The Red Vic's original '80s cast helped revitalize the Haight with raucous screenings and savory popcorn. From left (back row), Syd from the anarchist bookstore, friend Terry Seefeld, Betsy Rix, Jeff Rix (baby), Jack Rix, Martha Beck, and, from left (front row), Brad Reed and Kevin Drew.

Reeling in the Years with the Red Vic

Michael Fox July 19, 2010

In July 1980, half a dozen friends formed a collective and started a movie theater in the upper Haight, aided and abetted by assorted pals, supporters, hangers-on and joint rollers. The collective signed a 10-year lease for the lobby of the Red Victorian Bed & Breakfast at Haight and Belvedere, and installed a screen, chairs and couches. Although it held only about 80 people, the Red Vic Movie House thrived as a repertory theater, introducing San Francisco’s perennial influx of young émigrés to classic and cult movies. In 1991, the Red Vic moved a block west on Haight to the former location of the Full Moon Saloon, expanding to 143 seats. (The moon remained above the marquee until about eight years ago, at which point it had become a hazard.) The collective, whose members revolved in and out over the years, remained so optimistic despite the arrival of home video that they took over the giant York Theatre (now the Brava) in the Mission in an ill-fated and short-lived expansion in 1990. The Red Vic marks its 30th anniversary Sunday, July 25, with cake and a slide show before the 7:15 p.m. showing of its traditional birthday film, Harold and Maude.  We asked several past and present members of the collective to share their favorite moments from three decades of presenting movies on Haight Street.

Martha Beck (collective member 1980-2007): The first night the Red Vic was open, July 25, 1980, two weeks after we were scheduled to open (because someone had stolen our projectors, but that's another story), I was behind the concession counter wondering if anybody would come. Then Rhian Miller, Kevin Drew and their fellow United Farm Worker organizers showed up. They wanted to show support and asked if they could help out. It felt great, like we were already part of the community, of what was happening. People actually did come. We showed the film Outrageous, about the friendship of a bipolar girl and a drag queen. On the calendar, our opening night film was supposed to be Casablanca, but because of the aforementioned stolen projectors it was Outrageous.. When I think back, a more suitable film to launch the ol’ Red Vic.

Betsy Rix (1980-92): Shortly after we opened in 1980, we showed a series of Charlie Chaplin movies. Quite a few people came to the 7 p.m. show—a wonderful mix of old and young, including a number of children. I walked into the auditorium shortly after the movie started, and as soon as the door opened I was overwhelmed with the sound of laughter—deep, long laughter from the grown-ups, surprised and delighted laughter from the kids. At that moment, I felt an enormous satisfaction at what we had accomplished, not in revenues or compliments, but having provided an experience of true happiness and joy for so many people, together in one place.

Rhian Miller (1981-83): For me, the most memorable shows were the ones that gained cult status, like Hippie Temptation or Harold and Maude or my favorite, the campy Australian film Starstruck, because the audience would be so into the experience. In the early days, we had a shrine built to Wim Wenders and would show all of his films. I’m sure someone must have mentioned the frequent knock on the door during shows to find Danny Glover there with his green plastic bowl coming in just to get the popcorn—still the best in any theater.

Claudia Lehan (1998-present): A moment that really sticks in my head occurred during our run of the excellent documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. We had Jim Jones, Jr. (adopted son of Rev. Jim Jones) present for a Q&A. He's a very nice, sociable guy who was a pleasure to have around. I spent some time with him, hanging out at the concession counter, having a nice conversation. When it was time to do his Q&A, he walked into the auditorium, then poked his head back out and said, ‘Hey, I'll tell them you're selling Kool-Aid out here!’ then sort of winked and laughed, and went inside. My jaw hit the concession counter.

Susie Bell (1987-present): A former Red Vic member, Elizabeth Day, reminded me of a few fun times, like when we showed Harrod Blank's Wild Wheels and we had the whole block lined with art cars, and when a bunch of us dressed up as characters in The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (I still have the photo, I think). Also, the first sellout at the new location. We opened the same day the Gulf War started, and everyone was out protesting. Things were slow for the first couple of weeks, until we showed David Lynch's Wild at Heart. Another memorable/fun night was the first sci-fi marathon we did at the York Theater. Someone loaned us a reel of trailers that had everyone laughing at about 3 or 4 a.m. Danny Glover used to live in the neighborhood (maybe he still does?) and come by for popcorn and an occasional movie. I gave him a private screening of Lolita one time. And the time [cinematographer] László Kovács came to a screening of Easy Rider and a certain former collective member introduced him to the audience as Haskell Wexler.

Jack Rix (1980-83, 2005-present): One of my favorite Red Vic memories is the time East Bay documentarian Les Blank came by when we were doing a festival of his films. This was around 1981 or ‘82. I think we were playing Always for Pleasure, about the New Orleans Mardi Gras/music scene with appearances by Professor Longhair and the Wild Tchoupitoulas. It’s an amazing film to begin with, full of scenes featuring New Orleans music and food. Les showed it in what he calls ‘Aromaround.’ He and his long-time collaborator Maureen Gosling cooked up big pots of red beans and rice along with a pan of garlic bread, and wheeled it into the auditorium. They fanned it out over the audience so that they would get the full tangy, flavorful smell. When the film was over, you got to eat red beans, rice and garlic bread with the filmmaker. Another time we showed his Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, which featured a scene on how to cook and eat cloves of garlic. We consumed a lot of garlic after that.

