Following a $40 million dollar face lift, the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco is reopening this weekend after decades of neglect and disuse.
The venue was built in 1939 as the main social and entertainment hub for military personnel stationed at the Presidio army base, and it has a star-studded past.
Around 3,000 people showed up to see comedian and vaudevillian Jack Benny perform there in 1942, and millions more heard the NBC radio broadcast across the country and around the world.
“He was one of the great performers of his time,” said Presidio Trust program producer Brad Rosenstein of the famed entertainer. “So that was a huge event to have happen here.”
Benny was just one of many big names who appeared at the venue. Marlene Dietrich, Lucille Ball, Loretta Young and Bob Hope also came through.
The celebrities visited the troops, signed autographs and sometimes put on shows.
“They weren’t trying to show off,” Rosenstein said. “They were doing it because they genuinely supported the war effort. They were here to visit the wounded soldiers. They weren’t trying to be stars.”
Back then, the theater wasn’t an ideal place to put on a live performance. It lacked dressing rooms. And the narrow, cramped stage didn’t have proper wings.
Rosenstein said stars like Benny and Hope got away with performing there because of the relatively low-key demands of radio production.
“These radio programs, because they didn’t have the requirements of a big stage production, could kind of squeeze into that space between the the apron and the screen,” Rosenstein said.
When the army moved out in 1994, the elegant, Spanish Colonial-style building fell into disuse.
“It was dark. No lights. No power,” said San Francisco architect Mark Hornberger about visiting the run-down space for the first time a few years ago. “The ceiling had partially collapsed because the roof was leaking.”
Hornberger was part of the team that worked on the renovation project.
Originally conceived as a movie theater, the newly spruced-up building will now serve the broader community as a live events venue, as well as a space for screening films.
The eclectic programming for the coming months includes a dance performance by Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco and LIKHA-Pilipino Folk Ensemble, the pop group The Family Crest in concert, a magic show from Bay Area illusionist Andrew Evans, a rare public screening of the oldest-known movie shot in the Presidio and an awards ceremony for this year’s American Indian Film Festival.
The venue now has a roomy stage, a fancy sound and lighting system, gleaming dressing rooms and a customizable rehearsal space. And many of the historical features, such as the foundations, the auditorium ceiling fixtures and the projection booth, are still intact.
The theater now seats 600 audience members instead of the original 900. Hornberger said he thinks people will love the greater comfort and coziness, including the performers.
“You really feel like you can see the eyes of every member of the audience, and they feel like they’re just within reach,” Hornberger said, gazing out at the rows of blue, fabric-upholstered seats from the stage. “It’s a very intimate space.”