Photograph by Alexa Bush

Photograph by Alexa Bush

A full-house packed the New (Old) Potrero Theater, speaker Terry Lindahl.

December 2012

Old Movies Return to Hill

Peter Linenthal

  The unusual red brick building with black columns located at 312 Connecticut Street – almost next door to Goat Hill Pizza – was built in 1913, as one of San Francisco’s early movie theaters, the Alta Nickelodeon. Silent films were shown there until 1929 when the small theater converted to sound and changed its name to The New Potrero Theater, which closed in the 1960s.

Since 1993 the building has been home to the San Francisco Gurdjieff Society, which has extensively remodeled it. There isn’t much left of the theater. Half way up an interior brick wall is evidence of where the joists of the theater’s raked floor were anchored. An interesting tiled patio with great views has been carved out; wooden paneling in dark and light shades animates many spaces.

Gurdjieff Society president Terry Lindahl generously opened the building for three shows of silent films last month, an experiment sponsored by the Potrero Hill Archives Project to gage public interest in viewing old movies in the neighborhood. The results were impressive. Crowds came to each show; neigborhood history was shared as popcorn popped again on Connecticut Street.

The first film shown, made in the 1930s, begins with the announcement “...shown through the courtesy of the management of the New Potrero Theater as a community service and will not be shown in any other theater in San Francisco.” A procession from St. Teressa’s Church in honor of Saint Vincenza marches through familiar Hill streets, accompanied by a precision marching band. The final shots pan the congregation of hundreds of elegantly dressed parishioners on the church steps. This film hadn’t been presented in the theater where it premiered in 75 years. The other film shown, Sunrise by F. W. Murnau, was a riveting 1927 silent, shot in a striking expressionist style.

Barbara Angeli, whose family has operated Parkside (now Thee Parkside) for generations, recognized an altar boy in the film: her father, August Angeli. Angeli and several other audience members saw movies at the New Potrero before it closed, and shared memories of the Flea Hole. Frank Rahmer said that Mrs. Holmes, one of the theater’s owners, ticket sellers and flashlight holding guard of darkened aisles, was related to Yul Brynner. Once Mrs. Holmes’ white captain’s hat fell off, taking her wig with it. Underneath she was completely bald. Rose Marie Ostler’s memoir accompanies this article. Mary Wasserman went to the last film shown there in the 60s, The Guns of Navarone.

The old movie shows raised $1,200 for the Potrero branch library. Christopher’s Books sold tickets, St. Teressa’s Church loaned chairs, and Live Oak School provided the crucial popcorn machine. Many people asked if showing old movies could become a regular neighborhood event. While that may not be practical at 312 Connecticut, perhaps another site would work.

Peter Linenthal can be reached at ppotrero@pacbell.net.

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