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Rig Trouble in Little China: The Great Star Theater is Haunted 

Wednesday, Apr 27 2016

I'm in a 90-year old opera theater in Chinatown, and I'm thoroughly creeped out.

It's after midnight, and I'm ascending a set of metal stairs at the rear of the stage in the Great Star Theater on Jackson Street. No one knows where I am, I've only just met the guy who's leading me up to the rigging, and my palms are getting sweaty as I climb. This is what you get, I think, for trusting a stranger who emails you from an AOL account.

I've fallen for a well-worn magician's trick of being shown something — in this case, "malfunctioning" theatrical equipment and a video that reminds me of the full-building ads in Blade Runner — meant to get me to laugh off any possibility of unease, only to be put in a situation that makes me second-guess my breezy confidence. Nearly up the stairs, I can hear something making noise in the shadows. It looks like a can jerking around in a hotel pan.

From our perch 25 feet above the stage — or so I'm guessing, because I can't really see — Paul Nathan launches into a docent talk. He is a trained magician, and a San Francisco native who knows the history of the theater he is now trying to renovate sufficiently well in order to lure national touring companies.

Built in 1925 for the Chinese opera, the Great Star catered to illiterate itinerant workers and functioned more like a community center — almost a house of worship.

"They came from a culture where your place in society was explained by opera," Nathan says.

Just as Irish and Italian immigrants got their sense of right and wrong from the Catholic Church, Chinese laborers heard didactic tales which explained their place in society. (Nathan compares the opera's stock characters to the archetypes found in commedia dell'arte, only without wise fools and other forms of irony.)

At the back of the stage is a cyclorama, a tin backdrop that would be behind the set pieces and which an artist came over from China specifically to paint. (It depicts the story of the White Snake Lady, an anti-Buddhist fable that was very much in the news in 1925 because the White Snake Lady Pagoda in Canton — today's Guangzhou — had burned down the year before.)

"If there are spirits here, they should be very calm," says Nathan, just as it sounds as though someone dropped a box of cutlery elsewhere in the house. A smoke machine — technically, a hazer — starts acting up of its own accord, and a confetti machine belches out bits of paper at odd intervals.

"I don't think it's creepy at all," he offers. "I don't know what our press agent told you."

He encourages me to climb to the rafters, where the flymen would control "everything that makes this a theater" via ropes and pulleys, and mentions the superstition against whistling on stage (for fear that the flymen, who communicated with each other via whistling, would drop a sandbag on your noggin).

Just as he's explaining the mechanics of the iron curtain, a device meant to buy some time in the event of a fire, Nathan's friend and associate Frank Olivier comes down an aisle and steps on stage. He looks like Tom Waits, if Tom Waits routinely went to the Playa every Labor Day weekend, and he's playing a flexatone, an instrument that warbles like a musical saw.

"If the audience lights on fire, it saves the actors," Olivier says of the iron curtain. He's now brandishing a dead rat that he claims is not a prop, but a mummified corpse he means to put in water and reconstitute.

It's right about then that I realize it's all a game. But I'm confused enough not to know which stories are true and which aren't, and Nathan and Olivier interrupt one another, each feeding off the other's nutty energy. Did the Hong Kong billionaire and kung fu movie mogul Run Run Shaw — who lived to be 106 — own it? (Yes.) Was the theater really zoned half as a Chinese restaurant and half as a knick-knack shop? (Maybe, but the Great Star has been plagued by troubles with the zoning board.) Was there really a foot-deep flood 45 minutes before a Dark Kabaret show? (I'm not sure.) Are there tunnels connecting the "opium den" under the stage to the rest of Chinatown? (Not anymore, if there ever were.) Did a 31-year-old woman really die of a drug overdose inside the theater last year? (Unfortunately, yes.)

Nathan and Olivier sound a tad blithe about the overdose victim, whose death in the company of one of their associates after a party complicated efforts to restore the theater — but this, too, could be part of the act.

"This was a 600-to-700 seat theater," Nathan says, although modern equipment has reduced that by over 100 seats. Referring to the theater's heyday, he adds, "With shows going on every week, someone's going to die. And the sordid past, and wacky shit that happens, shit goes awry. People come in and shoot up. That's Chinatown. That's San Francisco. That's everywhere."

The zoning woes, though, were very real — and very complicated. Essentially, the city didn't believe the Great Star was a theater, and prior to allowing it to reopen fully, officials required such a high burden of proof that it had operated as one throughout its life that Nathan had to rely on 90-year-old patrons sharing Chinese-language playbills from as long ago as the '50s. (It got to where he felt ghoulish for "dredging up people's memories of their loved ones.") He produced a shipping bill for Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon on its first showing in the United States, and the Cantonese-speaking landlord, Julie Lee, who's hands-off enough about the programming, got involved when the financial viability of her tenant was on the line.

Subsequently, Nathan formed a 501(c)(3) for preservation purposes, and while the members of the board of directors has different ideas about the Great Star's use, his concern is primarily "that the building isn't lost as an arts space for the city."

"How many 500-seat theaters are there that you just haven't heard of?" Olivier asks. "The long-term goal is to fix it up enough to attract national touring companies. We're two blocks from Columbus and Broadway, 12 minutes from BART. There's good, cheap parking."

If realized, their ambitions could help revitalize Chinatown's moribund, nonexistent nightlife — which is Nathan's intention.

"When I was a kid, it was open until three or four in the morning — until the shooting in the '70s," he says, referring to the 1977 Golden Dragon Massacre that killed five and injured 11 (and launched the SFPD's Gang Task Force). "Chinatown just died after that — at night — and it shouldn't. It's beautiful here at night, and safe, and close to everything, and cool. There are 14 restaurants on this block. Not this street: this block."

"Bruce Lee was born in the hospital one block up and used to sleep in the alley," he adds. "His father was a Chinese opera singer in this theater."

In the meantime, the Cirque du Soleil-esque Twisted Cabaret played a run in March, and until May 13, the Great Star will be home to The Boy from Oz, with Connie Champagne in the role of Judy Garland.

"We want to be able to have a voice for producers and actors," Nathan says. "You've got the Curran and A.C.T. that bring in these beautiful shows, but that's not the voice of San Francisco. If we're not careful, we'll turn into Walnut Creek."

Before leaving at close to 2 a.m., I get to see the so-called opium den in the basement, as well as the pump room (which is full of decaying celluloid, and a very old water valve). And for good measure, both Olivier and Nathan perform card tricks on me that leave me grinning like a fool when I can't figure out how the eight of spades ended up under my shoe. They're magicians, unable to help themselves from doing their thing.


About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.


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