Frank Lee on 4 Star Theatre's Second Life

Laura Irvine and Jennifer Young December 11, 2006

Three years ago when the 4 Star Theatre was handed an eviction notice by its landlord, a church that owned the property and wanted to move in, few of us who know and love the theater had much hope that it could be saved. We’d already experienced the demise of so many neighborhood theaters in the past several years — the Coronet, the Alexandria, the Alhambra, the Metro, and the UC Theatre, to name only a few. But for local movie fans — especially Asian movie fans — the loss would have been an especially heavy blow. The 4 Star is the last venue in San Francisco, and one of the last in the entire country, to show first-run Hong Kong and Asian films on a regular basis. The Chinatown theaters have long been shuttered, the UC, with its long-running Thursday night Hong Kong film night, is no longer. But we still had the 4 Star with its Lunar New Year films from Hong Kong, its Kung Fu Kult Klassics weekly film series, and its crazy Midnites for Maniacs series, which sometimes ran triple features that let out at 6 a.m. Adding to its charm is the fact that the theater is an independently-owned, family-run operation where you’re likely to see one of the owners or their kids cleaning up between movies, selling tickets, and traipsing up the narrow stairs to act as the projectionist. But luckily, unlike many of the Chinese films that have been staples of the 4 Star’s lineup, the 4 Star’s story has a happy ending. Last week, theater operators Frank and Lida Lee won the battle to save the 4 Star, and announced that they had purchased the building. caught up with Frank Lee to get his thoughts on the fight to keep the theater open and their plans for the future.

SF360: Congratulations on your victory. What is it about this particular theater that made this long fight so worthwhile?

Frank Lee: Thank you. Well we’ve been here so long, since 1992, so it’s our baby. We can do pretty much anything we want. You know what I mean! Show films that nobody will show. Then there’s the neighborhood. The community. We’ve been here 16 years. Also the programming can be really offbeat here, everything from Midnight, to Asian, to the Horror Fest we had last month. But mostly because it’s our baby. We had other theaters previously but the 4 Star is the one that really got us going. So it HAD to be here.

SF360: You held a daylong film festival benefit to raise money for legal fees at one point and in addition to ticket sales neighbors dropped by all day long just to stick a twenty or a check in the donation box. Why do you think so many have supported saving the 4 Star?

Lee: Well, we’ve been here so long and people don’t want to see this structure turn into a church. It’s a commercial corridor and I don’t think it’s fitting for a church to be on this strategic corner. It’s all small mom-and-pop businesses here.

SF360: Do you think because it’s a family owned business that people respond to that?

Lee: I think that’s part of the reason. I mean there are not that many indies left. And you can see we both own and operate.

SF360: Oh yeah – I see you cleaning the theaters! How often do you see that? Who were your biggest supporters?

Lee: I really can’t say who was the biggest. Everyone I have to say. From the organizations like the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation, to the San Francisco City offices, to the neighborhood and the loyal customers that came to sign petitions. It was pretty much from A to Z. It was a combination of things that I think pushed our fight to City Hall and made them aware of what we we’re doing.

SF360: Did you ever think of giving up?

Lee: No. Oh no! Never.

SF360: Why do you think you were successful in saving the theater?

Lee: I think the first thing is that we were still here. If we were fighting from the outside, which is what they wanted us to do, then probably we would have been very discouraged and other people would have been discouraged. But since we were here doing business as normal that was the key.

SF360: What changes are you planning physically for the space?

Lee: We’re gonna do some upgrading. We haven’t done too much in the last couple years because of the month-to-month situation. We need new carpet, to repair the marquee, and paint, you know the cosmetics, but still keeping the old neighborhood theater charm.

SF360: So what can San Franciscans look forward to at the 4 Star with the programming?

Lee: I think we’re going to go back to what we do best; of course Asian films, bring back the once-a-week festival schedules like the Kung-fu Kult Klassics, and we’re still planning on holding the Asian Film Festival here in August, but before that we’ll definitely schedule some new Asian films.

SF360: How about new Hong Kong films?

Lee: Yep. I hope.

SF360: Is there an avenue for that anymore? Can you even get them? And any hope of opening them on the same day as Hong Kong?

Lee: It depends on the film. But the holidays are here, so Christmas, maybe, and at least for Chinese New Year, I know we’re gonna have something.

SF360: Where do the Presidio and the Marina (formerly the Cinema 21) theaters you’re now running fit into the picture? Will you plan a festival with all three theaters involved?

Lee: We’ve been thinking about it. When the Marina opens we’re gonna have a total of eight screens. So we’ll have a lot of flexibility.

SF360: Why should neighborhood theaters still be preserved?

Lee: To be an anchor for the neighborhood. Same thing as I’ve been saying all these years, we attract people, they come to the movie, they help out other businesses. We show a lot of films that nobody else shows so people even come over from the East Bay and often support the other small neighboring businesses. It’s community. Every neighborhood should have a theater.

[Editor’s note: Laura Irvine runs the web site, which runs the 4 Star’s schedule and covers Asian film in the Bay Area.]