By Thomas K. Pendergast
After almost 30 years of running the 4 Star Theatre on Clement Street, Frank Lee has sold it so he can concentrate on his other theaters in the Marina District.
Lee and his wife began operating the movie theater in 1992. They bought it outright in 2006.
Built in 1912, the building needs renovation work. The Lees are in their 60s now, and they are going to spend their energy running the Marina and Presidio theaters on Chestnut Street.
“Thirty years is quite a long time. It’s just something that you got to let go of eventually,” Lee said. “If I could work until 90 it’s no problem. I’ll keep it. When you reach a certain age it’s time to let go and concentrate on other things.”
The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in their decision. Like many other businesses, they had to shut down last year.
“That’s part of it,” he acknowledged. “That was the nail in the coffin. OK, it’s time to go. At the end, it was the timing. It was the right time. I’m not getting younger. I spent many hours at the 4 Star. So now it’s time to let go and move on to the Marina and Presidio.”
“We didn’t make too much money since it went to another theater operator.”
The new owner has asked to remain anonymous for now, and Lee also declined to say how much it was sold for.
“The sales price, to be honest, it went to another theater operator so they’re not going to pay too much,” Lee said. “If we sold it to a builder, we’d make much more. We’d rather sell it to a theater and keep it as a theater…. (The theater) is our main legacy that it will continue.”
The man who will be taking over the day-to-day management and programming for the new owners, however, is well known in the Outer Richmond.
Adam Bergeron owns and operates the Balboa Theatre. He also manages the Vogue Theatre. Bergeron said he is going to keep it as a movie house, and he has big plans for it.
Currently, there is a larger theater that seats 188 and a smaller one seating 49. The plan is to eliminate the smaller one entirely and scale the other down to about 160 seats.
Bergeron said the lobby area will be expanded, and the smaller theater will become part of the new lobby to make it more spacious.
The renovated theater will have three projectors: two for film – 16mm and 35mm – plus a modern digital projector.
Since they don’t make film projectors anymore, it is a matter of refurbishing old ones. Bergeron said he is more than happy to do that.
“We just love them,” Bergeron said. “We’re in a time in history where you’re either saving and preserving these old projectors or there’s one less in the world. It’s a format that still has life left in it and it’s really pretty beautiful.
“There’s a small circuit of people that have 35mm and 16mm prints of movies that have been well preserved. And then there’s also a small circuit of people that know about the projectors and how to maintain them and use them,” he said. “And so, like any age-old format, there’s a romance to it that we love.”
The 4 Star is well known for specializing in films from Asia or Asian-themed movies. Bergeron said they will continue to show features like that, but will also be expanding the programing to more “eclectic” and “classic” films as well.
“If you think about the specialty programs that we do at the Balboa, which is a lot but we also have first-run features there, I would say think of just all specialty programming and really no first-run features,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be going for immediate first-run stuff at the 4 Star.
“I think it’s going to be more of an art-house theater. It’s going to be more of a repertory theater, and we’ll be looking for niche movies, as opposed to wide releases.”
Although with digital projectors they can do first-run movies, “I think the idea was more to go with smaller distributors; to go with more unique programming,” he said.
At the Balboa, they have monthly and weekly themed events, and Bergeron said he will continue something like that at the 4 Star.
The plan is to keep the interior space around the large screen intact.
“It’s got this really great proscenium that’s really great that we’ll keep. It’s one of the nicer features of the building. You want to keep any charm you can,” Bergeron said. “In these older theaters we definitely try to get our tech up to a point where it’s comparable with other movie theaters, but it’s not going to be over the top. These don’t really lend themselves to IMAX or anything like that.”
They are hoping to reopen sometime early next year, but it depends on how fast and easy the renovation goes.
“With these really old buildings, you just hope you don’t run into a big issue in plumbing or wiring or any of those things,” Bergeron said. “Barring that, we feel like in about six months we can get the renovations completed.
“We love the Outer Richmond. It’s such a gem of a neighborhood and this is a neighborhood that really, really went out of their way to support the Balboa Theater during this pandemic, and we are really excited to help save another theater in the Outer Richmond. For us, it’s the best neighborhood in the whole city. It’s like the last great neighborhood in San Francisco. So we’re really excited to have this opportunity.”