Sam Sharkey (2008-present): Though I have nowhere near the number of stories to draw from as my colleagues, my three-year tenure has been a lot of learning and a lot of fun. At the beginning of 2009, I got the green light to start a monthly midnight movie series. So as not to compete with any other midnight screenings around the city, I had a radical idea of holding them on nights of the full moon, wherever they land in the month. Not surprising to some, the weeknight screenings of this new series were suffering. That is, until I decided to book a notoriously bad film called The Room that I had seen once with a small group of friends. The film had played as a midnight show in Los Angeles since 2003, so I thought there might be some appeal up here. The Room sold out the entire house on a Wednesday night in the middle of March. We even had to turn people away. I was elated by the response and enthusiasm of the fans as they helped change a sleepy auditorium into a vibrant midnight movie experience. We still show the film every month and will even be hosting the director in September.

Martha Beck: Back when the Red Vic opened in the 1980s, Haight Street was very different. A lot of storefronts were boarded up, all kinds of drugs were freely sold on the street, there were no boutiques but plenty of liquor stores and divey bars. Do the Pall Mall Club, the Question Mark or the Theater Club ring a bell for anyone? Anyway, not so many places to grab a quick burrito. So we took turns cooking dinner every night. (The original Red Vic location had a kitchen). There were plenty of stir-fries and brown rice. [Original collective member] Terry Seefeld made the most amazing green chili enchiladas. One day a wild and crazy Italian film producer named Bruno Bossio walked in and pleaded with us to show his documentary about an Italian insane asylum. It turned out to be an excellent film that we ended up showing. He was around at dinnertime one day and he showed us how to make garlic pasta. Thinly slice a whole bulb's worth of garlic and gently sauté in a fair amount of olive oil with a pinch of chili flakes. Don't let the garlic get the least bit brown. Throw in your cooked pasta and serve with freshly grated Parmesan. It became my favorite comfort food and still is! A great Red Vic memory.

Betsy Rix: One memory that I hold dear from the early '80s was sitting at the ticket booth, straightening up after the auditorium doors had closed; the previews had started and the popcorn machine was quiet. Many times during these first few years Danny Glover would bound up to the counter at this very last minute, usually alone, excited about the movie he was about to see and full of enthusiasm about the Red Vic, the Haight, and life in general. Danny did speak to a Red Vic audience once at a benefit showing of Places in the Heart, which he considered his favorite work at that time. He made this movie at the time of the passing of his mother, who lived in the Haight, and he spoke of his memories of family and growing up in the neighborhood.

Sam Sharkey: Seeing familiar faces is as nice as watching new patrons discover the theatre for the first time or attracting pedestrians off the street with the smell of freshly popped corn. There is, however, one anecdote that always makes me laugh. One evening as I was selling tickets, a figure catches my attention out of the corner of my eye. It’s a young dude hovering low to the ground, almost crawling into the auditorium with his long board in hand. As I ask if I can help him with anything, he pops up with a huge grin on his face. ‘Awwww! You caught me! I’ve snuck in here before but not with you watching. You’re good!’  It’s just a game for this skater with a Baja poncho and white dreadlocks to try and sneak into the auditorium. He doesn’t even care to see the film. I have busted him a few more times since with a smile and ‘better luck next time’ tone. For me the story speaks to the unique characters we have on Haight Street and the theater’s casual and welcoming atmosphere. Just because you can’t afford a ticket doesn’t mean you can’t have fun at the movies!

Claudia Lehan: A few years ago, we put the word out that we were looking for a remake of our ‘bring out your dishes’ trailer (the one where the monster drags the hapless audience member under the couch when he makes a mess, and the woman—played by former collective member Martha Beck!—gets hit with a bucket of water). Since that trailer was made long before cell phones were around, it needed updating. We received some incredibly creative shorts, and we screened them before Harold and Maude on the night of our birthday. The budding filmmakers got to see their work on the big screen, and we had a little awards ceremony for them. It was a very sweet evening.

Jack Rix: Our customers are fabulous and constantly pick us up when we are a little down because of the myriad things that can go wrong with a run-on-a-shoestring rep theater that changes films every couple of nights. However, one of my favorite all-time Red Vic moments occurred during a special screening of Once organized by the San Francisco Film Society for some students who had a special interest in film. Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová were here to perform some songs and answer questions. The students loved the film and were absolutely bursting with questions. Glen and Markéta (who were a few months away from winning the Oscar for Best Original Song) stayed and answered all the questions the kids had and were incredibly patient and interested in everything the students had to say. I was blown away by their generosity and sincerity. At one point Glen, who I believe mentioned that he had not completed school, recommended that the kids drop out and get real world experience. The pained look on the face of one of the school advisers was priceless, but the kids loved it.

Susie Bell: After the '89 earthquake, Elizabeth [Day] and I were still in the neighborhood, having just had coffee and cake at Tassajara Bakery. We went to the theater to see if there was any damage, and the large front window was cracked badly. We didn't know what to do, as we were afraid to leave in case an aftershock knocked it out completely. Right then, my friend Bruce Roehrs showed up and held the window in place while we found some tape for him to secure it temporarily. We thought he was crazy, but we were so grateful. He died this past March.

Rhian Miller: Since an anniversary begs for nostalgia, what I feel so strongly is the intense loss of the whole S.F. independent theater scene that existed back then, when there were at least 15 small independent theaters around the city. As a member of that community, we shared a ‘pass in’ policy where we could call any of those theaters to be put on the comp list, so there were many weeks where one would visit three or four other theaters to catch great movies and talk shop.

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