Before Now – Surf Theater brought wave of art films to Sunset District

Surf Theater on Irving Street in San Francisco's outer Sunset District

The Surf Theater on Irving Street. Photo: Courtesy Jack Tillmany

I was a junior at Sacred Heart High School in 1981, and I wanted to impress a girl from St. Rose who seemed refined, worldly and, frankly, out of my league. I asked her on a date to go to the Bridge Theater to see “Das Boot.” It was the first movie with subtitles I ever saw, and walking her home, talking about camera angles, I felt equal to any lacrosse-playing dilettante she could snag at St. Ignatius. Thank you, Bridge Theater.

For a generation of San Franciscans a bit older than me, the Surf Theater in the outer Sunset District served as a similar beacon of international sophistication on many a foggy night. Dozens of people have told me their introduction to the films of Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard came at the Surf Theater on Irving Street between 46th and 47th avenues.

On the Western Neighborhoods Project message board, Bruce Skogen summed up the interesting role the Surf played in 1960s San Francisco:

The Surf ran all the European art films and I was there for every feature: La Dolce Vita, Persona, La Chinoise, Jules e Jim… These films were reshaping the sensibility of a generation. They inspired the emerging American directors of the 70′s, and here they were playing in the remotest hinterlands of the most conservative middle class neighborhood in the city.

Gary Meyer, who now runs the Balboa Theater, remembers the N-Judah unloading packs of movie lovers going to the Surf: “You might arrive early enough to have garlic steamed crab at the Vietnamese restaurant by the streetcar stop. And after the show, lively conversations filled the streetcar as dozens of strangers became a discussion group about the challenging movie just screened.”

The Surf opened in 1926 as the Parkview at 4510 Irving St. In 1937 it was rechristened the Sunset Theater, but continued being a standard neighborhood theater showing second-run movies that had played themselves out at the big theaters on Market Street. Locals called it the “flea house” because of the sand fleas that roosted in the rows. That strip of Irving Street had a series of small businesses. On the northwest corner was a Safeway grocery that became the Busy Bee Market and today is Mollusk Surf Shop. Across the street was Sunset Poultry and Egg. Next door, to the west of the theater, was Corabell’s bar.

Owner-operator Isabella Strohmeyer remodeled the theater and reopened it as the Surf on July 24, 1957. Strohmeyer introduced the Outer Sunset to international films, but sold out after a couple of years to Mel Novikoff. Under the cutting-edge programming of Novikoff, the Surf Theater became a destination for serious moviegoers around the Bay Area. The Surf showed films from the modern masters across the seas as well as classic and challenging films from Hollywood’s early days: “Modern Times,” “African Queen” and “Metropolis.” Novikoff opened the Cine Café next door, bringing espresso to the Avenues in the days when the Italian cafes of North Beach were the only place to get an exotic coffee in San Francisco. (Perhaps Java Beach should put up a photograph of Mel in tribute.)

A few neighborhood businesses changed along with the Surf’s hip transformation. Corabell’s bar was renamed The Sunset, and local historian Dennis O’Rorke remembers it as a “women’s bar” before the Gay Pride movement. Sunset Poultry became the progressive, parent-run NEAT school (later Rivendell School) in the early 1970s.

Surf Theater with Sunset Bar next door

Surf Theater with the Sunset Bar next door on the left. Photo: Courtesy Greg Gaar

Novikoff built on his success by creating the Surf Theatres Group and making the Clay, Lumiere and Bridge repertory houses. His greatest success and continuing legacy was the restoration and revival of the Timothy Pflueger-designed Castro Theater.

The success of revival-theater programming across San Francisco diminished the uniqueness of the Surf. Business declined as Novikoff returned to showing recent second-run movies at his Irving Street theater. On July 7, 1985 the 59-year-old movie house showed its last film. The site has had a church on it for many years now.

Novikoff died in 1987. The San Francisco International Film Festival gives an annual award in his name to an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema.

Surf Theater interior

Inside the Surf Theater. Photo: Cliff Tune

While the Surf and Novikoff are both gone, the experience of walking out of a theater near the beach — the images of a just-watched film reverberating in your head, the smell of ocean air, the sight of a quiet street wet with fog and illuminated by the glow of a neon marquee — is still available. Make a visit to the Balboa Theater at 38th Avenue and Balboa Street. Have some dinner before the movie, drop by Zephyr or Simple Pleasures café afterward, and raise an espresso in memory of the Surf.

Theater historian Jack Tillmany, who is a generous source of theater knowledge and photos, is still searching for an image of the Surf as the Sunset or Parkview. Let us know if you find one.

