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Historic West Portal Theater Closes Permanently Due to Pandemic

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West Portal's CinéArts at the Empire in 2019. (Courtesy Google Street View)

The Bay Area’s arts and culture scene has suffered another casualty as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic: the permanent closure of the West Portal CinéArts movie theater.

San Francisco’s CinéArts at the Empire was a beloved neighborhood venue. It opened as the Portal Theatre in 1925 and has been in operation ever since, renamed as the Empire in 1936. In 2003, under parent company Cinemark, it was rechristened CinéArts at the Empire. A representative for Cinemark said the decision to close the theater was made because the lease term was coming to an end.

“It adds to the symbiotic quality of the neighborhood,” said Maryo Mogannam, president of the San Francisco Council District Merchants Association and longtime business owner in West Portal. “Losing it I think is impactful and I would urge whoever it is who has authority to find a replacement theater operator whether it be independent or a large chain.”

The city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development is looking for a new tenant to occupy the Empire Theater, according to aides for Supervisor Myrna Melgar.

Bay Area movie theaters have struggled during the pandemic. Most have remained shut for indoor screenings over the past year, while some have accommodated outdoor screenings and events. CinéArts has been closed since the original shelter-in-place orders came down in March of last year.

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In October, CinéArts at the Empire joined a group of prominent movie theaters in the city refusing to reopen due to restriction by the Department of Public Health. At the time, indoor screenings could resume at 25% capacity without concessions, but some larger theater venues said this was an “insurmountable” limitation on their businesses. After shelter-in-place restrictions were reinstated by Mayor London Breed in December, movie theaters that had reopened were forced to shutter once more.

While some independent theaters like the Roxie and Balboa Theater have survived on outdoor and virtual screenings, it remains to be seen if movie theaters can withstand the fallout of the pandemic. So far, other permanent closures have yet to be announced.

“I’ve been going there since I was a little kid,” Mogannam said of the Empire. “People in the neighborhood like to spend time there. I’m really just so sad about it.”

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