Avenue Theatre

"I was there..."

By Ruth Eshow Upton


Avenue Theatre on San Bruno Avenue, July 15, 1927.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Saturday afternoon was dedicated to going to the Avenue Theatre. Located on San Bruno Avenue between Felton and Paul Avenue, its marquee distinguished the narrow building from the neighboring shops. A glass enclosure sheltering the cashier stood in the space under the marquee, open to the street. You bought your ticket, waited until the door was opened and entered the dark theater. There was no lobby with popcorn and soft drinks. Even if there were, our family would not have been customers. My mother considered food of this type as “junk,” a term she used before it became common, as well as a waste of money.

Once settled in our seats we were in for a full afternoon. A dime you got a varied menu of entertainment. First came the Pathe newsreel with its familiar logo, an electric tower with lightning rays crackling. Then an animated cartoon—Mickey Mouse, Tom and Jerry, Betty Boop among many others. A comedy film followed starring well-known comedians of the l920’s and l930’s. Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey’s films were particularly popular. One title sticks in memory, “The Wrong Mr. Wright.” I thought it was the height of cleverness. A cowboy movie (or “oater” as they’re referred to in crossword puzzles.) followed. The afternoon closed with an episode of a ten-part serial, true “cliff-hangers.” For years I regretted having missed the last episode of a particularly suspenseful one—“Vultures of the Sea.” A part of my fascination might have been due to the female star, Patsy Ruth Miller. She not only bore my unglamorous name, Ruth, but she was small. I never figured out if she was a child or an adult. Every once in a while the theater featured a lottery on the stage. A wheel was spun. The winner got a prize, usually a Hershey candy bar.


Avenue Theatre interior, c. 1928

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Avenue Theatre interior 640p.jpg

Avenue Theatre interior, following 2017 renovation.

Photo: Alex Hobbs

I was accompanied by my two younger sisters, Anita and Lily. When he was old enough, my brother Haig came along. The admission price of ten cents jumped to twenty cents once you reached the age of twelve. We girls were small for our age and managed to get in for a dime until we were l6. When our ranks swelled to four we lined up by height behind the youngest, my brother. He handed the usher all the tickets at once. By the time I, the eldest, entered the usher was too occupied with others pushing to get in to challenge us.

One afternoon I decided to stay for a second showing of the program; my siblings went home. Absorbed in the images on the screen I suddenly came back to reality when I noticed that the short, plumpish figure searching the aisles, hissing, “Ruthie!” was my mother. I hastily left my seat. She grabbed me by the ear and dragged me behind her as she expressed her unfavorable opinion of me. I was grateful for the darkness and hoped no one had paid attention to my humiliation.

Adults avoided the Saturday matinees. At the slightest romantic activity chaos broke out. Everyone spoke at once, shouting to friends in other parts of the theater, kids ran up and down the aisles; calm was restored when the kissing ended.


Avenue Theatre with H-line streetcar on San Bruno Avenue, 1947.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Avenue Theatre from south march 2020 792p.jpg

Avenue Theatre looking north, March 2020.

Photo: Ryan Kuang

The Avenue once had vaudeville on Friday and Saturday nights. My mother, accompanied by a neighbor, took me with her when I was very small. It was a strange place, never to be forgotten. Cigarette smoke created a haze through which I, standing on a seat, was dazzled by a line of chorus girls in pretty costumes doing high kicks on the stage.

As I eased into the teen-age years I outgrew the Saturday matinees’ commotion and juvenile fare. I preferred Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire or something starring Gary Cooper. I sometimes went to the El Capitan on Mission Street, a bigger theater that included a vaudeville show. But mostly my girlfriends and I took the street car to Market Street where we could enjoy the first runs of more sophisticated movies. However, I didn’t lose touch with the Saturday afternoon offerings. My little brother was devoted to the matinees. When he came home I put him to dry the dishes as I washed. He excitedly told me the plots, involved and incomprehensible, until he too outgrew the Avenue.


Avenue Theatre, 1940.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Avenue Theater from north march 2020 792p.jpg

Avenue Theatre looking south, March 2020.

Photo: Ryan Kuang

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