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Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”

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14 Comments

  1. Thank you for bringing fond memories back to me. I visited the Surf Theater several times while living in SF between 75 and 79 and recall the wonderful N-Judah ride out to the beach. and back again. One film that sticks in my mind that I saw there was Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I came across this website because a friend of mine mentioned how much she enjoyed the foggy streets of the Outer Sunset, or as I used to call it The Outer World, which jogged my memories about the Surf.

    • Thanks Al! You might enjoy being a member of the Western Neighborhoods Project. Take a look at the Web site. Lots of “Outer World” material there: http://www.outsidelands.org/

      • Thank you Woody, San Francisco is a place deep in my heart and my memories, although I haven’t visited for several years now, but have several good friends in the Bay Area. I was a 21 year old English kid when I arrived, I certainly wasn’t when I left. I will enjoy exploring the pages you’ve put together. Cheers for now, Al ‘Citizen’ Cane, can you tell I’m a newspaper man?

  2. I grew up around the corner. My mom still lives there. My recollection of the Surf are the fabulous marathons of art films (during the 1960′s) that have molded my deep appreciation for foriegn films. My most vivid recollection is of the “Seven Samurai” and “Woman in the Dunes”. i remember going in for the noon matinee and coming home at about six in the evening. awesome. I’m always amazed at what is preceived as entertainment. After watching great films at the Surf as a youngster, the mark has been set. The world is my oyster.

  3. After I graduated from Cal (yes, I went to school in the East), my first wife and I lived around the corner in the 1300 block of 48th (right in the heart of the old Carville).

    We attended many films there but the one I most remember was Sergei Eisenstein’s October (aka 10 Days that Shook the World). When Lenin appeared, the theatre audience gave him warm applause, but when he called for “Peace, Land and Bread!” the attendees nearly raised the roof in approval.

  4. I saw “Up in Smoke” there sometime in the late seventies while visiting SF. I’ve not seen so much public pot smoking in a theater before or since. Left a strong impression on a teenage boy!

    • I am quite sure UP IN SMOKE never played the Surf Theatre. Probably was at the Balboa or Fox Parkside.

      I shared offices with Mel Novikoff for many years and actually programmed the Castro when he first got sick. He would not have played a Cheech and Chong movie at any of his theaters. Just not his style.

      Also Mel never ran the Bridge which was operated from the 1950s by a succession of operators: Maury Schwartz, Walter Reade Group (out of NY who also had the Clay, Music Hall, Larkin and Cannery), John Buckley, Allen Michaan and Landmark. The Clay and Lumiere were first run art houses, not repertory. The Clay was run as a rep house (as was the El Rey) by a guy named Jerry Gwafney (sp?) and his wife but programmed by Mike Thomas (Times, Strand) before Mel took over.

      He converted the Lumiere from a legit house to film and then added two screens when the adjacent building became available. It had been a firehouse once I believe. Mel also tried operating the Cannery (serving alcohol) and the Stage Door (now Ruby Skye), showing classic repertory at the converted Surf Interplayers near the Buena Vista Cafe on Hyde; and of course his crowning achievement, the Castro which he was so proud of that he moved his house from Bay Street to a place where he could see the theater’s tower from his living room.

  5. How many remember the marathon that was “Phantom India” at the Surf? So many hours that it was split to show on two days. People got real comfortable as time passed, or tried, bending every which way to lay down in the seats, maybe take a little nap during the movie. It WAS that long! Years earlier, my parents walked our family down to the Surf to see “Mr. Hulo’s Holiday” with Jacques Tati, definitely my first foreign film.

    Ann Perkova’s Dance Studio was located between Busy Bee and the Surf. My sisters and I took lessons from her and then from Jasmine who took over the studio, later moving it to the Richmond. Their dance recitals were held at Legion of Honor theater. Grew up and moved to 46th Ave. with my boys in the 1970′s. Busy Bee Market was the neighborhood gathering place, run by Herb with his wife, daughter & son. Most evenings I went there to get food for that night’s dinner. In my kitchen, I could hear the seals barking all the way from Seal Rocks. A great neighborhood!

  6. Love this article – Thank you Woody for all your research and knowledge – this is two blocks from our place and just amazing to know about. Frankly i think there is a revival happening around here and the return of the Surf Theater would be remarkable.

  7. Love how Woody LaBounty talks trash about the “dilettante” lacrosse players at St.Ignatius. If Woody a historian by trade, did his research as any historian should do, he would know that St.Ignatius lacrosse players in 1981 were mostly SI football players and not “dilettantes.” Football players who beat SH regularly in the Bruce Mahoney game. Also SI has the oldest high school performing arts department in the West. Hardly “dilettante” which by definition is” A person who claims an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge.” BUT Woody does have an amazing website and flickr videos covering the Sunset and Richmond. Check them out.

    • Regarding S.I. dilettantes… I was evoking my high school persona, which I am the first to admit was very ill-informed about other schools, lacrosse, what “dilettante” meant, and so much more…

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