Monday, December 19


"What happened to the theatre?"

"We're closed."

That was the exchange I witnessed Friday night on my way home from work as I decided to stop by the UA Galaxy Theatre, which had shown its last films the previous evening. Though most of the street-level glass panels on the building had been covered with butcher paper, one could spy theatre staff dismantling the concession stand and preparing for the inevitable lockdown now that the place is closed to the public. A man in a wool beanie signaled one of these workers, approached the box office as if to buy a ticket, and asked his question. With the ticket window's speaker decommissioned, I had to lip-read the response.

When the four-screen Galaxy was erected in 1984 Herb Caen called it a "glassbackward brickhouse" and others likened it to stacks of legos or telephone booths. Though it's true that the building, which looks like something Q-Bert might want to hop around on top of, represents just the kind of building this city's armchair architects love to hate, I always thought it maintained a certain oddball dignity. Upon opening it was billed as the most expensive movie theatre ever built in Frisco, and I guess it felt state-of-the-art at the time, though it was soon topped by the octoplex Kabuki Theatre less than a mile away. By the time I entered high school the Kabuki was the cool place for my peers to go see a movie and the Galaxy had begun its long but inevitable journey on the path toward its perceived obsolescence made official in 1998 when the AMC 1000 Van Ness unveiled a fourteen-screen addition to a former auto showroom just down the street.

I'm pretty sure the first time I went to the Galaxy it was with my parents and the film was a busy matinee of Stand and Deliver. Since then I've been about a dozen or so times, mostly to unremarkable films: Philadelphia, Star Trek: Generations, a Life Less Ordinary. During the past two or three years, when the theatre's fate seemed sealed but it still remained in operation, it began booking the occasional under-the-radar independent or foreign film that wasn't always graced with a review in the local papers. The place also briefly became a valve for films after they played a single week at the Castro, Lumiere or Opera Plaza. This is how stuff like 15 and Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and even revivals of Kurosawa's the Seven Samurai and Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast ended up at a theatre that also opened the Passion of the Christ as a first-run film. The Galaxy was the only theatre in town to play the 2003 re-release of DePalma's Scarface for a full week. They even tried out a midnight movie series with really strange choices like Hook (I tried to convince a few friends to go but was met with much resistance), and rented screens to film festivals like the American Indian Film Festival and IndieFest. But though I was tempted more often, to be honest I still didn't go much. Without an on-line presence or a marquee near my regular routes, I found I often learned about an intriguing selection only a day or two before its run was up, or even after it was over. A pair of exceptions were a bill of Academy-Award nominated short films (the highlight of which was the amazing Das Rad) and Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold, each of which I saw with only a couple other patrons in the theatre. The last film I saw in the main house was a House of Flying Daggers matinee during its opening week which was nearly as empty. The last film I saw there, period, was a Frisco-shot film about graffiti writers called Quality of Life. The filmmakers actually four-walled one of the houses for a couple weeks, executed a guerilla marketing campaign, and delivered filmmaker Q&A sessions after evening shows. Though Quality of Life seemed a better fit for the Roxie near where most of it was filmed (and where it later played as well), in retrospect I'm glad my last Galaxy memory is of this flawed but heartfelt film with a knockout ending that seems to elevate all of what had gone before.

The best film I ever saw there was Terence Malick's the Thin Red Line in early 1999. It was actually my second viewing of the film, and I was already thinking of it as the year's, heck maybe the decade's best film. The house was close to capacity and I sat near the back of the theatre this time, probably trying to achieve some more objective distance from the film than I'd had sitting in the first few rows of the Coronet on my first go-round. It didn't work; I was still totally enveloped by the immersive audiovisual experience and found the film's themes at least as compelling as they had been on first pass. When the end credits began to roll, I got out of my seat and stood at the back of the room to watch the audience file out, as I used to like to do. One of the first people to walk by was an elderly gentleman who before exiting turned to me and said something I have no reason to disbelieve, "That's exactly the way it was in the Pacific. I was there."

What's next for this building? Who knows? The Coronet and Alexandria were also shut by Regal/UA many months ago and nothing but vandalism has happened to the buildings in the meantime. And of course I don't feel nearly as sentimental about the Galaxy as I do those theatres and half a dozen others that have shut in recent memory. But then again I'm a diehard movie theatre enthusiast who thinks the city's public bus lines shouldn't accept cinema-bashing advertising slogans ("Sneak in food. You own the theatre.") from Comcast on the fleet, and I'd be thrilled if any of the boarded-up theatres in town could somehow be made viable venues again. The Galaxy included.

