Empire Cinema

85 West Portal Avenue,
San Francisco, CA 94127

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Empire Theatre, San Francisco

Viewing: Photo | Street View

Contributed by William Gabel

Recent comments (view all 20 comments)

Slevin on April 9, 2007 at 8:03 pm

The West Portal/Empire was NOT built for S. H. Levin. There were two Levin circuits in SF: my family’s was the other. My grandfather was known as H. S. Levin, which may be the root of this confusion. We operated the house from openng until 1974. In 1936 the interior was completely made over and the name was changed to Empire. Just after WWII the back wall was pushed out to Vicente St, adding about 200 seats. The auditorium was rececorated by Heisbergen Studios in mural fashion. Most of this stuff survives behind the drapes and acoustical padding. With the lobby coming into the auditorium in the middle of the left wall, this was a hard house to work. The 1970 renovation took care of most of the hassle, but left the place totally charmless. I worked there for many years, and I still miss it.

terrywade on August 28, 2007 at 11:53 am

Thanks Slevin for the up date info on the Empire Theatre San Francisco. I only go to the large Theatre #1 downstairs. The two tiny up stair old balcony theatres did finaly add Stereo. Can you imagine the Syufy’s Century guys ran the place mono up stairs till just 2 years ago. And they mounted the up stairs projectors down so they didn’t move and shake. They no longer book just art films but everything else. Also they no longer close the curtain in the main theatre. The Syufy’s Century people or is it Cinemark now have no use for any showmanship at the theatres they run that still have curtains that work. A year ago a manager candy type person told me that they don’t close the curtain because they don’t wan’t it to get stuck like what happend on a Saturday night once. Please bring in some curtain people and oil it up! At least the Syufy’s didn’t chop up the downstairs in the middle like they have done at some of the Domes in San Jose. Good news the great Mexican restaurant is still open across and up a little; they are closed on Mondays. Have dinner and a drink and check out Theatre #1 at the Empire. They still have day time showing’s as many SF Landmark Art Theatres only open in the late afternoon or early eve on the weekdays now. Tell them to fix the curtain with all the $ they make from popcorn and drink sales. Even Landmark’s Bridge Theatre in SF has a great little curtain that opens very slow and now has digital projection. Time for the SF Empire to go into remodel again. Look up at the ceiling in Theatre #1 and see the old brown paint coming off from the last paint job they tried to cover over some old vents or lights. The seats are new in Theatre #1 and nice with cupholders and plenty of leg room. The leg room upstairs in Theatre #2 and #3 is not so great if your a tall person.

Slevin on September 23, 2007 at 7:00 pm

As noted above, Irving Morrow and William Garren were the architects. They were not major players in the local theatre scene. I know of only one other theatre by them: the San Mateo (1925), the first Art Deco theatre in the US, and maybe the first Deco building of any kind. Morrow, better known as a critic than as an architect, went on to better things: he is generally credited with the detailing on the Golden Gate Bridge. His wife, Gertrude Comfort Morrow, also an architect, is alleged to have suggested the “International Orange” color. For pix of some of her residential work, see the Arcadia book on West Portal.
An early drawing of the whole site, which extended to the exit alley on West Portal, shows a courtyard in place of the lobby and the stage at the Vicente St. end. The entrance should have been on the corner, but that would have entailed more excavation than the developers were willing to pay for.
Of all the theatres my family was asssociated with over 80 years, the Empire is the only one still showing movies. A couple of years ago I was in it for the first time since 1974. Aud. 1 is passable; the rest is dreck.

philbertgray on November 30, 2007 at 11:54 am

The theatre is a hideous inside and out. The triplexing is a travesty. They might as well tear it down

kencmcintyre on January 9, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Here is a photo from the opening in 1926:

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on January 24, 2010 at 5:00 am

The 1970 renovation mentioned by Slevin in a comment above was designed by architect Bernard G. Nobler, according to an item in Boxoffice of March 2, 1970.

darquil on February 7, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Per my visit today, maximum seating capacity for screens 1, 2, and 3 are 295, 158, and 152, respectively, totaling 605 seats.

darquil on April 25, 2010 at 2:32 am

I’ve posted information and photos from a recent visit here.

hdtv267 on December 8, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Finally made it out here for a showing back in November of 2011. It was a Sunday and I shelled out the dough for “Puss N Boots in 3D”. Wow, I need to agree with the above poster that the triplexing is a travesty.

One of the more bizarre set ups of a theatre I had been in. I was concerned how the 3D would work with this odd seating configuration, but it was fine. Bit of sticker shock too $14 for a 3D movie on Sunday night.

Going to this theatre was something to knock off my to-do list. I did it and was glad to get it out of my system.

Kevin Tredway
Kevin Tredway on August 26, 2014 at 11:44 am

This theatre currently goes by ‘CineArts At The Empire’.

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