In the first half of the 20th century, the evening sky over Mission Street was a neon wonderland, bathed by gaudy marquees in incandescent pinks, blues and purples. Perhaps no marquee was more iconic than the shining red art deco tower of the New Mission Theater at 22nd and Mission.
On a recent afternoon, the building’s marquee—weathered and worn since the theater’s shuttering in 1993—was sheathed in construction scaffolding. Later this year, the New Mission will shine again.
As part of the construction of the Vida Condos next door, the building is getting rehabbed by the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse and is scheduled to reopen as a premium art-house movie theater. The journey back to its starting point has been a long and tortuous one.
A Star is Born
“This theater has been described as the most beautiful suburban house in America and is wonderfully equipped,” the theater trade paper Moving Picture World gushed about the New Mission in 1916. That was a few months after its grand opening, featuring Poor Little Peppina with Mary Pickford.
Originally designed by the Reid Brothers for Louis R. Greenfield and Leon Kahn, then heads of the original Mission Merchants Association, the New Mission actually displaced an older, smaller theater. The original structure of the Idle Hour, a small nickelodeon, provided the walls of New Mission’s grand lobby and the large auditorium was built in the back lot. The brick nickelodeon’s silhouette reemerged during current work on the site.
When it first opened as the New Mission in 1916, the theater had a little more than 1,000 seats. So popular was the new cinema, however, that Greenfield and Kahn soon closed it in order to install a new balcony, bringing the total seating to 2,020.
For most of a decade, until El Capitan opened in 1928, it was the largest, grandest theater in the Mission. The trademark red tower was added in 1932 by the famous theater designer Timothy Pflueger when the New Mission was taken over by Nasser Brothers—the same family that still owns the Castro Theater today.
In that era before television, everyone went to the movies. “These places were full almost every night,” said Jack Tillmany, historian and author of several books about the Bay Area’s historic theaters. On Mission Street alone, he estimated, 10,000 people a day went to the movies.
Like the Castro, the New Mission was a second-run theater. Movies premiered in theaters on Market Street, were shelved for several weeks, then sent to the neighborhood theaters.
“People always think these grand theaters were first run, but they weren’t,” said Tillmany, who said he first saw King Kong at the New Mission when it was rereleased in 1952. But in an age of ornate movie palaces, even the second-string screens were stars.
“The New Mission was the best there was,” said Gary Parks, a local historic movie theater aficionado who fondly remembers the spacious, mirrored lobby, the vaulted ceiling and the glow of the red neon outside that distinguished the theater even in its waning days. “It deserves preservation.”
Last Picture Show
Starting in the mid-1900s, movie-going declined steadily. The El Capitan closed in 1957 and more closures of Mission Street’s dozen and a half theaters followed throughout the 1970s and 80s. Those that survived featured B-movie imports from Mexico along with Hollywood blockbusters.
Before he was a San Francisco poet laureate, Mission resident Alejandro Murguía worked as a manager of the New Mission in the early 1980s.
“Latino families would pour in, especially on weekends, to see the typical Mexican movies, most of them totally forgettable,” said Murguía, who quit his job when the owner wouldn’t agree to show more independent films. “It wasn’t so much the movies that impressed me but the beautiful art-deco details, the light fixtures, the fabulous carpets.”
Mia Gonzalez, a founder of Balmy Alley, remembers the New Mission’s “grand entrada.” “It had just a little slope,” she said. She went often with her mother and grandmother, favoring Wednesday evenings when the theater gave out dishes and the trio would add to the family’s collection of bowls and plates. She remembers one set with a daisy pattern.
Martha Estrella, also a Mission native, liked the bingo nights and the days when she and her friends would see two or three features for 25 cents.
She recalled the days before gangs of the late 1970s and 80s when the audience included stylish men in suits and white shoes. Instead of the low riders, who came later and were influenced by Los Angeles, she said, all the young Latinos early on wanted their cars high.
“There was also a television station that would feature local people” and some of these would be shown at the New Mission Theater, she said.
The New Mission outlasted many of the old movie houses, showing films until its final days in May of 1994. When it closed, the building was used as a furniture showroom.
When its proprietors weren’t looking, Gary Parks said, he’d sneak into the auditorium, which was used to house excess inventory. “It was definitely sad to see it like that.”
Parks wasn’t the only person to sneak into the New Mission’s vacant auditorium. One night in 2006 roughly 300 people broke into the building for an illegal rave.
In 1998, City College bought the New Mission and adjoining land, planning to tear down the theater to create a campus that would serve 9,000 students. Debate between neighborhood activists and preservationists was fierce.
San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia described a community meeting in 2001 at which City College’s plans ignited racial tensions in a neighborhood just starting to feel the effects of the first dot-com boom.
“One excitable woman also insinuated that the preservation forces were racist, on the ground that they were stopping the Latino community from getting a campus by standing up for a part of the city’s history,” Garcia said.
In the end, City College opted to sell the property to real-estate mogul and restaurateur Gus Murad. The city named the New Mission a historic landmark in 2004.
In 2009, Murad won a controversial 20-feet exception to existing height restrictions from the Planning Department for the rehabilitation of the New Mission and the conversion of neighboring Giant Value supermarket to housing.
But another political controversy ensured, due partly to Murad’s connections with Mayor Gavin Newsom. Murad, who owed City College millions of dollars for the purchase, sold the two buildings—as well as other holdings in the Mission—to Alamo Drafthouse and Oyster Development Group in 2011 for about $6 million.
Real estate developer Colleen Meharry told Mission Local at the time: “Let me tell you, you think the Mission’s hot right now, but if this deal goes through, the Mission is going to explode.”
Days of Future Past
Meherry was right.
Today units in Vida are selling for $1,000 a square foot, and the Alamo Drafthouse promises to create a deluxe cinema at the New Mission—five screens, state-of-the-art digital projection and high-end food and beverages.
Parks said that he hopes the renovations stay true to the original grandeur of the old lobby, but more than anything he’s excited about seeing the marquee and tower light up again.
And if the neighbors object? “The people who move into condos next door should not be able to tell the New Mission to turn the sign off because it’s too bright,” Parks said. “The theater was there first.”
Lydia Chávez contributed some reporting.