The Washington Square Theater By Any Other Name

by Joel Pomerantz

June 18th, 2010

(1741 Powell at Columbus and Filbert)

Some would-be luminaries are ignored by history simply because they were too close to a greater brilliance that distracted the crowds. Others go unsung due to their beauty being internal, invisible to the casual observer. The Washington Square Theater, a once-ornate movie palace on the west side of the Square, suffered both these insults and eventually met its doom.

It sits empty, and has for more than a decade.

Certainly millions of photos have been taken of the buildings that line Washington Square—the northeast sides of the square, that is. There to the northeast Telegraph Hill’s Coit Tower makes a great backdrop for a shot of Saint Peter and Paul Church. Meanwhile, to the southwest, at least four successive theaters created and celebrated culture. The theater is across a street and a triangular mini-park, in a building nearly as large as Saint Peter and Paul.

The Pagoda, formerly the Pagoda Palace Theater, formerly the Palace Theater, formerly the Milano, originally the Washington Square Theater, has seen both emptiness and fame. Most of that fame has been the fame of performers, on-screen personas, and films which have shown there.

Enrico Caruso, international sensation of a hundred years ago, sang there with the Metropolitan Opera on his one trip to San Francisco, during which he famously cursed the city’s name. He can’t reasonably be blamed: while here, he was treated to the Great Quake of 1906.

In 1909, when the Washington Square Theater was built, it was for live performance.

Soon thereafter, San Francisco was as important in the moving pictures industry as Hollywood, and the building was used accordingly. The electric light, a bright invention so notable that the light bulb has come to represent “the idea,” was a new thing then. It was first publicly displayed in San Francisco in Golden Gate Park (1894). By the Roaring Twenties, the bright idea had been fully conscripted into cultural service through its surreal ability to project flickery apparitions, seemingly alive, onto walls and screens. In 1930, the place was renovated into a major movie palace.

The exterior charm of the movie palace is admittedly low, but what has gone on inside over the years reflects the flow of money and populations through San Francisco: American theater and films, Italian films, American films again after WWII, Chinese films, wild sexualized parties, and now hollow emptiness.

Strangely, 1741 Powell is now most widely known for its brief incarnation as an after-midnight culture center for stoned hippies. As the Haight-Ashbury cultural nexus became a burn-out scene, with Mayor Joe Alioto’s cops busting heads regularly, a new scene formed here in North Beach. Filmmaker Steven Arnold began a series of “Nocturnal Dream Shows” (1969) in which a group called the Cockettes, presented a mix of films, dances, and chaos to the after-midnight crowd. The theater was still showing Chinese language films during the evening, and two very different crowds eyed one another with curiosity as evening show-goers left through the crowd waiting outside.

The Dream Shows were wild: Divine threw dead fish, Sylvester sang Big City Blues, pot smoke billowed, Peter Max designs and cut-off shorts vied with nakedness for fashion, and mass-ingested psychedelics reigned. Eventually, the love-energy subsided, and in 1974, a Chinese theater moved in. In the 1980s, the building was remodeled again by Allan Michaan of the Renaissance Rialto and Grand Lake Theaters. He aimed to repeat the 1930 Art Deco restoration that made the place an architectural hotspot. But the lights were dimming, and the doors closed tight in 1994.

Many proposals for the space have come and gone. An off-Broadway show venue, a huge taqueria, a public library, a Rite Aid, and a “mixed-use” retail space all made some headway before fizzling from local rumor-mills and drawing boards. The Telegraph Hill Dwellers neighborhood association has stated support for bringing back a live theater venue. But for now, the place still sits empty, no distraction for the focus of Washington Square shutterbugs.

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