By Helen Floersh
Outer Richmond resident Jack Merk loves Balboa Theater popcorn. He loves it so much that for the past 10 years, he has been stopping by the historic movie theater on his walk home from work just to grab himself a bag.
“I used to call it … gimme a ticket to the movie, and I’ll take one popcorn, and hold the movie,” Merk said.
Like many in the Richmond community, Merk has missed the theater’s beloved kernels since the Balboa closed on March 13 in compliance with San Francisco’s moratorium on non-essential business operations. The shelter-in-place order was part of the city’s effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, a virus that has sickened nearly 82,000 Californians.
Fortunately, the neighborhood did not have to wait until normal life resumed to get a taste of the Balboa’s popcorn. On Saturday, May 18, the theater set up a table of movie treats and merchandise wares in its entryway for its first-ever grab-and-go popcorn popup, drawing dozens of facemasked residents who stood six feet apart in a line that wrapped around the block. Some waited as long as 45 minutes for popcorn. By 7 p.m, when the event ended, the theater had run out entirely.
“We got here at 1 o’clock and started popping,” Adam Bergeron, owner of the Balboa, said.“Usually when we have a movie rush, we can just barely make it, but this was like a continuous movie rush.”
Though he declined to give exact figures, he said the inaugural event was comparable to a “good Saturday night for us” during normal times. It was such a success, in fact, that Bergeron plans to do it again on May 23 from 4 to 7 p.m,, followed by a free showing of the 2000 mockumentary “Best in Show,” in honor of comedian and actor Fred Willard, who died on May 15.
A duty to the community
Bringing the theater’s locally famous popcorn to the neighborhood is more than just a good deed. It is also part of Bergeron’s strategy for keeping the Balboa afloat in a time when its screening rooms must remain empty. When the shelter-in-place mandate went into effect, the theater shifted its operations entirely online, selling gift certificates and advance tickets for future films. It is also selling access to newly released movies for $12 a ticket.
“The whole movie-showing business just kind of pivoted, really quickly,” Bergeron said. Through its online distribution partners, the theater is able to hold live question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers along with some showings.
“Honestly, the best thing it does for us is it allows us just to stay relevant and have something to say,” Bergeron said. “It allows us to announce things on our social media.”
The idea for the popcorn popup had been on the minds of Bergeron and his staff since the shelter-in-place order took hold, but he was hesitant to hold an in-person event until the safety protocols around business operations were clear. That, and a concern that trying to get people to come out any sooner might feel like his business was not taking the pandemic seriously.
“We’ve been wanting to do this for maybe a month or six weeks, but it felt like too soon,” Bergeron said. “We didn’t want to do something that was in bad taste.”
With new safety protocols for businesses released on May 15, Bergeron felt confident that the timing was right.
“The list of protocols is becoming more and more defined,” Bergeron said. “You just follow your list of protocols specifically and you’re…within the letter of the law.”
Hungry to support
For many attendees, popcorn was just a perk. As delicious as the popcorn is, the main reason Merk and his partner, writer Shelley Ambramson, turned out for the event was to help ensure the theater would survive the pandemic.
“We’ll do anything to support them,” Ambramson said. “We don’t want them to ever go away.”
Annalise Pelous, a second-year cinema and media studies student at the University of Southern California who grew up in the Richmond, remembers walking to the theater with her sister as a young girl. When she is home from college, she sees films at the Balboa on a weekly basis.
“I really want the theater to stay open,” Pelous said. “This is one of the ways to support it and make sure that when everything goes back to normal, we’re still able to come here.”
Pelous’ mother, Andrea Pelous – who represents performing arts professionals as a representative for the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees – noted that ensuring the theater was important both from a cultural and a community standpoint.
I think during this time the reason it’s so important to really support these theaters is it’s like going back 50 years, when the movie theater was where we met our friends and we did these events,” Andrea Pelous said. “We really need to support that because it’s a place to go and do that and not stay in your house and watch Netflix. It’s where you go to experience something all together.”
Another Richmond resident, Kate Tran, expressed similar feelings. With its employee- and resident-led movie nights, independent film festivals and other community events, the theater hearkens back to a different, more familiar era, shesaid.
“The fact that things like this still exist in San Francisco makes it still feel like San Francisco,” Tran said.
To Outer Richmond resident Seth Lowman, the Balboa is a uniting force.
“It’s really cool just to see that there’s an actual community based around film in such a small neighborhood,” Lowman said. “I am super grateful that people are so invested in trying to help out the theater.”
Richmond resident Kris Bondi shared Lowman’s gratitude for fellow attendees.
“One of the things that I am thrilled about is the long line,” Bondi said. “Everyone in the line is absolutely thrilled to be in a long line. That shows how much people want to support the theater.”
As the country and the Bay Area begin to reopen for business, Bergeron is looking forward to the day when the Balboa’s marquee displays the latest features. He is frequently asked when the theater plans to resume.
“I’ll tell ya, we’ll open the day we can,” Bergeron said. “The first day we’re allowed to, we’ll open.”
But while the community’s love for his theater was evident from the long lines of people who waited patiently for popcorn, Bergeron wondered: If no COVID-19 vaccine is available when the theater opens again, will the Balboa’s supporters feel safe in their seats?
“It’s all going to depend on that first time you come, when you’re sitting in that room,” Bergeron said. “Are you distracted the whole time thinking about it, or are you like, ‘Nope I feel good about this’?’”
That concern is understandable, Andrea Pelous said. In her case, she would feel comfortable with precautions like disposable sheets on chairs and employees in masks.
“Knowing the Balboa, they would find some way to make this all very funny, inclusive and normal,” Pelous said.
For Ambramson, knowing that the theater and its bathrooms were being frequently cleaned and having all visitors in masks, at least at first, would be ideal.
“It’s never really crowded, so it’s easy to sit away from people,” she explained. “I definitely would go. I like it and I want to support them.”
Bergeron plans to do whatever he can to make theatergoers feel comfortable.
“We’ll definitely do the very best we can to provide a safe environment,” Bergeron said. “We’re going to keep everything sanitized. We’ll work hard to make that happen.”
And despite many years of facing ever-stiffer competition from large theater chains, being small and hyper-local may work to the Balboa’s advantage when it comes to helping customers feel safe. Bergeron expects that moviegoers will be more hesitant to turn out to larger theaters, where they may not know the practices.
“I’d rather be me than be an AMC theater at that point, because honestly I feel like people are going to tend to want to support us,” Bergeron said. “[They’ll think,] ‘I know this staff, I trust them a little bit … I don’t know if I want to go to the multiplex, where I don’t know the staff and I don’t have as much faith.’”
For Pelous, there’s no question of where she would feel safer.
“I feel safer in my neighborhood, with people who care about each other, share similar values and want to build on them,” Pelous said. “I honestly don’t think I could go to another theater.”
A sense of belonging
Though it is difficult to predict how the pandemic will play out, one thing is clear: the Richmond District loves the Balboa Theater. In mid March, A GoFundMe fundraiser for theater employees surpassed its goal of $18,000 to reach $21,715.
“Since this began, it has been so obvious that our community loves us,” Bergeron said. “And we love them.”
To Merk, who has lived in the neighborhood for 30 years, that love stems from a sense of belonging.
“For me, the theater is ours. It’s mine, and his, and hers,” Merk said. “It belongs to the people who live here. I feel very grateful to have that.”
And, after all, they do have the best popcorn in the city.