Bella Union Theatre

825 Kearny Street,
San Francisco, CA

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The Bella Union, third and last San Francisco theater to use this once popular name, located on the eastern edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, opened around 1911 as the Shanghai. In 1913 it was renamed the Kearny Street, and, by the 1940’s had become Kearny Burlesque.

In 1948, it was renamed Rex, and, as such, was an outlet for Filipino films. On October 5, 1948, it was renamed Bella Union, the occasion being a short-lived attempt to show silent films, with recorded musical accompaniment, but this venture was not profitable, and Chinese films soon became its mainstay.

It successfully operated as the Bella Union until 1985 at which time the space was converted into retail space.

Contributed by Tillmany

Recent comments (view all 6 comments)

GaryParks
GaryParks on December 5, 2003 at 1:48 pm

I remember stumbling across this theatre in the early 1980s while in San Francisco. I had no camera that day, so didn’t take pictures of the wonderful facade. The theatre was closed and remodeled very soon after, because the next time I came—with camera—it was remodeled. It wasn’t that the facade was particularly unusual, or even beautiful—it was the fact that it was obviously that of a well-preserved example of “late nickelodeon” style theatre architecture—with a high foyer open to the street, and a little box office in the center of a row of doors. There was either pressed tin or some kind of plaster paneling on the walls and ceiling of the entrance. Today, only the general shape of the roofline remains from the original look.

scottfavareille
scottfavareille on November 14, 2005 at 7:51 am

It looks like it did show “adults only” films in the early-mid 1960’s. I saw an SF Chronicle ad for this theater in a scene from the 1964 film “The Erotic Mr Rose” and it showed the theater playing “Nudes on Credit” (an earlier film done by the same director as Mr Rose). This may have been brief, as it did not show “adults only” films in some 1965 ads that I have.

jordanlage
jordanlage on August 4, 2007 at 8:15 pm

I remember seeing Frankenheimer’s BLACK SUNDAY here in the summer of 1977. The owners were Chinese then and may have lived above the theater itself as I arrived for the first showing one day to hear an elderly Chinese woman shouting up to “Johnny” (her son?) to come down and open the theater’s doors for the patron (me) waiting to see the film.

GeeBee
GeeBee on August 10, 2007 at 5:39 pm

In late 1960 and 1961 the theater was not showing films, but was home to a theater group that presented three-act plays on the stage. Performances were on weekends for several weeks. Then the theater was dark while a new play was rehearsed and new sets were built in the cellar. I was stationed in San Francisco in the Coast Guard at the time and worked on the stage crew for several productions.

seymourcox
seymourcox on November 16, 2009 at 11:20 am

From the above posted 1972 photo, was that arched front building on the left also once a movie house? It certainly looks like a nickelodeon facade.

jordanlage
jordanlage on September 10, 2011 at 7:48 am

Hmmm. That photo from ‘72 is of course the theater ( I remember the sign w/ Chinese characters so well), so my recollection of someone shouting down to 'Johnny" from an upper window to open the theater must be wrong. Or the person could have been shouting down from a window in the apt. building 2 doors to the right. At any rate, the mid-week matinee unspooling of Black Sunday was sparsely attended to be sure, but probably cost a buck & change and it was one of my favorite movies at the time so I had a great time. 'A Moment in Time’ sounds really cool. I spent a lot of time roaming the streets of Chinatown as a kid and remember some Chinese theaters, one on Grant Ave. (Sun SIng?) and Great Star on Jackson. Also the Grandview & the Palace. Never saw a movie inside these theaters but wish I had.

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