Adventures in moviegoing
Market Street, San Francisco
During my stay, Phil Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) was released. One New York critic at the time — it may have been Carrie Rickey — equated San Francisco (the film’s setting) to ‘Pod City’ and imagined Kaufman’s and screenwriter W.D. Richter’s work as an investigation into that eerie passivity that makes the inhabitants — the ones who actually live there, not the ones in the movie — seem like they’re floating on valium or a steady intake of marijuana…which they very well could be.
Located on Market Street in a section touching the squalid end of town, The Strand opened its doors late in the morning, and if you got there before noon the admission was one dollar and twenty-five cents. The price went up in intervals throughout the day, and I believe the ceiling was three bucks for primetime. This made it an economically feasible alternative for the homeless who fell out of favor with the nearby shelters. Most of them resided in the smoking loge of The Strand’s balcony, which soon became my perch as well.
You could find me up there three or four days in any given week. One time a drunk engaged me in conversation over what was then the new film by Francis Coppola. His nibs, decked out in Tom Waits chic, blurted “You gotta see Apologies Now!” His wobbly attempt to hop across the front row, however, put him perilously close from going over the railing and onto the audience below. After he regained his footing, we paused to share a bottle of MD 20-20, better known in the trade as ‘Mad Dog,’ nectar of the gods.
Above: Out in front of The Strand, in the 1920’s (top), the late ‘30s (middle) and the late ‘40s (bottom). Click images to enlarge.
In the mid-‘70s, the theatre had been refurbished by a budding entrepreneur named Mike Thomas. Fashioning it primarily as a revival house (with the occasional nod to whatever new release struck his fancy), he booked old Hollywood stars like Jane Russell, Carol Baker and Lana Turner to introduce their own movies and host question and answer sessions afterward.
But the theme of the schedule was simple: more. Bills changed daily, at least a double feature, sometimes a small marathon. I remember sitting in that balcony for nearly twelve hours on a Sunday for the Sergio Leone ‘dollars’ trilogy capped off by Duck, You Sucker. There was also an amazing day of Hitchcock — Rebecca, Spellbound, Marnie and Frenzy — and a morning-to-night festival of several Russ Meyer movies all in a row, with Mudhoney looking especially fine on the big screen. One Easter there was a butt-numbing bill of Nick Ray’s King of Kings with Ben Hur and Hawks’s atypical Land of the Pharaohs.
Above: The foyer (top) and balcony (below) of The Strand as they appeared in 1948. A few years later, the screen would be widened. (Click to enlarge.)
It was an education that I savored dearly, especially when they showed older CinemaScope pictures. (This was before home video, when everything on TV was strictly pan and scan.) The Strand always had good, clean 35mm prints. In between features there would be trailers, cartoons, and those cool fill-in spots (“previews of coming attractions” sliding across blurry circles to trumpet music), the little extras that were about to fade into extinction.
I still have a small stack of the Strand schedules I snapped up whenever they were distributed in cafes and book and record stores around town. On 8.5”x17” paper printed on both sides, often in black and one color ink, it was arranged in calendar format, each day’s box crammed with vintage ad art and lettering. I could stare at that sheet for hours.
After I left San Francisco, I’d heard that the theatre fell on hard times. I’d like to think that it went under because they’d lost my business. But home video was just making inroads, and revival theatres were the first casualty of the revolution. What few that remain today represent a tiny fraction of what was out there before the ‘80s. Like Everett Sloan’s Mr. Bernstein pining away for the pretty girl with the parasol, I don’t think one week has gone by in the last twenty-five years that I haven’t thought about The Strand…along with the other palaces and dives that fired the passion each and every day.