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Hollywood Stars Visit San Francisco's Chinatown

by Scott McKinzie

In 1947, near the end of an unhappy five-year marriage, Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth sat in a dark theater and tensely watched a Chinese opera production. Only four years earlier, Hollywood’s “Boy Wonder” had married “The Love Goddess,” but whatever happiness they had once enjoyed was short-lived.

They had come to San Francisco’s Chinatown not for the theater, but to make a film of their own, Lady from Shanghai. In the movie, Orson Welles’s character gets caught up in a murder scheme, and he confronts Rita Hayworth’s character in a pivotal scene that takes place during the Chinese opera performance.

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll likely remember that the climactic last scene takes place at Playland-at-the-Beach as the Fun House mirrors are shattered by bullets. But being a guide for the Chinatown tour, I find the earlier scenes at Portsmouth Square and on Grant Avenue much more interesting.

The theater Welles used for filming was the Mandarin Theatre, built in 1925 at 1021 Grant, near Jackson. It was a venue for live opera performances for many years before first giving way to cinema and, eventually, becoming a retail center.

In the 1940s, however, it was still a vital locale for live opera productions. Incorporating a performance into his film, Welles was able to add to the mystifying and unfamiliar atmosphere in which his lead character found himself as he fought to determine the truth and save his life. Racial ignorance and prejudice of the times is reinforced by the film’s plot in which the female lead’s treachery and deceit are in step with the same attributes displayed by the Chinatown residents who aid her.

Return there today, and you will find the Sun Sing Center. You can still see many indications of its earlier life as the Mandarin Theatre. Note the concrete floor near the entrance with the footprint of the ticket booth. As you make your way past the display cases and counters, you can see where the stage once stood near the back of the building. Carved wooden columns evoke a time when costumed performers sang for enthusiastic audiences. Looking from here toward the front of the building, cast your eye aloft and catch sight of the projection booth from cinema days.

Much of the retail space is used today to sell videos and DVDs, but Lady from Shanghai is not among the titles. As memory fades over the 60 years that have passed, fewer and fewer Sun Sing shoppers realize that a one-time Hollywood power couple once sat together at this very spot.

Historic photos in this issue courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Chinatown's Mandarin Theatre, shown here in 1934.

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