Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Harding Theater, 616 Divisadero and Hayes, San Francisco, CA

Capacity 500

The Harding opened on May 8, 1926 with Colleen Moore in "Irene", a second-run attraction.
Opening night featured Ben Black and his Band in the Harding orchestra pit. Black was a well-known band leader of the day, recorded on the Victor label, and served as music director of the Paramount Theatres in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.(4)   He is best remembered for writing the popular song “Moonlight and Roses.”  
Black’s and other bands played at the Harding in the 1920s, providing musical accompaniment to the movies and general musical entertainment.  

The building was designed by the Reid Brothers, James and Merritt, a prominent San Francisco architectural firm that was a prolific theater designer, hired by local theater owner Samuel H. Levin. The brothers' list of landmarks includes the Hotel Del Coronado near San Diego, and the Golden Gate Park band shell. With scant professional training but plenty of hustle, these Canadian brothers left their mark across the width of San Francisco.(1)

These brothers planned the Polo Grounds Stadium, at the Polo Field in Golden Gate Park as "the largest stadium in the world." Only one section of bleachers was built and is still there! Wonder what the story behind that is.
They also built the third incarnation of The Cliff House for Adolph Sutro's daughter, Emma Merritt.(4)

I've been trying to figure out why this theater was named Harding. The easiest explanation is that Levin named it after Warren Harding, the 29th President of the United States.(17)

Warren G. Harding...Immediately after President Harding's death, Mrs. Harding returned to Washington, D.C., and briefly stayed in the White House with President and First Lady Coolidge. For a month, former First Lady Harding gathered and destroyed by fire President Harding's correspondence and documents, both official and unofficial. Upon her return to Marion, Mrs. Harding hired a number of secretaries, collecting and burning President Harding's personal papers. According to Mrs. Harding, she took these actions to protect her husband's legacy. The remaining papers were held and kept from public view by the Harding Memorial Association in Marion.[16]
Florence Kling Harding

The original theme of the building was predominantly Gothic. As this is appropriate for a church, these features have been maintained. Last year, however, the church group elected to remove all the light fixtures (products of a 30s remodeling) and throw them away. Fortunately a local architectural salvage/antiques specialist heard of this and removed them himself. The fixtures, though sold and dispersed were at least saved from destruction. A pair of ceiling lights are intended to go to the Del Mar, Santa Cruz.

The original 1926 fire curtain remains drawn up in the stage fly of the Harding.
The fire curtain is colorful and ornate, depicting a castle and hills overlooking a bay on a
background of distant clouds. Photo(1942) from Steve Levin Collection 
The fire curtain was intended to be dropped and admired as part of the original decoration
of the auditorium.  The Lamplighters used the fire curtain as a principal curtain during
their performances at the Harding.  The fire curtain is a character-defining decoration of the original 1920s theater, the 1930s-1950s theater, and the Lamplighters’ Harding Theater of the 1960s(2)

A Robert-Morton organ Size 2/7 was installed in the Harding Theater in 1926.

The Harding still includes the original stage fly for vaudeville productions, the orchestra pit, the organ grilles from silent movie days, as well as some of the original 1920's plaster detail.

The EXAMINER article announcing the opening of the Harding in the May 8, 1926
“A fully equipped, standard sized stage is an innovation in the Harding
construction.  This will make possible the staging of attractions not now presented in
most neighborhood houses because of limited space.”

The Reids’ design was to invite movie-goers, after buying their tickets at the outdoor ticket booth, to pass through a set of outer doors into an enclosed vestibule or foyer.  Patrons would present their tickets there and then proceed into the theater lobby.  From there, patrons would enter the theater through the four doors at the back connecting to the downward-sloping aisles of the auditorium.  Alternatively, moviegoers could proceed upstairs from the lobby to the mezzanine via two matching
sets of stairs located at either end of the lobby, and then to the balcony via two connecting sets of stairs located at either side of the building.
The Reids carefully designed the entrance to the Harding, which remains substantially intact.  A moviegoer would enter the vestibule or foyer through a set of outer doors, which remain in place today.  This room was known as the ticket lobby because the ticket taker would be stationed there.  The ticket lobby retains historic plaster detail around the ceiling.
With respect to the movie theater works of the master architect Reid Brothers, the Parks Report establishes that there are few remaining Reid Brothers’ theaters in San Francisco sharing the Harding’s level of integrity as a silent movie theater.  Only three of the Reid’s 14 theaters here retain a significant resemblance to the Reids’ original 1920s design. All of the others have been demolished or so significantly altered that their character has been lost.  Of the three that remain, the Harding is the most intact.   

