Now after three years of fundraising and construction, SF's American Conservatory Theater is getting set to show the public its brand new performance space on mid-Market, The Strand Theater (1117 Market at 7th). A.C.T. purchased the former movie house — which had become an adult cinema before shuttering altogether and becoming a home for squatters, back in 2012 — with a vision of adding a second, smaller venue they could use both for their MFA program productions and to stage edgier new works that are not possible in their large, 1040-seat Geary Theater. Now, after a $34.4 million renovation that includes a bright coat of red paint, the 283-seat main theater will debut with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 14, followed by hosting its first public performances, with the last play of A.C.T.'s current scene, Love and Information by Caryl Churchill, opening on June 3.

The renovation was funded through a major capital campaign that has raised contributions from individuals, corporations, and private foundations, as well as through New Market Tax Credits and Historic Tax Credits. In addition to the 283-seat mainstage proscenium space, there is a black-box space upstairs from the lobby on the front of the building, dubbed The Rueff, that will also be used for smaller performances as well as dinners and other events. It has potential capacity of 140 seats.


The theater itself has had a long history, having opened in 1917 as one of Market Street's first movie-only silent film houses, without a stage or backstage meant for Vaudeville performance — A.C.T. has had to build their own backstage infrastructure into the narrow space by doing so underneath the new stage. It went through many incarnations, including one as The Jewel theater, in which a shimmering cut crystal ball stood out atop the marquee that had to be removed because it was catching the sun all day long and shining in the eyes of horses and drivers coming down Market Street.




Known later as The Sun, The Rialto, and The Strand, it ultimately became a midnight-movie house in the 1980s, as you can see in the photo below, showing Rocky Horror Picture Show and even featuring John Waters marathons with Mr. Waters himself in attendance.

Photo courtesy of Tom LeGoff

It didn't become an adult cinema (along with several other older movie houses on this stretch of Market, including the recently demolished St. Francis) until the 1990s, finally closing in 2006.

Photo from 2003, before construction of the Federal Building behind it. Photo: Patrick Crowley

It then sat empty for enough years that squatters took root upstairs in what will be the new black-box theater space, and in small rooms that had been built in during the theater's seedier porn days. As part of the renovation, the A.C.T. team plans to preserve a little of even this part of its history, saving and displaying some of the graffiti they found inside, that you can see below.

The Strand in 2012. Photo: J. Barmann/SFist

How the theater looked in 2012.

How they found the upstairs in 2012, post squatters.

The renovation includes a highly sophisticated, semi-transparant, 28-foot-by-18-foot LED display (made up of 126 individual panels) that will dominate the downstairs lobby, shining onto Market Street. It's a first-of-its-kind application of this particular technology in a non-sports, interior setting.


The lobby under construction as of two weeks ago. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist

An exterior detail, some wainscoting, that was recreated from covered-over parts of the building's original facade. Photo: Jay Barmann/SFist.

Following the public opening in June, the lobby space will also become an all-day cafe accessible to everyone on Market Street, transforming into the theater's concession stand only in the evening.

Also, A.C.T. won't be the only users of the space. Thanks to grants from the San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Collaborative and one from The Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the Strand will be available to other arts organizations in the city for both rehearsal and performance space on a no-cost basis. The spaces will also be for rent to touring and local productions, as well as for private events and corporate meetings. (I'm told the first private event already on the books before it's open to the public is a bar mitzvah.)

Without a doubt, along with the upcoming revamp of the former Renoir Hotel diagonally across Market, The Strand Theater stands to dramatically alter the face of this section of mid-Market, and will hopefully bring a ton of great new theater to downtown.

Stay tuned for photos of the finished space.


This is what mid-Market Street looked like in 1950, in its heyday, as San Francisco's cinema row. Photo courtesy of J.E. Tillmany