Powell Cinema

39 Powell Street,
San Francisco, CA 94102

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robertcampbell on July 14, 2017 at 9:12 am

Two of my original photos were deleted and replaced with “color corrected copies” which I do not appreciate. My comments under the photos were also removed, and credit for these photos were given to the new poster. Please correct this from happening again.

6_steevee_9 on February 28, 2016 at 10:27 pm

While living in San Francisco the year of 1969, the Powell Theatre was my main movie hangout, I just loved that classic little theatre which played all of the classics rotating…‘plus new shows changing all the time.

robertcampbell on November 23, 2012 at 11:21 am

Added a photo of the Powell that I took, I believe, in 1975. I also found a flyer when the Powell showed all male porn films. It was a great theater.

coonyp on April 9, 2012 at 9:34 pm

I wandered into this theater back in the 70’s and without anticipating anything special, saw David Lean’s “Great Expectations”. There are few better experiences than being surprised by a great movie. I told my son about it tonight and he asked where I saw it. I said it was the Powell Theater and speculated that it was in the Burger King that we dined in a couple of years back. Sure enough.

Mike Rogers
Mike Rogers on March 23, 2011 at 6:07 pm

looks like “RACHEL.RACHEL” might be playing in the photo.thanks for the Picture KenMc.

kencmcintyre on April 4, 2009 at 9:49 pm

This site has a 1968 photo of the Powell:

philbertgray on July 8, 2006 at 2:27 am

I arrived in San Francisco in 1964, a Texas green horn desperate to get away from the constraints of the bible belt mentality that still ruled the south.

My first job in San Francisco was at Tad’s Steak house up a block from the Powell Theatre. I worked a split shift from 10am until 2pm then back again from 6pm until 10pm. A steak dinner was a dollar for a steak, baked potato, small salad and garlic bread. Coffee was a dime. A bargain even then insured a substantial clinetelle of both residents and tourists.

The Powell Theatre became my afternoon refuge. There were 15 operating movie houses in downtown San Francsico showing everything thing from first run films to 2nd run double bills. Every theatre had daily matinees. The concept of “revival houses” hadn’t started yet but the Powell had a healthy dose of films of the 40s and 50s along with more current 2nd runs. For an admission of 25 cents I was introduced to Hollywood’s “Glory years” . I saw my first Jeanette McDonald Nelson Eddy film there and The Marx brothers sublime lunacy would pop up occasionally. The films changed three times a week so there was always a steady supply of new entertainment.

The theatre box office was a stand alone booth off the street. There was a short slanted walk up into the theatre with displays on either side for a posters of current and coming films. Inside there was a small room with vending machines. No real snack bar – no usher taking your ticket. . The back left of the auditorium still had the remains of a “cry room” a sound proof room with a glass front and side door where noisy infants and their parents could be isolated from the theatre and still watch the film. The glass front and side entrance door had been removed but a portion of the side wall still remained.

I was loyal to the Powell until it’s entrance into pornography. I knew the “end was near” when I went to a midnight screening of “ Beach Blanket Bingo” with two friends and we were the only customers. Shortly after that it switched to porn – then one day was quietly gutted and soon replaced with a “Burger King” which still operates there. No trace of the theatre or its facade remains except in my memory.

I miss it.

Phil Gray

davidkaye on June 26, 2005 at 10:24 am

John Stefanelli. That’s his name. He had what must have been the very best slogan ever for a movie theatre: “Where dreams are played.” I didn’t go to it much as a porn house, though I do remember seeing two Fred Halstead porn masterpieces “Sex Garage” and “LA Plays Itself” there. These stylistic films were recently purchased as part of the permanent collection of the NY Museum of Modern Art.

But what I most remember were the old musicals and the elderly fans who used to turn out to see them, along with those of us who really appreciated seeing the old movies in the old theatre that must have played them shortly after they came out the first time.

Few movie theatres do I miss as much as the Powell.

robertgippy on June 25, 2005 at 3:09 pm

The Powell was a wonderful theatre. i can still see the red walls. When you walked in, there were doors to your left to enter the auditorium, and to the right, a long hallway that led to the womens restroom, that had a nice little lounge inside, and the mens room at the end of the hall, that just had black walls and a wooden toilet booth. In the auditorium one aisle went down the middle and seats were on both sides. In the left rear, the area was called the “sin section because of sex that went on in there. The walls had murals of gold miners. The theatre had a interesting curtain, it went from left to right and was gold. The Powell did show main porn, then went to gay porn. The local businesses did not like that idea of tourists walking by and seeing "the magnificant cowboys” and “the experiment” on the marquee. The Powell then, managed by John Stefanelli, showed classic films, and the rocky horror picture show at midnight. “Tommy” the movie did well at midnight there. It remained classic movies until its closure. It was gutted out and a Burger King took its place. The old timers still call the rear left section the “sin section”. A very fine theatre.

