CineArts at the Empire

85 W. Portal Avenue,
San Francisco, CA 94127

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Showing 1 - 25 of 27 comments

stevenj
stevenj on July 16, 2017 at 1:28 pm

I took the M Line almost daily down West Portal Ave in the late 60’s while I was attending SF State and remember a large Woolworth’s down a block from the Empire. I did find a 1960’s (exact year not specified) photo in the SF Public Library’s photo collection online showing the same building today at 200 West Portal as a Woolworth’s then so it may have been a Woolworth’s from the get go.

jordanlage
jordanlage on July 16, 2017 at 12:53 am

Thanks for your response, Joe Vogel. I could be mistaken; the building housing the current Walgreen’s on West Portal could have been something other than a theater. I don’t know the history of the ‘hood. I was only passing through. To me, the building had all the elements to suggest it had previously been a theater. Your link posted 7/15/2017 is a decent overview for the Empire. I’m not a local but if I’m on West Portal again this trip, I’ll snap a photo and post it here.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 15, 2017 at 4:51 pm

This web page has a drawing of the proposed West Portal Theatre project by architect Irving Morrow, dated 1923.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on July 15, 2017 at 4:44 pm

jordanlage: Jack Tillmany’s well-researched list of San Francisco Theaters doesn’t have a listing for a house at 200 West Portal, currently the location of Walgreen’s. I can’t find any evidence of a theater at that location, either. Do you remember one being there?

To me the building looks as though it might as easily have been built for an early supermarket or a bowling alley or perhaps a neighborhood department store of the sort once once fairly common in American cities. A lot of businesses other than theaters were housed in buildings with Art Deco or Streamline Modern details.

jordanlage
jordanlage on July 15, 2017 at 1:33 pm

Passed by the Empire yesterday (July 14, 2017) and it looked like it was doing pretty well for a theater so maligned in the comments here, though I’m sure the criticisms are not inaccurate. Just sad to hear of theaters not taking pride in their interiors in order to give audiences the experience they deserve by going to see a movie outside the comfort of their living room. It should be something special. (Darquil’s blog gives some convincing insight on this – see his/her link.)

On the same day, I caught an evening film screening at the Paramount in Oakland. Thank god that palace still exists pretty much intact. What a glorious place to see a movie, even if the acoustics are not ideal. I could take issue with the 35mm print of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN that the Paramount screened – old, a little scratchy, colors not vibrant – but at least they were showing a great now-classic film.

One other point: I can’t seem to find any mention of the theater that was across and down West Portal from the Empire. It is currently a Walgreen’s but the deco facade details are still evident. Anyone know anything about this former theater? Or can direct me to its entry on CT? Can’t find it anywhere. PS, anyone who could do a thorough overview history of the Empire, please give a whack at it. As of this date, the Empire entry has no written overview, just comments.

stevenj
stevenj on August 16, 2015 at 5:22 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
Chris1982 on August 16, 2015 at 2:16 am

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
ColinG on August 16, 2015 at 12:11 am

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 3:00 pm

Actually, Century is operated by Cinemark.

darquil
darquil on April 25, 2010 at 2:32 am

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

darquil
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.

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.

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on January 9, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Here is a photo from the opening in 1926:
http://tinyurl.com/ytjjjc

philbertgray
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

Slevin
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.

terrywade
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
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.

jackeboy
jackeboy on October 7, 2006 at 5:38 pm

make that looking at the screen.

jackeboy
jackeboy on October 7, 2006 at 5:29 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
kencmcintyre on December 21, 2005 at 8:14 pm

Two interior photos from 1944:

View link

View link

kencmcintyre
kencmcintyre on October 29, 2005 at 12:29 pm

From the SF Public Library website:

View link

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on February 10, 2005 at 8:23 pm

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

scottfavareille
scottfavareille on December 14, 2004 at 2:39 pm

Now called CineArts at Empire.

Ken Roe
Ken Roe on December 14, 2004 at 11:43 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
gsmurph on July 7, 2004 at 7:28 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.”