Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Balboa Birthday Bash!

Back in the 1920s, movies were the popular form of entertainment. Radio was only just beginning, and television didn't really exist. Just about everybody went to the movies on a regular, almost weekly basis. To meet demand, movie theaters were springing up everywhere.

Everywhere included San Francisco (and just about every big and small town across America), where first run movie palaces lined the major thoroughfares and smaller neighborhood houses of varying size dotted the city's outlying districts. Drive down Market Street, Mission Street or Geary Blvd. in San Francisco and you'll see the facades of a number of The City's once grand though now shuttered movie theaters.

Today, the Balboa is one of the last neighborhood theaters still operating in San Francisco. To celebrate its opening in February of 1926, the Richmond District theater is marking the occasion with the screening of a classic silent film along and other festive goings-on.

The Balboa's 87th birthday celebration -- presented in association with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival -- takes place on Sunday, March 3. The evening's entertainment kicks-off at 7:00 pm. Doors open at 6:45 pm. (A special family matinee will also take place earlier in the day at 4:00 pm.)

But first a little history. The Balboa Theater (located at 3630 Balboa Street near 38th Avenue) originally opened as the New Balboa Theater in order to distinguish it from the already open Balboa Theater then on Ocean Avenue. The New Balboa, part of a local chain owned by Samuel Levin, was designed by James and Merritt Reid, renowned architects who also designed the Cliff House, Fairmount Hotel, Spreckels Temple of Music in Golden Gate Park and numerous other theaters including the Alexandria theater on Geary. In the 1920's, a handful of films featuring Louise Brooks' were shown at the New Balboa. Those screenings include Love Em and Leave Em on June 12, 1927, Evening Clothes on July 11-12, 1927, Just Another Blonde on July 20-21, 1927, A Girl in Every Port on July 29, 1928 as part of a double-bill with When the Wife’s Away, and Canary Murder Case on September 18-19, 1929.

In 2006, as part of the Louise Brooks centenary, The Show-Off (1926) was screened with introductions by Peter Cowie and Thomas Gladysz. Also shown that night was a 16mm trailer for Overland Stage Raiders (1938).

On Sunday, the Balboa will screen Peter Pan (1924), Herbert Brenon's classic film adaption of the story of a boy who never grew up. Released by Paramount Pictures, this silent-era telling of Peter Pan was the first film adaptation of the famous J. M. Barrie play. The film has an "all-star" cast which includes Betty Bronson as Peter Pan, Ernest Torrence as Captain Hook, Mary Brian as Wendy, Esther Ralston as Mrs. Darling, Philippe De Lacy as Michael Darling and Virginia Browne Faire as Tinker Bell. Anna May Wong, a groundbreaking Chinese-American actress, plays an Indian princess named Tiger Lily. Brenon, as is well known, went on to direct Mary Brian and Louise Brooks the following year in The Street of Forgotten Men. That film, Brooks' first, include a visual nod to Peter Pan in a scene where Brian sits down at the piano to play a song and sheet music on the instrument can clearly be seen to be Peter Pan.

At the time of its release, the film was celebrated for its innovative special effects -- notably the illuminated fairy Tinker Bell and showing Peter Pan fly. The legendary James Wong Howe served as cinematographer. In 2000, the film was deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The Balboa will screen a 35mm print of the film from the George Eastman House (former "home" to Louise Brooks), where the film was restored in the 1990s. Peter Pan will be accompanied by pianist Frederick Hodges, who will perform an original score, and preceded by a program of short subjects.

Also on the bill for this special birthday occasion will be a live vaudeville show featuring magician James Hamilton and songstress Linda Kosut. Audience members are encouraged to dress in their best period clothing had they attended a night at the movies in 1926. Vintage cars will be parked out front.

More info: The Balboa Theater is located at 3630 Balboa Street in San Francisco. Advance tickets are on sale at the Balboa and online at Admission is $10.

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