Murals swirl across the tall plywood barrier shielding American Conservatory Theater’s soon-to-be-opened Strand Theater on Market Street from the bustle of the city sidewalk. Inside the building, however, it’s just as busy—hard-hatted construction crew members in bright orange safety vests are everywhere, striding across the vast, concrete-floored lobby, climbing the stairs, holding, lifting, measuring. The space echoes with intermittent loud noises of things getting done.
We’ve come—myself, field services associate James Nelson and board member/communications expert Beverly Butler—for a walk-through tour of the Strand. It’s exciting for several reasons: first, the building is still unfinished, so we’ll be seeing its spaces in different phases of transformation, something that the public will never see. Second, the Strand is essentially next door to TBA’s offices, and is poised to make a considerable impact on our shared neighborhood—not to mention the larger local creative economy. Third, the tour will be led by Denys Baker, the administrative project manager who’s spent the past two years working full-time to bring this project to fruition, who knows it inside and out, green room to catwalk.
Front of the Strand Theater. Administrative project manager Denys Baker, in yellow, guides our tour.
Photo: Beverly Butler
Baker speaks passionately about the building and its place in history. In 1917, it opened for business as the Jewel Theater—a rare purpose-built movie house in a time when most entertainment palaces still offered both films and live vaudeville performances. When it was fitted for sound in 1929, it became one of the first SF film houses to play “talkies.” “In many ways,” Baker says, “the history of this building mirrors the history of film in San Francisco.” The Jewel Theater, dedicated to “Gems of the Silent Drama,” boasted a three-dimensional, cut-glass, mirror-ball-like jewel hanging above the sidewalk, which would rotate and dazzle pedestrians with its bits of reflected light. However, according to Baker, the city forced the owners to take it down; “it was blinding the horses pulling carriages in the street,” she says. “Gives you perspective on how long the building’s been around.”
The Strand Theater, June 22, 1947. The marquee announces a Mae West film. Photo courtesy of J.E. Tillmany
The building would change hands several times, becoming the Sun Theater, Newman’s College Theater and the Francesca Theater, before becoming the Strand Theater in 1928. As part of its major renovation, ACT has taken steps to preserve many of the building’s distinctive historical details; they have, for instance, refurbished a few pairs of the original cushioned walnut theatre seats, which will be displayed downstairs of the main lobby. They’ve restored the 1917 ornamental masonry that graces the outside of the building—delicate flowers and other Art Deco motifs that run all the way up to frame the second-story windows. The neon Strand marquee, circa 1959, has been likewise meticulously restored; it will be hung high on the wall that’s to the right as we stand in the front doorway, looking into the high-ceilinged, cement-floored room. This space, currently home to piles of building materials and fixtures wrapped in protective white plastic, will soon—in about two weeks—become the new theatre’s main lobby.
The soon-to-be-finished lobby of the Strand Theater. Photo: Laura Brueckner
It won’t be just a lobby, however. Following the recent trend of combining performance venues with specifically social spaces (PianoFight has taken a similar step with its Tenderloin location) ACT will operate its lobby area as a café on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., complete with free wifi and a limited food permit that will allow them to sell coffee, pastries, oatmeal, and other light breakfast fare. “It’s a way to draw people from the community in,” Baker says. “We’re hoping it becomes a neighborhood hangout.” Dominating the space is an enormous LED screen, 28 feet across and 18 high, which will be used for marketing messages but also video art installations, including one currently under development by local choreographer Joanna Haigood, artistic director of Zaccho Dance.
Artist's rendering of the LED screens in use for an art installation.
Photo: Courtesy of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, 2014
According to Baker, the yen for a new building grew partially out of a need to find office space that ACT could own, versus leasing—something that many organizations sideswiped by rising SF rents can appreciate. Recently, Baker says, “ACT’s rent at 30 Grant jumped so much that the theatre had to give up an entire floor of the building just to keep their rent the same.” The timing couldn’t have been better. ACT purchased both the building and lot at 1127 Market Street for about $4 million; the next year, the vacant lot next door would sell for $8 million.
Detailed architectural plans. Photo: Laura Brueckner
Shuttered since 2003, the Strand would require a major renovation—which was also ACT’s opportunity to custom-design its interior spaces to address a multitude of needs. When finished, the building will contain two performance venues: the Toni Rembe Theater, a 285-seat house that can convert to provide cabaret seating for 175, and a smaller, 140-seat-capacity black box-esque space named the Rueff (after donors Rusty and Patty Rueff) that can accommodate a range of events, such as performances, rehearsals, meetings and dinners. The walls sport dark wood paneling; the view from its nearly floor-to-ceiling windows (double-paned for sound insulation) is stunning. The Rueff, Baker predicts, “will be the most sought-after venue here.” There’s evidence for this claim; Baker says that, with half a month still to go before the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 14, the Rueff has already been booked for a bar mitzvah.
The Strand's second-floor multipurpose space, the Rueff, under construction. Photo: Laura Brueckner
The Toni Rembe Theater, by comparison, is pretty grand. Its walls are a rich vermilion, a hue chosen after an exhaustive—and possibly exhausting—color selection process: “You have no idea how many reds there are until you do something like this,” Baker says, grinning. It may be big sister to the Rueff, but the Rembe is petite by ACT standards, considering that the company’s main stage, the Geary Theater, seats over 1,000. The Rembe will be home to the MFA student and Young Conservatory productions, as well as the recently launched new works program, New Strands, all of which will benefit from the more intimate relationship with the audience this mid-sized stage affords. ACT’s education programs will benefit too; among other outreach programs, the company regularly invites students from underresourced schools to attend productions. The Rembe will suit this program better than the Geary; after all, Baker says, “It’s hard to engage kids from the third balcony.”
The stage and side box seats of the Toni Rembe Theater. Video: James Nelson
And here’s a piece of excellent news: due to funding from two grants—one from the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Collaborative and one from The Kenneth Rainin Foundation—local nonprofits will have the opportunity to apply to use both theatre spaces, for either rehearsal or performance...for free. Already, according to Baker, there have been applications from Dave Möschler’s Awesöme Orchestra and Singers of the Street, a choir of homeless San Franciscans that provides its vocalists with a meal after each rehearsal. This practice of welcoming in local performers, already begun with the company’s neighboring Costume Shop Theater, is likely to make a hugely positive impact on San Francisco’s small-company community, whose artists are all too often starved for space to work. Oh, and the sole selection criterion for use of the space: calendar availability.
The mezzanine seating section of the Toni Rembe Theater. Video: James Nelson
After a brief, thrilling foray out onto the Rembe’s catwalk, Baker leads us underground to the theatre’s green room and dressing rooms—and the adjacent bathrooms (plural!) and shower that will be available for actors. Audiences likewise will benefit from the attention paid to this crucial component of common comfort: “We have many restrooms on every level,” Baker says. “Carey [Perloff, ACT’s artistic director] is proud of the proportion of patrons to restrooms.”
View of the Rembe Theater stage from the catwalk. Photo: Beverly Butler
On our way back to the lobby, we step carefully past two men grinding the concrete floor smooth with hand-guided machines. It’s dizzying to consider how many hours of this kind of focus will have gone into this building by the time it opens. As we descend the stairs leading toward the lobby and the wide-open front door, Baker pauses and turns to us. The project has been going for two years, she says, “but I feel like today, the building is becoming a theatre.”