Coliseum celebrates centennial

by Woody LaBounty

To commemorate the centennial of the opening of the old Coliseum Theatre, the local history organization Western Neighborhoods Project will host two presentations on west side neighborhood movie houses at its “home for history,” located at 1617 Balboa St.

The programs on Thursday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m., and Saturday, Nov. 3, at 11 a.m., will feature historical images, music, artifacts and memories of theaters from Clement Street to Stonestown. Admission is $20 to the general public and $10 for Western Neighborhoods Project members.

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The grand opening of the Coliseum Theatre on Nov. 22, 1918. Photos courtesy of private collector/Western Neighborhoods Project.

The Coliseum Theatre opened on Nov. 22, 1918, on the southeast corner of Ninth Avenue and Clement Street with a Mary Pickford film, “Johanna Enlists.” The opening had been delayed over concerns of contagion during the great influenza pandemic, which peaked in October, 1918. The theater opened just 11 days after the official end of World War I and the receipts from the evening were donated to the Red Cross.

With 2,200 seats, the theater’s capacity exceeded some of the big movie houses downtown and reflected the popularity and importance of movies in America at the time. Into the ’80s, Richmond District residents had five different theaters from which to pick for a night’s entertainment.

In addition to the Coliseum Theatre, the Bridge, Coronet, Alexandria, Balboa and 4 Star theaters showed everything from foreign films to blockbusters.

The Coliseum was made into a “talkie” with the introduction of sound in 1929. Movie theatres always tried to appear modern and current, and most underwent frequent renovations. In 1931, the Coliseum received a lush Art Deco remodel with geometric designs painted throughout its interior and the theater’s ceiling was stenciled with a vibrant jungle of palm fronds. A decade later, a cleaner, streamlined look was in and all of the busy patterns were painted over. Over the screen, a stylized female charioteer replaced the zig-zags and tropical forest.

coliseum-interior-1931 copyThe Coliseum closed for a few years in the early ’50s because of business competition from the Alexandria and the new Coronet Theatre on Geary Boulevard. When it reopened, it was with a simpler vertical sign reading just “COL.”

The theater’s most successful period came in 1975, when it had the exclusive San Francisco showing of “Jaws.” The film ran for six months, with lines around the block.

On Oct. 17, 1989, the Bay Area was abuzz with the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s meeting for game three of the World Series. The Coliseum, appropriately, was playing the baseball fantasy film “Field of Dreams.” The Loma Prieta Earthquake struck 41 minutes before the first scheduled showing of the day, and the 71-year-old movie house never screened another film.

The Coliseum’s operators, United Artists, decided the costs to repair earthquake damage and reopen were not worth the ticket revenues, which were in decline.

The Coliseum sat boarded up and graffiti- blighted for 11 years before it was redeveloped and opened in 2002 with a drug store on the ground level and 14 condominiums above. Some original details calling back to its entertainment days are still visible on the building today, including a lyre at the top center of the facade.

Movie historians Jack Tillman and Gary Parks will be special guests for the Oct. 25 program, while the Nov. 3 event will feature an extended look at the Alexandria Theatre and current plans for the building’s future.

To learn more about west side theaters or to purchase tickets, visit the website at www.OutsideLands.org.

Woody LaBounty is the director of the Western Neighborhoods Project.

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