Bella Union Theatre

825 Kearny Street,
San Francisco, CA 94108

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Bella Union Theatre

The Bella Union Theatre, third and last San Francisco theatre to use this once popular name, located on the eastern edge of San Francisco’s Chinatown, opened around 1911 as the Shanghai Theatre. In 1913 it was renamed the Kearny Street Theatre, and, by the 1940’s had become Kearny Burlesque. It began screening adult movies on September 11, 1943.

In 1948, it was renamed Rex Theatre, and, as such, was an outlet for Filipino films. On October 5, 1948, it was renamed Bella Union Theatre, 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. On June 14, 1974 it became an adult theatre renamed Kearney Cinema.

Following this it successfully operated as the Bella Union Theatre until 1985 at which time the space was converted into retail space.

Contributed by Tillmany

Recent comments (view all 11 comments)

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.

jordanlage
jordanlage on July 3, 2016 at 6:20 am

Confused about which one of the two buildings was the Bella Union. the one housing World Ginseng Center (825 Kearny) or the building to its left with the semi-circle window? Any insights appreciated.

stevenj
stevenj on July 3, 2016 at 9:22 am

I google street viewed the address (825 Kearny). After enlarging it the numbers 825 are visible above the entry doors of the World Ginseng Center.

jordanlage
jordanlage on July 15, 2017 at 10:11 pm

Jack Tillmany’s thorough listing of SF theaters at http://home.earthlink.net/~minhnghia/theater.html is undecided as to the address of the Bella Union, née the Shanghai. Either 825 or 821. Anyone with photos of the building when it was known as the Bella Union (1949-1985) should post to clear up the address conundrum.

rivest266
rivest266 on August 1, 2018 at 4:43 pm

Reopened as Kearny on September 11th, 1943 showing adult movies. Ad in photo section.

rivest266
rivest266 on August 12, 2018 at 4:03 pm

And reopened again as the Kearny cinema on June 14th, 1974 showing adult movies. Ad in the photo section.

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