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From Nickelodeons to Movie Palaces

by Therese Poletti

The following is an excerpt from Therese Poletti's book, Art Deco San Francisco, The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger.

In the spring of 1920, a trio of brothers-William, Elias, and George Nasser-came to see Timothy Pflueger. They had got Pflueger's name from the Humboldt Bank, where they had obtained a loan to expand their growing neighborhood theatre on Castro Street.

The Nassers owned two small theatres in the Mission district where Pflueger lived and a larger theatre on Castro in the Eureka Valley neighborhood. In 1907 their father, Abraham, an immigrant from Lebanon, turned the family market on Collingwood and Eighteenth streets into the Liberty. In its first incarnation, it was a small neighborhood market by day and a storefront nickelodeon by night. For five cents, patrons could sit in basic folding chairs and watch primitive versions of moving pictures on a blank wall. The flickering movie machine was cranked by hand. "It was such a novelty. People had never seen moving images on the wall," said Don Nasser, a third-generation Nasser who remains involved in the family's theatre business.

The history of the Nassers and their San Francisco business parallels the evolution of American motion picture theatres. Starting around 1905 and continuing for almost a decade, small storefront nickelodeons flourished across the United States as affordable entertainment for the working class. But nickelodeons were frequently dangerous. The lack of ventilation, confined small spaces, and highly flammable silver nitrate film running on crude projectors led to frequent fires.
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Timothy Pflueger in the 1930s, by Peter Stackpole

The Nassers closed the popular Liberty nickelodeon so they could move to a bigger space. The building (now Cliff 's Variety Store) was a long, rectangular room with little adornment except painted panels on the sidewalls and slight detailing in the barrel-vaulted ceiling. An aisle ran through the front half of the theatre, and there were seats for four hundred people. The first Castro Theatre hosted films as well as vaudeville acts.

In their early days, nickelodeons and moving pictures were looked down upon by the middle and upper classes. In an article in Architectural Forum, the Detroit architect C. Howard Crane described the early nickelodeons as "palaces of dubious entertainment." "Frequently the exteriors were adorned after the manner of a side show at the circus and in the interiors the seats were arranged much as they would be in a slum mission, with flat floors and little or no ventilation," wrote Crane.

The more refined members of society attended live theatrical performances in San Francisco's large stage theatres such as the Columbia, the Alcazar, the Curran, and the Orpheum. Vaudeville-a more affordable, and at times bawdy, offshoot of the legitimate stage-coexisted with theatre in the early part of the twentieth century. Vaudeville houses were frequently designed in the Beaux-Arts tradition, evoking the features and styles of the grander theatres. As early as 1894, moving pictures had been a part of the vaudeville experience, when they were shown between dramatic acts. Moving pictures, with higher profits than live shows, eventually became more popular than vaudeville.

While nickelodeons were losing steam in the mid-1910s, the opulent movie palace was born. The architect Thomas W. Lamb designed the first major movie palaces in New York: the Regent, based on the Doge's Palace in Venice, in 1913; the temple like Strand in 1914; the Rialto, with its massive electric pinwheel sign, in 1916; and the Rivoli, with an exterior recalling the Parthenon, in 1917. These majestic theatres were effusive demonstrations of luxury, extravagance, and comfort. The lavish settings were designed in part to help remove the stigma of the old firetrap nickelodeons and increase acceptance and popularity of early motion-picture houses.

Don Nasser said his great-uncles gave Pflueger a free hand in his design for their new theatre on Castro Street. Pflueger may have done some drawings for his firm's Pantages Theatre on Market Street, but otherwise had no experience with the building type. The Nassers were in a hurry to move to a larger theatre. Eureka Valley was booming, as streetcars were coming all the way down Market Street from the financial district. The Nassers asked Pflueger to rush his initial sketches. In June 1920, Pflueger passed his California architecture licensing exams and became a full-fledged architect.
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The Castro Theater in 1927

The elaborate Spanish Baroque style Pflueger employed made a grand statement and recalled the city's Spanish and Mexican heritage. The Castro's exterior, with a high curvilinear gable and large grilled window above the marquee, evoked cathedrals of Spain and Mexico. A large window and detailed cast ornament dominates the west-facing front elevation. The approximately twenty-five-foot-high mullioned window has French doors that open out onto a small balcony from the mezzanine, where patrons can gather above the marquee.

While restrained in its use of the Churrigueresque in the facade, the $300,000 Castro Theatre was still one of the most lavish theatres in a San Francisco neighborhood. It was on a smaller scale than the grand downtown theatres on Market Street that showed first-run movies and had over two thousand seats. But clearly these palaces, three of which were going up at the same time, influenced Pflueger as ornate, escapist venues for the general public.

Art Deco San Francisco, The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger is available at local book stores. You can also obtain an autographed copy by the author at timothypflueger.com.

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