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Behind the Scenes 

A moviegoer's companion to Bay Area theaters, from the palaces to the pits
Act One/Two
2128 Center (at Shattuck), Berkeley
(510) 548-7200
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors
Parking: none

This pair of shabby but comfortable art screens, now owned by the Landmark theater chain (see Embarcadero for background on the company), is a Berkeley perennial. The Act is not a terrible place to see a movie; downstairs, particularly, the raised stage gives the screen some force. The walls and carpet are an old, scuffed blue, testament to the thousands of students who've ambled through. The staff and ambience is relaxed even by Landmark or Berkeley standards: At a recent showing of Lone Star the young woman in the ticket-seller's booth wore a sheriff's badge. There was a touch of Berkeley color in the ladies' room, where we encountered a bag lady struggling to clean her privates in the too-small stall, the door of which remained open to provide room for maneuver. The final Cinema Paradiso dollop occurred as the lights came up, and at the head of the exiting audience was the sheriff-badged ticket-seller, who'd been watching the movie with us, and who promptly hopped back onto her ticket-seller's stool.

1115 Solano (at San Pablo), Albany
(510) 524-5656
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: limited

A charming duplexed art house at the foot of Solano in Albany, originally an Italian dancing school. It was later acquired by Landmark in 1994. The screens are big, the staff friendly and interested.

5400 Geary (at 18th Avenue)
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: none

Perhaps we should call it the Exndia, since United Artists hasn't seen fit to replace the burned-out bulbs in the marquee. A once-marvelous venue gone to seed, the Alexandria, built in 1923, now offers a nonstop barrage of action flicks and Pauly Shore comedies for the testosterone-challenged. The main theater (550 seats) is a pleasant barn of a place (although spooky and unsettling when the crowd is small) with a big ol' screen and decent sound. A gently arcing stairway leads upstairs to the two smaller theaters (about 250 seats each) carved out of the balcony. Sightlines in both rooms are flawless, given the steep rake, a bit like the upper deck at Candlestick. Despite the first-run bookings, the Alexandria reeks of run-down melancholy and faded luster. Parking is bad news.

2330 Polk (at Union)
Admission: $7.50,
$4 kids/seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: $5 valet

With its twin minarets and ornate arabesques, the Alhambra has perhaps the most alluring presence of any theater in town; it's one of four surviving designs the great Timothy Pflueger left in the Bay Area. (See the Castro for details.) The project was notable for the architectural challenges it presented Pflueger, among them the oddly shaped site, so narrow at the screen end of the building that there was no room for the (then mandatory) organ. His solution: placing it atop the ceiling! The 1,138-seat house was built by the Nasser family in 1926; it fell into the hands of the Blumenfelds (see Regency) in 1973, who promptly plexed it. This outrage the company redeemed in 1988 by deplexing it (an extremely rare process) supposedly with the help of Disney, whose family entertainments invariably play here. (The lobby's already spotted in anticipation of Christmas' 101 Dalmatians release.) Now it's a fairly well-restored neighborhood palace with perhaps the most spectacular interior of any S.F. theater.

992 Valencia (at 21st Street)
Admission: $5
Parking: none

Artists' Television Access is probably San Francisco's most important film venue for all things underground, avant-garde, weird, moribund, arty, farty, pretentious, wacky, explosive, and thought-provoking. From two-bit documentaries about local rock bands to programs of work by area high-schoolers, ATA showcases just about anything on celluloid or video. ATA also runs a cable access show on Channel 52, exhibits work by local artists, puts on computer and production classes, and offers cheap video editing. But is it a nice place to see a movie? Well, "nice" isn't really the right word. It's something like a cross between a rec room and a miniature church; the 80 mismatched seats of peeling velvet are rather uncomfortable, the sound drones from a '60s-era amplifier and living room speakers, and the screen is only 8 feet square, but you can bring in a burrito and a soda and no one will screech.

38th Avenue & Balboa
Admission: $5.50, $3.50 kids/seniors,
$3.50 matinee
Parking: none

Perhaps the most remote of the city's once proud legion of neighborhood movie houses is on a fog-swept stretch of Balboa in the Outer Richmond. Built in 1923, it's still run by the widow of Bud Levin, a key S.F. exhibitor (see Coronet). It's now a perfunctorily plexed second-run affair whose indifferent approach to projection and such is only partially made up for by its budget admission price.

2451 Shattuck (at Haste), Berkeley
(510) 841-9922
Admission: $7, $4 kids/students
Parking: none

The Bombay is one of three all-Indian theaters in the Bay Area (the others are the Naz in Fremont and the Eros in San Jose). The site, just a few blocks south of central Berkeley, was converted from a storefront by Ed Landsberg, who'd run the Studio Guild on Telegraph Avenue with his former wife, Pauline Kael. It was eventually converted to porn by the Mitchell Brothers, and then, for a time, an art house. The theater was reopened in 1993 by a group of Indian businessmen. They get their films from distributors in London and New York; most are subtitled, and the owners encourage non-Hindi speakers to attend. (The theater has the Bay Area's most enthusiastic phone recording.) There's generally one screening per evening; the bill changes weekly.

3010 Geary (at Blake)
Admission: $7.50, $4.25 kids/seniors,
$4.25 matinee
Parking: none

The Bridge opened in 1939 with an Astaire-Rogers souffle, The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle. The art deco landmark (misidentified as the "Ridge") merits an entry in Luis Bunuel's piercing autobiography, My Last Sigh, for a 1978 "terrorist" (as he called it) incident provoked by That Obscure Object of Desire. (The damage necessitated a renovation of the living room-style lobby.) Landmark took over the inviting 400-seat theater from Renaissance Rialto (see Grand Lake) in 1991, and the fare now is primarily English-pedigreed art films like The Madness of King George and Emma. Like one abandoned for a sexy younger lover, the Bridge maintains its homely dignity and older, literate audience even as its corporate parent and the younger set fawn over the new Embarcadero Center. The Bridge's screen is high but not particularly large, so the closer you sit the better. The main attraction of the Bridge is Tyrone McCloskey's art: The Bridge staffer's wonderfully creepy paintings of fringe filmmakers like William Castle transform the lobby into a gallery. The legendary Samuel Z. Arkoff recently dropped by to examine his portrait on the "King of the B's" wall; what are you waiting for?


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