From the archive: Theaters of the San Francisco Peninsula (2011)

July 16, 2012

Jack Tillmany is a recognized authority on movies and movie culture – especially its local history. The Richmond district native is the former owner of the Gateway Cinema in San Francisco, a local pioneer in revival programming, and the author of Theatres of San Francisco (Arcadia, 2005) and coauthor of Theatres of Oakland (Arcadia, 2006). If you have any interest in old movie houses, urban architecture, or local history – each are must have books.

Gary Lee Parks is a south Bay resident and a board member of the Theatre Historical Society of America. As such, he has long assisted in the preservation of historic Bay Area theatres as both a professional and a volunteer. He also knows a lot, and is the author of the equally valuableTheatres of San Jose (Arcadia, 2009).

Recently, Tillmany and Parks met in the middle, as it were – and authored another fine title,Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula (Arcadia, 2011). This recently published 127 page pictorial surveys the region’s many movie houses both past and present.

Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula

Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula

Beginning with the peninsula’s early playhouses and storefront nickelodeons (5-cent movie theaters), and continuing through the movie palace period, the golden age of the drive-in theatre, and into the days of the multiplex, this volume of mostly vintage photographs shows where our parents, grandparents and the general movie going public spent a good portion of their leisure time.

They’re all here – the theaters we patronized and the ones we only heard about. The theatres of Brisbane and South San Francisco are well represented, as are those in Millbrae, San Mateo, Belmont, Burlingame, San Carlos, Menlo Park and northern Santa Clara county, including Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale. It’s surprising how many theaters there were in these then small communities.

There is the virtually forgotten Colma Theater, for example – of which few images exists; the foggy Mission Drive-In in Daly City; the noble State in South San Francisco; the moderne Seavue in Pacifica; and the stately El Camino in San Bruno, which opened in 1930 and closed its doors, for the last time, in 1973. Even Half Moon Bay, as well as the little coastal community of Pescadero, are represented in Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula. In the 1940′s, the Methodist Episcopal Church in Pescadero did double duty as the communities local theater.

There is, as well, the still thriving 1300 seat Fox in Redwood City (formerly the new Sequoia, which opened in 1929) – as well as its no less mighty neighbor, the 1300 car Redwood Drive-In, which opened in 1961 with what was claimed to be the tallest outdoor movie screen in the world.

What’s fascinating about so many of the images found in Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsulaare the telling details – the mezzanines and marquees, the grand lobbies, ornate prosceniums, pipe organs, plush seats, snack bars and ticket booths of a way of entertainment long gone. As the marquee on the cover of the books says, “Movies are better than ever.” And movie going was better back then.

Gary Lee Parks and Jack Tillmany will be signing copies of Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsulaat the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont on Saturday, November 19 – prior to and after the museum’s regular Comedy Short Subject Night. On the bill this Saturday are such Hal Roach classics as Courtship of Miles Sandwich (1923) with Snub Pollard, Pass the Gravy (1929) with Max Davidson, Movie Night (1929) with Charley Chase, and Do Detectives Think? (1927) with Laurel and Hardy.

Also signing books on November 19 are locals Gary Meyer, Liz Keim and Julie Lindow – authors and contributors to Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Movie Theatres (Charta, 2010). More information at


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