Vintage Ad Shows 40 Movie Theaters That Once Dotted San Francisco


San Francisco was once home to over 40 movie theaters and one drive-in, but that was way back in 1958. A vintage ad from the era shows us all that we’ve lost.

The advertisement seen below, posted to Twitter last week by TechCrunch Senior Editor Walter Thompson, rounds up almost every movie house in San Francisco in 1958. We don’t know the exact date, but given that several of the theaters are showing Bridge on the River Kwai, which was released in the U.S. in the second week of December 1957 and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and be the biggest grossing film of the year, this was probably around January or February of ’58.

We can see a bunch of familiar names of theaters that we thankfully still have around, including the Castro, Roxie, Presidio, Vogue, Balboa, 4-Star, and New Mission (now Alamo Drafthouse). Sadly, the Empire in West Portal called it quits during the pandemic, but maybe someone will revive it.

And this isn’t even a full list from the time, as even the image above shows a couple big cinemas on mid-Market not shown here, like the Paramount and United Artists theaters.

Many others exist only as shadows of themselves and reused spaces. The Alhambra is a gym, the Harding is now the Emporium arcade, the El Rey’s been a church and has been closed for years, and The Strand is now a live theater space that belongs to American Conservatory Theater.

And we can also see that porn/whatever adults-only content they were allowed to show at the time had already started creeping in to the once glitzy mid-Market row of theaters — one cinema just labeled “Cinema” at Market and 6th was showing “Virgin for Sale” and “Gay Paris Burlesque,” and the Farros theater one block down says “Adults Only” and it was showing “Striptease Girl.” But it’s funny that these theaters were advertising here right along all the legit theaters!

via YourProtagonist/Twitter

It should be noted that of the three drive-ins listed, only the Mission Drive-In was in the city limits — in Crocker-Amazon, on Guttenberg Street off of Mission.

The El Rancho I & II Drive-In, seen here on Cinema Treasures, was in South San Francisco, and the Geneva, as the add says, was next to the Cow Palace.

As SF history buffs know, mid-Market was once a bustling movie theater district, with The Strand being the only real remaining evidence of that. The Orpheum, Warfield, and Golden Gate theaters, now used for stage shows, were vaudeville venues in this era.

Top Photo: Nat Farbman / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images





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