Levin’s advertising for the Harding in 1926 and later during the 1920s
prominently billed the Harding among the Levin theaters as a vaudeville theater.
July 31, 1926 edition of the CHRONICLE. The contemporaneous newspaper publicity establishes that the
Harding continued to be used as a vaudeville house during the late
The O’Neill Kiddies, Don Rigo’s Serenaders, and Toby’s Country Store appeared as vaudeville acts on the Harding stage during the period.
Vaudeville vanished from movie theaters by the early 1930s with the advent of
talking pictures and the hard times of the Great Depression.  As San Francisco’s most
intact neighborhood movie-vaudeville theater, the Harding and its stage house are
together historically significant in conveying the now-lost live performance aspect of
movie entertainment during the 1920s.

Photo:  SF Neighborhood Theater Association

1964 The Lamplighters, a Gilbert and Sullivan group

The San Francisco Lamplighters light opera company performed over 480 shows in the 1960s. Ballet Celeste used it for The Nutcracker many times in the 1960s.

Here's a story about Club Morocco, located just across the street from The Harding Theater from 1959-1977.
by Mike Conway

From 1959 to 1977, Ms. Josephine Robinson and her husband ran a nightclub and restaurant at 543 Divisadero Street in San Francisco. During this period, just four blocks east, the Fillmore Jazz Era was in full swing. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and countless other gods of jazz played up and down Fillmore. The ‘Moe had a reputation as the Harlem of the West.But along nearby Divis, a parallel surge of jazz and early soul was blazing. More than just a music scene, Divisadero was its own nation, its own economy, and its own revolution. History has mostly forgotten this street; Ms. Robinson has not.
Though she modestly insists her memory has faded in her old age, she lucidly recalled a lot about her tenure at Club Morocco. Her kind, grandmotherly voice spoke of the many patrons she would occasionally “po’liquor” for. Herb Caen ate there often, and called the Morocco the “Salt ‘n’ Pepper” because it drew both blacks and whites together in their mutual quest for good food, music, and fun. This was at a time when prejudice was the absolute status quo; even in San Francisco, a woman couldn’t serve alcohol in a bar unless she was on the liquor license. Never the less, the Morocco was a place where all kinds of folks could dress up and get some dinner, dance, and catch acts like Ike and Tina, Marvin Gaye, and BB King. Giants’ legendary ballers Willie Mays and McCovey might be eating at the table across from yours.
But the Morocco was much more than a happening joint. It was part of a whole scene. All along Divisadero, there were bars and nightclubs like the Both And, the Bird of Paradise, the Sportsmen’s, and the Half Note. Across the street, at the Harding Theater, Curtis Mayfield played one of his last shows in the city. Up until 1965, folks would dance and parley up and down Divis until 2:00am, then hop over the hill to the ‘Moe and famous places like Bop City, which carried the vibe until the break of dawn.
But more importantly, Club Morocco was one of the many African American-owned businesses. Ms. Robinson recalled that throughout the ‘50's and ‘60's on Divisadero, roughly 75% of all businesses were black owned. It was its own economy of beauty parlors, barber shops, boutiques and, of course, the nightclubs. You could get a haircut, eat a nice meal and dance your ass off to live music, all in a single block.
In 1955, just as the Robinsons were putting together the money that bought 543 Divisadero, the U.S. Supreme Court set the guidelines for desegregation in its Brown II decision. Yet oppression-by-segregation would not just end at the drop of a gavel. Brown II might have been a wonderful development in the Civil Rights Struggle, but it was also wonderfully vague. Blacks might have been free to then find work unimpeded by law, but they had been deprived of such opportunities for centuries. “Sure you can join our union, but—what’s this? No union experience? Sorry.”
That’s where the Robinson family stepped up. To help their community, the Robinsons hired waitresses, bartenders, and busboys—way more of them than they ever needed—so that black folks could get the necessary work hours and go on to get jobs, join unions, gain benefits and live better lives. So when you went to the Morocco, you weren’t just seeing Marvin Gaye or James Brown rock the house, you were seeing a subtle revolution against de jure racism. And with so much wait-staff, the service at Morocco must have been impeccable.
The ‘70s brought the notoriously scandalous “redevelopment” of the Fillmore district. Buildings that housed black families and businesses were being suspiciously condemned for “utility upgrades”; fires would mysteriously destroy others. By 1977, Divisadero was reeling from it all. Businesses folded as pimps and prostitution moved in full time. An ardent Protestant, Ms. Robinson could no longer stomach serving this new clientele. She convinced her husband to sell, just before the avalanche of crack and Reaganomics plowed through(2)

The Harding served as a neighborhood film house until it closed in 1970. There were rock and jazz concerts in the 1970's (Grateful Dead, Curtis Mayfield) and 30 years of gospel and jazz performance after that. Sun Ra and Marvin X did a five hour production of Take Care of Business at the Harding Theatre on Divisadero Street in San Francisco, 1972.

