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The Balboa Theatre

After work I took my sketching pack and wandered north through Golden Gate Park into the Richmond District. My destination, once I exited the park, was two long blocks north and two short blocks west.

I found a seat in the parklet outside the theater and started to sketch the tall neon sign of the neighborhood cinema: the Balboa Theatre, in the unrolling Pacific fog.

The Balboa is one of the last operating neighborhood movie theaters in San Francisco. It was built as The New Balboa and opened on February 27, 1926.

The marquee and sign of the Balboa. The amazing Korean film Parasite and 1985’s Dune are on the bill.

The theater was built by Samuel Levin as part of a neighborhood chain, San Francisco Theatres Inc. The 800 seat theater was designed by the same architects that were responsible for the Cliff House, the Fairmont Hotel, and the Spreckel’s Temple of Music.

Over the years the Balboa has been know for it’s long runs such as the 92 weeks that “The Sound of Music” ran between 1966 and 1967.

Like the city of San Francisco, the Balboa has been all too familiar with conflagrations. But like the Phoenix, the symbol of San Francisco, the Balboa has always risen from the ashes. After a fire in 1978, the Balboa was rebuilt and the 800 seat theater was divided in two and reopened on April 21, 1978.

Today the Balboa remains a vibrant, neighborhood theater that now focuses on second-run films. I remember seeing Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi at the Balboa, as part of a samurai film festival.

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Signs of the Time: Movie Palaces of the Bay Area

I was looking for a new Bay Area sketching challenge and a weekend sketch of the backside of the Del Mar Theatre in Santa Cruz provided the genesis.

As a child I remember seeing the large white building with the large words “DEL MAR” framed by one painting of a bikini clad beauty diving into water and a scene from a redwood forest on the other side. It wasn’t until I was in college that I attended a movie at the Del Mar, a cinema that my father visited many times in his youth. The Del Mar and my father share the same birth year. This provided another reason to sketch this historic building.

The backside of the Del Mar Theatre is one of the most prominent buildings in downtown Santa Cruz and a building that looms large in my childhood.

I would be sketching back in time to the 1920s, 30s, and 40s to the time when Art Deco movie palaces where prominent features in many towns and cities. These cinemas’s large neon signs illuminated the communities they served. This was the Golden Age of cinema, time before television and an eon before the rabbit hole that is the internet.

I decided to focus on the most visible part of these classic theaters: the sign and marquee. This proclaimed the name of the theater and was a neon advertisement for what was inside and what was currently playing.

I began my sketching adventure by doing research of existing cinemas that meet my timeline criteria and then putting that information into a Bay Area map (featured sketch).

I complemented the map with an inset sketch of the movie palace that is a mere 38 minute walk north through Golden Gate Park, from my city digs. This is one of the only remaining neighborhood theaters in San Francisco: the Balboa Theatre.

While the inset sketch was based on my photograph, I knew that I would be returning to the Balboa to sketch the theater in earnest.

Next I pack my sketching bag and head down to Santa Cruz to Sketch the Rio Theatre.