CineArts at the Empire

85 West Portal Avenue,
San Francisco, CA 94127

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stevenj on August 16, 2015 at 2:22 pm

As I recall the last time I was in the Empire (one of the upstairs theaters – Bad Education – that’s how long ago it was) the auditorium seating was cramped and the seats not aligned properly with the screen forcing you to look somewhat towards your shoulder to see the screen. The downstairs auditorium is fine. The theater is close to the West Portal Metro station which makes it fairly easy to get to.

Chris1982 on August 15, 2015 at 11:16 pm

This is listed as the CIN√ČARTS AT THE EMPIRE on Cinemarks Website. Maybe the name in the header should be changed to the same.

ColinG on August 15, 2015 at 9:11 pm

I feel the need to come to the defense of The Empire. Yes, it was triplexed at an unfortunate time for such things and it could have been done with a bit more sensitivity. The large auditorium remains a fine place to see a film. The smaller auditoriums are adequate, especially when not busy. Still, it’s a very comfortable, clean, well-run neighborhood theatre. I’ve been seeing films there for almost 50 years and I’m very grateful for a local cinema that retains a bit of character and serves the neighborhood well.

Scott Neff
Scott Neff on December 12, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Actually, Century is operated by Cinemark.

darquil on April 24, 2010 at 11:32 pm

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

darquil on February 7, 2010 at 5:59 pm

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

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on January 24, 2010 at 2:00 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.

kencmcintyre on January 9, 2008 at 7:07 pm

Here is a photo from the opening in 1926:

philbertgray on November 30, 2007 at 8:54 am

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

Slevin on September 23, 2007 at 4:00 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.

terrywade on August 28, 2007 at 8:53 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 April 9, 2007 at 5:03 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.

jackeboy on October 7, 2006 at 2:38 pm

make that looking at the screen.

jackeboy on October 7, 2006 at 2:29 pm

Only go the Empire if you are seeing a film in theater #1, the wheelchair accessible theater. At the two upstairs theaters you will be lokking at the screen on an angle

kencmcintyre on December 21, 2005 at 5:14 pm

Two interior photos from 1944:

View link

View link

kencmcintyre on October 29, 2005 at 9:29 am

From the SF Public Library website:

View link

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on February 10, 2005 at 5:23 pm

The Portal/West Portal Theatre was built for the Samuel H. Levin chain of neighborhood theatres known as San Francisco Theatres Inc.

scottfavareille on December 14, 2004 at 11:39 am

Now called CineArts at Empire.

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on December 14, 2004 at 8:43 am

Originally opened as the Portal Theatre (known also as the West Portal Theatre) on 26th December 1925, the architects were Irving F. Morrow and William I Garren.

It was re-named Empire Cinema on 1st October 1936 and in 1974 it was divided into 3 screens.

gsmurph on July 7, 2004 at 4:28 am

Not only is the Empire NOT CLOSED; it seems to be thriving with its recent change to a CineArts format. It’s very much “Open.”

moviewatcher on February 18, 2004 at 12:54 pm

My husband and I often went to the movies at the Empire when we lived in the City, even though we lived downtown on Nob Hill. There is (or was in the 90s) a wonderful Mexican restaurant across the street.

We still think of it as one of our very favorite places in a town full of favorite places. :–)

unknown on October 24, 2003 at 3:15 pm

The Empire theater is not closed. Century Theaters has run this for a number of years and recently converted it into a CineArts theater showing foreign and independent films. Originally a single screener, it was chopped up into a three-plex in the early 1970’s.