More recently, it was a church, which moved out in 2004. The building was then purchased by developers for US$1.6 million.[4]
After getting thoroughly owned by preservationists and then putting the Harding Theater on the market for $4 million, it seems the owner is giving another go of turning the 75-year-old building into condos. A new plan gives a little more love to the history and all that historic-ness by restoring the theater's facade— putting back a marquee and sign that once adorned the front. But it may be all for naught anyway, as there are still plans to turn the fly space in back into five condos— which means an environmental report will be required since that fly space may (or may not!) be historic. (Elderly vaudeville fan says not.) (Andy Wong,2009-09-01,sf. curbed.com)

It is the only surviving theater building in San Francisco whose Gothic Revival decor is still largely intact, featuring a Gothic proscenium arch, which separates the stage from the seats, arched organ grills and decorative plaster finishes on the walls.

It seems the preservationists have truly won this round: the owners of the hard-up Harding Theater have given up their fight for condos and put the building on the market. Asking price: $4 million. That's $303/square foot for the theater plus two retail spaces.

The theater retains original seats and the fire curtain dating to the opening of the theater. The entrance, floor and aisle plan, balcony, proscenium arch, stage, and decorative ceiling remain intact, as well as significant plaster detail. The auditorium is unique in retaining an original sense of place from the “pre-talkie” days.

The Harding is also rare because it has a full stage, scenery fly tower, stage wings, and dressing room space. None of the Reids’ other San Francisco theaters had full stage facilities. Today, San Francisco has only five movie theaters left with intact stage houses. Among these, the Harding is the only neighborhood theater.
The Harding has a long history of serving the community as a neighborhood movie/vaudeville house during the 1920s, as a single screen movie theater until 1960, as the Lamplighters’ theater during the 1960s, as a music venue during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and as a church and community center from 1973 until 2003.(6)

Divisadero’s Harding Theatre from the Inside – The Great Graffiti Paint Out Begins

So, kids come over from the East Bay just to hang out inside of the moribundhard-knock Harding Theatre at 616 Divisadero Street in the NoPA? Yes they do. (Didn’t know that.) And do they have their own bolt cutters and padlocks to try to prevent others, such as the owners, from getting in? Yes, again, they do. Oh well. I’ll tell you, this place is a mess, and honestly, I’d want to be on bottled air if were to spend any good amount of time inside. Anyway, the graffiti is getting painted over these days and the owners have bolt cutters and padlocks of their own so, and this is NOT a challenge  to you or nothing, it won’t be as easy to make the massive theatre your very own kiddie clubhouse going forward.

Jerry performed here on
9/3/71 Grateful Dead
9/4/71 Grateful Dead
9/10/71 Merl Saunders
9/23/71 New Riders Of The Purple Sage
11/6/71 Grateful Dead
11/7/71 Grateful Dead

4.)^The Reid Brothers, http://www.outsidelands.org/reid.php
16.)^Russell (April 1963), The Four Mysteries Of Warren Harding
17.)^^Aiuto, Russell, The Strange Life and Death Of President Harding, http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/terrorists_spies/assassins/warren_harding/3.html


  1. This is a great write-up. Sad to see that the Harding Theater is such a mess inside.

    Warren G. Harding died in San Francisco, while a sitting President. A golf course was named after him (Harding Park), so it isn't surprising that the theater was as well. Now, we see Harding as a scandal ridden president, like Nixon, but at the time he was famous and naming parks or theaters after him would have been considered respectful.

  2. I am in the western addition library in sf and saw the harding theatre depicted in an old photograph on the wall. even though I grew up here during some of its business life and my parents were in lamplighters, I do not remember it. thank you whoever wrote this up for me to read and dream about it. decrepit architecture with sacred tinges is my love....Rebekah alessi...1/13/2105

  3. Thanks Anonymous, I'll check out that Western Addition Library photo.

  4. Thank you for this great history of the Theater, much more in-depth than what's currently on Wikipedia. I am involved with the latest plans to bring the Harding back to life. Here is some recent press about the project: http://hoodline.com/2015/11/plans-move-forward-to-develop-harding-theater-neighboring-condos - happy to report that the theater has been cleaned up and the full restoration is slated to begin in February

  5. I was just in there today putting forth my bid for new sound and video systems! Crossing my fingers...

    1. Wow, exciting! If any old photos turn up please email me at slipnut01@gmail.com.

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