Gerald A. DeLuca
Gerald A. DeLuca on April 3, 2005 at 4:47 am

This photo shows the marquee of the Powell Theatre (left) at the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market.
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gorkipk on January 7, 2005 at 3:32 pm

I moved to SF in the early 70’s and I loved going to this little theatre on Powell right off of Market. The sound of cable cars clattering was in the air and the mammoth Woolworth flagship store popularized in so many postcards was right across the street.

The incarnation I first remember at the Powell was their playing revival and 2nd run pictures.

I saw T R Baskin and Till The Clouds Roll By there.

After the popularity of Deep Throat, it began playing straight types of porno. A title I remember from the marquee was “Hot Rods” not sanctioned by NASCAR.

Later they did a road show continuous performace of Devil N Miss Jones and Deepthroat for months (years).

Gay movies were the last format before converting into a fast food franchise.

davidkaye on October 25, 2004 at 1:15 pm

I attended a screening of “That’s Entertainment” (the movie about the history of MGM) at the Powell. What’s remarkable about this was that one of the dancers in a movie clip shown extensively in the movie was in the house that night and answered questions about the musicals and MGM.

I really liked the Powell and was sorry to see it closed. In its final days it had been operated by a couple guys who had also operated a gay porn theatre called the Laurel, on Polk just north of Broadway. They’d tried porn at the Powell, but it just didn’t work, so they went back to revivals. I think the Powell was my first exposure to those remarkable Busby Berkeley films.

At the end, much of the equipment had become inoperable. They didn’t even have workable house lights anymore. In order to clean the theatre they had a 150 watt bulb on a boom to light the place.

Still, I was sorry to see it go.

Tillmany on May 15, 2004 at 2:36 am

The Powell opened as the Edison in 1911. It was renamed the Powell
in 1933. For forty years it was a popular, comfortable little
theatre that catered to the older, retired citizenry of downtown
San Francisco, who lived in nearby apartments and residence hotels.
“Polite” would be a good word to describe its programming.
Revivals of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musicals,
Greta Garbo classics and a lot of older films that were to be
seen nowhere else could often be found on the Powell screen.
Later films such as Auntie Mame and There’s No Business Like Show
Business could be seen over and over as long as distributors had
prints available in their inventories.
Many titles seen there were the last circulating prints to be found anywhere in the USA,
which the local San Francisco exchanges kept on hand just so the Powell could play them.
Except for a wider screen, installed in order to meet the demands of 1950’s programming,
once you entered the theatre you really got the feeling nothing much had changed since 1911,
and that included the light fixtures and the tapestries on the walls.
True, their CinemaScope presentation left a lot to be desired, but it was the best they could do handicapped by the physical limitations of the theatre.
When the former manager of the Powell, Min Gordon, finally retired in the early 1970’s,
other operators tried different polices (described above) without success, and the theatre finally closed on August 9, 1977.
It was converted into a Burger King, and, as such, 39 Powell Street still survives today in 2004.

scottfavareille on March 16, 2004 at 9:55 am

This theater was the first in the San Francisco area to show The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight screenings in late 1975. When the Powell closed (I believe in 1976), the midnight screenings moved to the Strand on Market St, where it played for years. (Rocky Horror first showed theatrically at the Metro theater in 1975 prior to its reincarnation as a popular midnight show.)

scottfavareille on March 16, 2004 at 9:45 am

The Powell closed as a theater in the mid 1970’s. In the 1970’s, it did show second run films, then porn for about a year(hetero at first with The Devil in Miss Jones, then gay porn), before ending as a short-lived revival house. (I had actually seen the Danny Kaye film Hans Christian Andersen there in 1975.) It then became a McDonald’s for many years before becoming a perfume store, which is its current use. The building itself is not demolished.

William on March 16, 2004 at 8:53 am

The Powell Theatre was located at 39 Powell Street and it seated 350 people.