I'll end this reflection with the words the beanie-capped man tried to shout through the glass to the worker, or perhaps it was to the glass and the theatre itself, before he dashed off into the night:

"Thank you for everything!"

While the Galaxy had some hits, it never really caught on as a place to go. The staff never developed a personality and in the last years they tried for an art policy because they couldn't get much else away from AMC 1000; there were 4 walls (theatre rented to filmmmaker who keeps all the box office receipts)and last minute bookings rarely with publcity attached. Some films played there because Regal's booker promised small distributors playoff across the U.S. with Regal if it succeeded.

Again, no sense of place.

We played DAS RAD at the Balboa with TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS. Surprised you saw it at the Galaxy too.

Regal is rumored to have paid $650,000 a year rent and has been trying to get out of the Galaxy lease for years. Upon selling the Alexandria property they had enough to negotiate a buyout. Expect ground floor retail with high rise above or a hotel. No way a theater will be there.

It seems the AMC/Loews merger has the justice department insisting that AMC must sell the Van Ness 1000 and Kabuki. Who will be the buyer? Century is most logical, though they are for sale. Regal possible too though they are getting out of SF proper.

But in this era of declining movie attendance, don't know if any company can justify the certain high price.

In a perverse twist, I think the Roxie, Red Vic, 4 Star, Castro, Presidio and Balboa all secretly are happy when a Galaxy closes because it is a little less pressure on their survival.
The last film I saw there was the Singaporean Indie film 15. This was in the midst of my slipped disc and I have to say it was an incredibly excruciating experience since I shouldn't have been sitting down for that long. I could barely walk as I left.

I think there's a metaphor for The Galaxy somewhere in that.

Otherwise, my other Galaxy reminisce (what is the singular of "reminiscing"? I feel like the word implies plural, but perhaps I'm wrong) involves I HEART HUCKABEES where the diaolgue and soundtrack from WHAT THE @#$@ DO YOU KNOW? was seeping into HUCKABEES, the metaphysical meanderings of both films mixing.

Pathetic GALAXY moment - being the ONLY person watching a late screening of OASIS. I just left rather than sit through the whole film because it was in the big theatre and it was just too creepy to sit their and watch such a sad film all alone.
Gary, thanks for the comment and the news. I probably should have mentioned that I first found out about the Galaxy's closure through the Balboa News e-mail you write, which I see you're now trying out in blog format.

The justice department's position makes a lot of sense in the face of a single company controlling 37 of Frisco's movie screens but the sale does make me wonder about the fate of the Kabuki in particular, given its relationship with various film festivals. I assmue that a 9-screen Century Theatre is still slated to open on Market Street next year, as this site suggests.

I wonder if any other theatre would have played a "leftover" like 15 if the Galaxy hadn't. I saw it at NAATA's film festival but was glad it got an eventual commercial release too, even if it might not have been worth being in excruciating pain to watch.

Adam, your reminiscences are are appreciated. I didn't see any of those films at the Galaxy but I did first learn about What the Bleep Do We Know from its trailer before a screening of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind there. Ah, to fondly think of the days before I knew of the existence of that awful movie. I agree that Oasis would be creepy to see all alone, especially in that theatre, though I've never had the experience of being the sole ticket-buyer for a film before. Except once in Thailand, where they'd cancelled the screening and refunded your money if less than four people showed up.
Interesting insider info, folks. I noticed that the Galaxy was closed when I was walking down Van Ness the other day. Walking down Van Ness another day, I remember being shocked to see an Oasis poster on the sidewalk. It's sad to hear they showed it to such small crowds (to use the term loosely), but what else can you expect when they're just throwing something like that into the projector as a last-ditch effort to stay afloat. It made me monitor their schedule more closely, though, that's for sure. If they'd embraced that eclectic mix with some gusto, I think I'd have been a regular attendee.

Although that would have meant enduring The Twenty. I hear people in other cities talk about that blast of video ads, but I'd never seen the twenty with my own two eyes/ears until I went spinning through the Galaxy. Matter compressed into a tight tight space becomes a sun and booms all over the place, pinning people to their seats, blowing their hair back, leaving sticky stuff on the carpet. My God. It's enough to drive you up the road to the Lumiere, Opera Plaza, or even the 1000, Galaxy ticket in hand.

So I'm sad to see the Galaxy go. Sort of.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?