Theatre Histories: Brava Theater Center
Thursday, June 5, 2014
By Rotimi Agbabiaka
One could say that San Francisco history literally unfolds before your eyes in the lobby of the Brava Theater Center. Recent renovations have stripped the paint from sections of its ceilings and walls exposing its 88-year-old structure and making it seem like the building is shedding new layers to reveal its former grandeur.
The Moorish-Spanish style building on the corner of 24th street and York has survived many incarnations and is currently home to Brava! For Women in the Arts, a performing arts organization that cultivates the work of women, people of color, youth, and LGBTQ artists. Ellen Gavin, the founder and former artistic director of Brava! purchased the building in 1996 and began the ongoing renovation that has unearthed such treasures as an art deco mural from 1937 that had previously been hidden behind a plaster wall.
Uncovered during renovations to Brava Theater Center: a 1937 art deco gilt mural. Photo: Nate Keck, courtesy of Brava Theater Center.
The gorgeous gilt bas-relief depicts scenes of San Francisco industry: workers carrying huge clusters of grapes, Spanish Mission buildings, ships pulling up to the city's port and a China Clipper plane flying by the Golden Gate bridge. When it was first mounted in the thirties the building had already transitioned from a vaudeville theatre—built in 1926 and called the Roosevelt—to a neighborhood movie house affectionately known as the "Roosie."
In its early years, the Roosevelt was a hub of the then largely Irish and Italian community, showing newsreels, cartoons, six pictures a week and hosting weekly bingo nights: "Dish Nights" where attendees could win dinnerware, and "Bank Nights" with drawings for cash prizes. Despite changes wrought to the building by shifting neighborhood demographics and new technology it maintained its importance to the community over the years.
"The first time I came [to the building] was in 1985," recalls Anastacia (Stacie) Powers Cuellar, the current executive director of Brava!, "and it was very exciting because it hosted all these movies, concerts and events. It's always been an important place for the community."
The Roosevelt struggled with the advent of television, shuttered in the seventies, and was eventually reborn in 1978 as the York, a repertory film theatre. After some early success, the York fell victim to the rise of home videos and had a hard time staying afloat in the eighties. In 1987 the Red Vic Collective, who ran the historic Red Victorian movie theatre in the Haight, purchased the building and changed its name to the New York Theater. After failed attempts to run it first as a repertory film theatre then as a neighborhood movie house, the building sat dormant from 1991 to 1996 when Brava! moved in.
Images of an enduring beauty. On left: the "Roosie" in 1944. Photo: Courtesy of the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection at the San Francisco Public Library. On right: Brava Theater Center. Photo: Nate Keck, courtesy of Brava Theater Center.
If the art deco mural on the right-hand side of the lobby represents the building's past, then an image hung on the left-hand side of the lobby represents its future. This image is the architectural rendering of plans for the current phase of the building's renovation. When Brava! acquired the building in 1996, the company planned to renovate the building, which had been abandoned for almost five years, in three phases. The first two phases involved dividing the original 1000-seat theatre into a 300-seat main stage and a studio space with offices. In December 2000 the company celebrated the completion of phases one and two by presenting the experimental play "Las Horas de Belen: A Book of Hours," in its new home.
The entryway to Brava Theater Center shows signs of ongoing renovation. Photo: Nate Keck, courtesy of Brava Theater Center.
Phase three—transforming the attached storefronts into theatre spaces and restoring their original 1926 facades—began in 2008 and is an ongoing challenge for the company. The recent financial meltdown caused previously approved grants to be cut, and mismanagement left the company with a $2 million debt and the threat of foreclosure in 2012.
When Cuellar Powers took over as Executive Director in 2012, however, she managed to restart the stalled project by reinstating lost grant money and reaching out to the city and community for support.
"We've been very successful the last two years, and that's due to approaching this place as a collaboration with the community," she says.
Brava Theater Center's main stage. Photo: Nate Keck, courtesy of Brava Theater Center.
Today, Brava! collaborates with the community through its partnership with Loco Bloco, its Mission Academy of Performing Arts and its Running Crew program, which provides technical theatre training to neighborhood youth.
When the current renovations are completed, the storefront area will contain a two-floor office space, a cabaret theatre and much-need modern dressing rooms behind a facade that honors its former glory. Cuellar Powers hopes to accomplish this by spring 2015.
"We can really be a bridge between what the neighborhood has been and what's coming down the pipeline," she says. "We can help educate our new neighbors so that they can appreciate that the Mission has been a tremendous contributor to the arts and culture of San Francisco."
Rotimi Agbabiaka is a San Francisco-based actor, teacher, director and writer. He's performed at Cal Shakes, Theatreworks and Beach Blanket Babylon and written an award-winning solo play called Homeless. He is currently a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.