Lights out at the Strand

From Pathetic Life #1
Tuesday, June 21, 1994

I am heartbroken, but no, this has nothing to do with Maggie, my almost certainly soon-to-be ex-girlfriend.

The original Alien, John Carpenter's remake of The Thing, and an unknown entity called Legend of the Overfiend looked like a good triple-feature at the Strand, but from two blocks away I knew something was wrong. The marquee is blank, and the windows have been covered with newspaper pages. The doors are locked, and the last picture show was yesterday. It's out of business.

(click image to enlarge)
The Strand must have been a spectacular movie palace when it was first built. Just one auditorium, of course, and I'd guess it had 750 seats, maybe more, including the steep, sprawling balcony up the marble stairs. The last time I sat in the balcony, a huge graffiti tag at the back announced, "Suck my ass, Bobbie."

When it was new and shiny, the theater probably had curtains, and all sorts of architectural flourishes that have long since been painted over or ripped out. I'll bet it had a glorious chandelier, but I never saw it — every time I went to the Strand, its interior was lit by a single 60-watt light bulb, hung naked on a long cord from the very high ceiling.

Located in the heart of the Tenderloin, San Francisco's most infamous and dangerous neighborhood, the Strand was infested with rats. The carpeting was faded and smelly. The screen had a long rip in the upper-right corner. Many of the seats had springs poking out.

Half the Strand's patrons were bums or drunks or mentally ill, and the arguments between them were often more interesting than anything on the screen. There were needles in the lobby, drug deals in the restrooms, and conversations shouted across aisles and rows.

I saw a knife fight in the balcony once. Found a spent condom stuck to the bottom of my shoe. Saw cops come in with flashlights to make arrests in the auditorium, while the movie was running. Saw an old man drop his britches and take a shit in the front row. It was everything a moviehouse should never be, yet so extreme was its scuzziness, you couldn't help loving the Strand. Well, at least I loved it; I guess Maggie didn't.

To be fair, there were also — occasionally — days when the projection was proper, the crowd was polite, and it was just another trip to the movies. But those were the exceptions. Usually, the Strand was a trip in itself.

The sound system was mono, but they kept it cranked loud, to help drown out the audiences that never shut up. If you brought earplugs to muffle the volume, maybe you heard the movie more than the crowd's talking and yelling, and you could almost fool yourself into thinking you were in a movie theater.

Do you need to use the restroom? Abandon hope, ye who enter here. The owners made an effort, so toilet paper was almost always available, and the floors were usually dry despite the moist clientele. The toilets that had been shattered were roped off, so you wouldn't accidentally slash an artery on the porcelain.

But some problems were too expensive to fix — the men's room was poorly lit, with cracked mirrors, and ancient yellowed tiles, so even immediately after a thorough cleaning you could still smell yesteryear's sweat and urine and shit, and the graffiti scrubbed away one day would be rewritten the next.

In its last incarnation as a scuzzy repertory cinema, the ticket price was always cheap, and bought admission to two or three movies — old movies, great movies!

The Strand had affordable concessions, too — free soda with free refills, if you bought a hot dog or nachos. Big buttered popcorn, at a small price.

And at no extra charge, surly service with a snarl — the Strand standard was a Bronx attitude without the accent, and if you weren't tough enough to take it, you were in the wrong place.

It was easy walking distance from my rez hotel, so I was often at the Strand. They had reels of cartoons and shorts leftover from the 1930s or '40s, so there was often a black-and-white bonus between the features — Three Stooges, classic cartoons, forgotten oddities that deserved to be forgotten, and a few cartoons and shorts with shockingly blatant racism from your great-grandfather's era.

I didn't hold the offensive stuff against the theater, though, because I don't think anyone who worked there was looking at the screen. Entire movies would be shown through the wrong lens, so everyone on-screen was inhumanly wide, or impossibly skinny. I don't even know how they did this, but a few times they ran trailers for coming attractions upside-down. The projection could be so far out of frame that nobody would have shoulders, let alone heads. 

If you went to the lobby to complain, it would be another twenty minutes before the problem was solved, because there often seemed to be only one employee in the building. He or she couldn't leave the concession stand unattended to run up to the projection booth. After all, people come to the movies to buy popcorn, not to watch a movie.

So I'll remember The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the frame exactly in the middle of the screen. The singing lips were reversed, lower lip on top and upper lip underneath...

Red Rock West, two rows in front of some acid burnout who screamed advice to Nicolas Cage. I turned around and said, "Hey, buddy, it's a movie. He can't hear you." So he yelled louder, and I found another seat...

Romper Stomper, a great action movie set amidst a race riot, with a crowd that was culturally diverse and really into the plot...

Fantasia, made even more surreal by being out of focus from beginning to end...

Up in Smoke, through blue clouds of pot that had me a little high before the opening credits...

Supercop: Police Story 3, a Hong Kong action movie, shown with the frame so low that the subtitles were eliminated. The drunks shouted audience-participation dialogue instead, and yeah, I participated...

Beethoven's Second, with ten minutes of a blank screen between reels. The audience hooted and hollered and stomped their feet louder and louder in the darkness, but when I finally went to the lobby to complain, the worker hadn't even known there was a problem. He'd heard all the ruckus from the auditorium, sure, but he'd just thought they had an enthusiastic crowd that day...

My favorite memory of the Strand was the night about twenty science-fiction nerds, all sitting together, came to see a triple feature of Blade Runner, Terminator 2, and the director's cut of The Abyss. Sadly, they came with no understanding of the Strand dynamic, so they were freaked out from the moment they walked in, and they all walked out together before Deckard even met Rachel.

And now, all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain, as Roy Batty explained long after they'd left.

Now it's shuttered and locked. Dim that lone light bulb one last time, sweep up the spilled popcorn and hypodermics, and draw the curtains that aren't there.

Strand calendar image by Isabella Acuña,
courtesy San Francisco Theatres.  

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

 Addendum, 2021: I clicked around on the internet, and learned that renovations on the Strand began in 2012, and it reopened as a playhouse in 2015.


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