-tilt for talkies by this time, but the theater also screened a lot of M-G-M releases, among them silents like Garbo’s The Single Standard and The Kiss, and Lon Chaney’s Where East is East and Thunder. There were always stage presentations, too, typically musical programs and a full orchestra.

There were personal appearances as well. Laurel and Hardy appeared at the Fox for the week of November 22, 1929. In their act, the boys walked onstage and got into an argument that escalated until they were tearing each other’s clothes to bits. Their director, James Parrott, stepped in and ended up having his own tuxedo shredded. A plant from the audience and the theatre’s emcee also got caught in the melee. The crowds loved it.

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San Francisco awaits another evening at the fabulous Fox. This week’s feature is Lucky Star with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Summer 1929.

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The Fox lobby.

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The view overhead.

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Ceiling detail.

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A behind-the-scenes view of the auditorium and stage area, with the mighty Wurlitzer at lower left.

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The view from the stage.

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William Fox’s movie empire was shaken by the stock market crash of October-November 1929. His films were still successful, but he’d been on a buying binge, of which theater construction was just a portion. Suddenly the mogul owed millions to his bankers, and with the economy slipping from recession to depression, the bankers took over. The Fox Theaters were re-organized, and while they remained first-class picture palaces, there were cutbacks.

The San Francisco Fox closed its doors in October 1932. When it re-opened on April 1, 1933, the lavish stage shows were largely over with, and double features became the norm.

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The theater adapted to the times with its chin up. Live performances returned for a time, though now it was vaudeville rather than full orchestras. The Fox remained the city’s dominant theater through the war years and beyond. There were some special engagements, and more than a few films were held over week after week (as late as 1956, The King and I ran for nearly nine weeks).

But the world was changing. As with other major American cities, San Francisco saw its comfortable class of citizens move to the suburbs in large numbers. Downtown lost its shine, and turned a little gritty. Television hit the movie industry hard; theaters large and small found it tougher to turn a profit.

By 1961, the Fox was running things like Alakazam the Great and Snow White and the Three Stooges. The handwriting was on the wall. But the Fox didn’t die quietly.  The Bolshoi Ballet performed there that year, and the theater became an occasional convention destination. Midnight organ concerts brought new audiences.

Still, senior management of Fox West Coast Theaters elected to close the theater before its fiscal decline could turn into disaster. It was hoped that the city would buy the theater, but it didn’t. There were fears that the city would be saddled with a white elephant, one requiring regular maintenance. This decision brought some dismay, because while the urban preservation movement had not been born yet, the Fox had its fans.

Just not enough of them.

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After a third of a century, the Fox sells its final tickets. Looks like someone knows there’s a photographer watching. February 16, 1963.

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Taking a last look.

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When the end finally came, it seemed as if the entire city wanted to say goodbye. There were four farewell events, culminating in a grand finale on February 16, 1963. A capacity crowd was there. The film program, ironically, was the television production Hollywood: The Fabulous Era (1962), but that was just one dish at the nostalgia banquet. Celebrities on hand included Jane Russell and Jane Wyman, as well as the nearly-forgotten Lois Moran, who’d been the leading lady of the Fox’s debut movie, Behind That Curtain, back in 1929.

The grand old Wurlitzer thundered a medley of songs, concluding with the local favorite, “San Francisco,” the title tune from the 1936 film of the same name.

At the end of the evening’s program, the dignitaries joined hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne” on the empty stage, with all curtains raised clear back to the far wall. The lights went out, one bank at a time, until only a lone bare worklight remained, hanging from the ceiling. A stagehand walked over and turned out that light.

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The next day. Blowing it out to the bare walls.

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The day after the final farewell, the Fox’s furnishings were sold off, to whoever wanted them, for whatever they’d bring. Many, if not most of the theater’s treasures had been there since 1929, and had been gathered from all over the world. Now, cash was king. Some articles brought a healthy price (the ornate box office sold for $9,000), while others sold for a pittance (ninety custom ashtrays, $25 for the lot). Whatever didn’t sell would wait for the wrecking ball.

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Keith Rockwell, the new owner of the Fox box office.

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I’d like to think this found a buyer, but…

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Stanley Mical dismantles theater seats he’s just bought.

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You know how the story ends.

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Scenes from the fall.

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Much of the destruction took place late at night.

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And the walls came down.

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The grand entrance was the last to go.

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New construction soon went up where the Fox had stood. It’s still there, a massive but faceless hulk of office and living space, built in the cold, sleek modernist style of the 1960s. I don’t have a picture of it. I don’t want one.

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– – – Christopher Snowden







  1. Sten Sture said,

    Like blowing the sphinx away to build a parking lot.
    Thanks Christoper for withstanding the horrors researching this piece.

  2. Jennifer said,

    My eyes are welling up reading this. That last shot, of the entrance…how powerfully, beautifully sad.

    Excellent post as always, Mr Snowden.

  3. Allen Hefner said,

    Thanks for that look at history and the great pics. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful theater to visit these days? It’s tough being a nostalgic O.F., but I guess that’s why we blog about it.

  4. diane said,

    That was a magnificent article and the pictures were very powerful – I also
    was tearing up. Where the crowds outside the cinema waiting to get in
    or waiting to see the stars of the movie – Warner Oland and Lois Moran?
    When I was a kid, cinemas still had stalls (downstairs) and dress circle
    (upstairs). Of course we could never afford the dress circle and if I had
    had had 3 wishes then – one of them would have been to get to the dress
    circle at the local cinema. I did eventually go “up” in the cinema world –
    but when I finally got to my beloved dress circle – because I was petite
    – I couldn’t see!!!!!

    • unkvid said,

      Thanks for the compliments, you guys! Much appreciated!

  5. Donna said,

    One of my great regrets was not attending anything at the Fox. Fox Plaza is a blight on Market Street to this day (to my eyes) especially when you know what once was there.

    Great piece, a sad piece, thanks for posting this.

  6. Donna said,

    Oh and the guy that used to run The Avenue Theater (Geoff as I recall) had some stuff from the Fox inside the Avenue lobby.

  7. Parallax View » The View Beyond Parallax… more reads for week of October 22 said,

    […] Christopher Snowden offers tribute to San Francisco’s Fox Theatre (1929-1963).  Snowden’s words are fine, lovely even, but it’s his selection of photos that tell the story, from ground breaking and glamorous heyday till the wrecking crew came to tear the whole thing down. […]

  8. MadameL said,

    Sad, just sad. I’m too young to have gone there, but family members have said it was amazing! And the Fox Plaza is a big ughly box with many smaller boxes inside.

  9. FOX LOver said,

    Why is needless destruction of this type tolerated? And, why is someone NOT held responsible? Other cities retained their “mega” movie palaces – Atlanta, Detroit, and St. Louis – all of these cities retained their FOX theaters. Each of these venues seats more than 4,000. Not even the SF Opera can seat that number of patrons. What a total %^&* up by SF!

  10. Community Focus Media said,

    I feel so blessed to have recently acquired 10 of the chairs (made by American Seating Co.) that were in the Fox Theatre, San Francisco. They are in near perfect condition. I plan to clean them up and restore them to their original glory. They match the photo (entitled: Stanley Mical dismantles theater seats he’s just bought.) pictured above. 🙂 So a pice of history, albeit a small piece lives on!!!

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