Though it hasn't been a grand movie palace — or even a crumbling but in-use movie house — for more than a generation, residents in the Ingleside and Balboa Park neighborhoods have long hoped and prayed that the historic El Rey Theater at 1970 Ocean Avenue might return, in some fashion, to its former glory. The 1800-seat theater was built in 1931 and showed movies until the mid-1970s, and it remains an imposing structure in this mostly two- and three-story residential neighborhood in the city's southwest corner, with its tall tower designed by noted Deco-era architect Timothy Pfleuger. Right now, as the Chronicle reports, the property is caught in an odd limbo after its longtime owners, a Pentacostal church now called Voice of the Pentacost, or A Place to Meet Jesus, defaulted on their mortgage, and it was sold at auction in December to a pair of Marin investment firms for $1.06 million.

The low price for the huge building likely reflects the strong possibility of a historic preservation showdown should the new owners want to, say, demolish it to build townhouses. Also at issue: The church refuses to leave.

No one who's not part of the church has been inside the building for five years — as the Chronicle reported at the time, the neighborhood successfully negotiated a one-night 80th anniversary event at the theater in 2011, screening the first film ever shown there, "The Smiling Lieutenant" starring Maurice Chevalier, from 1931.

A Planning commissioner and a neighborhood association member (of the Ocean Avenue Association) both sound incensed that the city failed to jump in when the property went up for auction — especially because the El Rey is listed as one of seven defunct theaters that were on the city's radar as potential "neighborhood asset activation" candidates. It's also listed on the national Cinema Treasures website for its historic significance.

Dan Weaver, director of the Ocean Avenue Association, is now excited by the possibility of getting a historic landmark distinction for the building — because under California law, a church can't be declared historic unless the church agrees.

But that church, Voice of the Pentacost, which owned the building from 1977 until last year, seems to think they will be able to buy back the property from the new owner — who has already made it known that they want to flip it for $6 million. That of course seems impossible if the church already defaulted on a decades-old mortgage, and the intelligence of the church leaders sounds kind of questionable. ("I just pray and try to follow the Lord,” Pastor Richard Gozowsky told the Chron, saying “It was way beyond my understanding,” when it comes to why you have to pay your mortgage.)

There could be more to that story when it comes to the new owners, whom Gozowsky says expressed their interest in demolishing the place to build apartments.

And it turns out that Voice of the Pentacost previously defaulted on a lease agreement they had with the city for a large hangar on Treasure Island where they were planning to film some ludicrous religious film they described as "The Ten Commandments meets Star Wars" — which sounds ironically similar to the fake film the CIA made up in Argo to get into Iran during the hostage crisis. The project fell through, and the church just stopped paying their $17,000/month rent payment. Ultimately "City Attorney Dennis Herrera successfully suing the church for $425,000, over half of which was interest," per the Chron.

Pretty sure that this means the church is not going to triumph in all this, and Pastor Gozowsky doesn't realize that the law is not on his side.

As for the upcoming, epic battle of developer vs. preservationists and the neighborhood, I think we all know who tends to win those in San Francisco.