The New Mission Theater has been under construction for years, its white marquee derelict, its towering sign faded from red to blue. The crumbling building was an eyesore on a block of eyesores: the gutted Cine Latino across the street and the burnt-out historic apartment building on the corner of 22nd and Mission in sharp contrast to the newly-built and brightly colored Vida Apartments next door.
But the New Mission Theater has been completely refurbished. No red paint was spared for the 70-foot sign, adorned with new green neon lights and black marquee letters announcing its first show: a sold-out screening of the seventh “Star Wars” film on December 17 — today.
“I’m really happy with it,” said Tim League, the founder and head of Alamo Drafthouse, a chain of 20 theaters nationwide that took over ownership of the New Mission Theater four years ago. At the time, League was looking to expand his Texas-based operation and had his eyes set on three cities: New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
“The three most important film cities,” he said. By chance, a friend of his was living in the Mission and came upon the skeleton of the New Mission Theater.
“He was eating at Cha Cha Cha or something like that, and he popped in — it was a furniture store then I think — and snuck in the back and saw the old theater,” League said.
The friend knew League was looking to expand and told him about the theater. It was a natural choice for entry into San Francisco, but the building needed significant repair: It hosted its last show in 1993 — though some say it was a Carlos Santana performance in the 1980s — and since then has been used for furniture storage, raves, and graffiti-aficionados, leaving it run-down and rotting.
“There were really heavy-duty challenges,” League said, explaining that the entire lobby had to be seismically retrofitted, which required 3D scanning the walls, gutting the floor to get behind them, and inserting steel beams to ensure their structural integrity.
League was mum on the cost of the renovation, though it’s been reported as $10 million elsewhere. Well worth it, he said, given the ability to restore a theater to a neighborhood that was once teeming with them.
“The coolest thing this week,” League said of the theater’s four days of soft-openings before its grand opening on Thursday, “is meeting a ton of people who used to come here for kung fu movies. This was their neighborhood theater, it was a theater for Disney movies, for martial arts movies, for horror movies.”
And residents, old and new, are excited.
“I’m delighted with the fact that the front looks like the New Mission, that they didn’t get rid of the old sign (now a registered landmark),” said Jim Salinas, a long-time labor leader in the Mission. He remembered going to the theater as a youngster with his mother – and then on dates there as a teenager.
“I think that families would go downstairs, and everyone knew the balcony was an area where you could go take your girl and go on a date, hold somebody’s hand,” Salinas said. “It was a well-known fact that the balcony was set aside for young lovers.”
The opulence of the New Mission Theater rivaled that of the famed Fox Theater, Salinas said, though he maintained that it was still “a neighborhood theater.”
“It was an amazing place,” he said. “The carpeting, the wonderful back area. I remember that they used to have some kind of entertainment event where they actually raffled off dishware… You’d get an entire set.”
Passers-by have been pausing in front of the theater’s opening for weeks, some wondering about the construction, some responding to the “Now Hiring” sign on the marquee, and others remembering the old New Mission Theater and glad for its restoration.
“The last time I came here I think I parked for 10 cents,” said Will Bruce, a San Francisco native who turns 64 this year. “It’s good to see the movie theater restored back into the new society. This is a good thing for the neighborhood. We need a good theater.”
Not everyone had fond memories of the old New Mission. Richard Hoop, who has lived in San Francisco for 25 years and likely caught the tail-end of the theater’s reign, said his movie-buff wife entered once and never again.
“The old one was grungy, she only went once,” he said, describing sticky floors and rotting ceilings. He and his family are excited about the renovation, however, and glad that Alamo Drafthouse is taking it on: They’ve been to their Texas theater before and have nothing but praise.
“My son, who was in the army, served at Fort Hood, so he took us to the Alamo Drafthouse there and it was a great experience for us,” he said. The original Alamo Drafthouse theater is in Austin, a 90-minute drive south from the army base. “So when we heard of the plans to renovate, we were very excited.”
He has two children flying in from New York for the holidays, and they plan on seeing “Star Wars” next week — though their previous Alamo Drafthouse experience has set the bar high.
“They hope it’s not too fru-fru of a chef,” he said.
That chef is Ronnie New, a long-time cook with previous stints at Comstock Saloon and Magnolia Brewery. Burgers, pizza, and chocolate chip cookies are on the menu, alongside less orthodox choices like chicken liver mousse, pancetta mac-and-cheese, and a whole roasted cauliflower – all of which can be ordered while watching the movie. Just fill out a card and a silent waiter will whisk your order away and return moments later with the signature queso dish – or whatever suits your fancy.
There will also be a stand-alone bar – which will be a destination in and of itself, no movie necessary – with 27 beers on tap, alcoholic milkshakes, and cocktails.
And the theater itself, of course, which is a step-up from a regular cineplex: Its 550 seats are spread out in front of five different screens, ranging from the 320-seater that will host “Star Wars” on opening night, down to a 34-seater “boutique” screen. The red lounge seats sport plenty of legroom — and personal tables for food, of course.
At $13.25 for a regular ticket, it’s also not expensive – for today’s movies at least – though some passers-by said it was outside of their price range.
“I kind of rolled my eyeball at that,” said Elmira Johnson. The mother of three is from the Bayview and said she would love to go to the theater, but would stick to matinee price of $9.25. “When I saw the matinee, that got my attention.”
League said the movie selection would be varied. “Everyone in the universe is interested in Star Wars,” he said, but after opening week the theater would feature indy flicks, musicals, horror movies, films from neighborhood artists – even free children’s movies on occasion.
“We’re doing a huge mix,” he said, adding that free children’s movies and screenings by neighborhood filmmakers would help to ground the theater in the Mission.
An initiative that began before opening night. Last week the theater announced it would preserve Le Video’s film collection — about 90,000 titles once held by the famed video rental store — and would partner with Lost Weekend Video to rent them in the lobby. And on Wednesday, Leef Smith from Mission: Comics and Art dropped off copies of a Star Wars comic book that would be available, for free, during the film premiere.
These overtures aside, most were just looking forward to having a new theater in town.
“There’s going to be a place in the Mission to bring the family together to enjoy a matinee, a movie, cartoons,” said Monica Lozano, who has lived in the neighborhood for seven years. When she noted the price, she said it was “not too expensive, but not too cheap either,” and added that it was worthwhile to get her kids out of the house.
“This is the enchantment: that you can go outside the home, with your kids, for a good price,” she said.