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An Illustrated Talk Brings the Richmond’s Rich History of Movie Theaters to Life

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Black and white image of movie theater on street corner
A view of La Bonita Theatre in 1919, now the 4 Star Theater, at the corner of Clement and 23rd in the Richmond District. (Courtesy Woody LaBounty)

Given the ever-shrinking number of Bay Area movie theaters — RIP Berkeley 7 — we rarely expect good news regarding our local cineplexes. (Our fingers are still crossed for the Castro.) So when the 4 Star Theater, sold in 2021 by the Lee Neighborhood Theatres chain, reopened on Dec. 8, 2022, it was cause for celebration.

Over the past month, the theater’s programming by CinemaSF, which also operates the Balboa and the Vogue, has been eclectic: a mixture of culty nostalgia, family-friendly fare and the Asian cinema Adam Bergeron of CinemaSF vowed to keep in the mix. For those appropriately psyched on Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the theater is hosting a triple-feature of The Heroic Trio, Crazy Rich Asians and Everything Everywhere All At Once Jan. 25–27.

But to properly celebrate the 4 Star’s reopening — and its place in the pantheon of Richmond movie theaters — look no further than a kind of meta-event scheduled for Sunday, Jan. 29 at 5 p.m. “Movies in the Richmond: 4 Star History and More,” an illustrated lecture by local historian Woody LaBounty, will showcase historical photos, ephemera, ads and tickets to create a virtual tour through the neighborhood’s past and present of cinema-going.

“When I was a kid growing up in the Richmond, I had the choice of seven theaters that I could walk to without any effort,” LaBounty says. “So I could see 10 movies any day I wanted. It had a rich sort of congregation of motion picture theaters — more than almost any neighborhood.”

Here, LaBounty specifies “neighborhood” cinemas as something special — a distinctly different experience than the larger, downtown San Francisco theaters. What makes the Richmond stand out further, he says, is that it has some of the last surviving screens.

Black and white image of a large crowd in front of a movie theater
The Coliseum Theatre at its opening in 1918 at Clement and 9th Avenue. Most recently, it was the site of a Walgreens. (Courtesy Woody LaBounty)

LaBounty’s talk will include the Palm nickelodeon (formerly of 6th and Clement), the Coronet, the Egyptian-themed Alexandria, the Balboa and the 4 Star, which opened in 1913 as the La Bonita. His material comes from over 20 years of research — he’s co-founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project and writes a weekly column on city history at SanFranciscoStory.com.

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“I’ve given talks in the past about movie theaters,” LaBounty says, ”but this is the most complete and I would say definitive to date from the Richmond district.” It’s become even more timely, he points out, since storm damage necessitated the removal of the shuttered Alexandria Theater’s vertical sign. The Alexandria has been closed since 2004.

But part of its story will live again in a moment of audience participation LaBounty dreamed up for his Jan. 29 talk. “When it opened, it had a whole Egyptian motif, a whole theme. They had sphinxes and hieroglyphics and all sorts of things all around the theater,” LaBounty says. “But they also had a theme song composed which was done by a local band.” With the sheet music in hand, LaBounty had the song recorded, and will lead his 4 Star audience in a 100-year-old sing-along.

“We’re going to play it and see how the 1923 song holds up.”

‘Movies in the Richmond: 4 Star History and More’ takes place Sunday, Jan. 29 at 5 p.m. at the 4 Star Theater (2200 Clement St., San Francisco). Details here.

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