John Waters on Clay Theatre Closure: 'A Real Era for Me Is Shutting Down in SF'

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John Waters  (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

On Sunday, San Francisco's Clay Theatre will close its doors to moviegoers after more than a century in business.

The impending closure of this single-screen independent movie theater in Pacific Heights, known for its arthouse screenings and midnight movies, has been a cause for sorrow for many in the Bay Area — including filmmaker John Waters.

One of the Clay's claims to San Francisco cinema history was a midnight premiere of Waters' "Pink Flamingos" in 1972.

It's a milestone Waters remembers with pride — "the first commercial theater I ever played in at San Francisco that was part of an ‘above ground’ scene" — even if the popular legend that this was the city's first-ever midnight movie screening isn't quite accurate for him.

His earlier movies "Mondo Trasho" (1969) and "Multiple Maniacs" (1970) played at the now long-closed Palace Theatre at Powell and Columbus streets "all the time," Waters recalled.

Waters, who has lived part time in San Francisco for years, spoke to KQED about his memories of the Clay, the joys and vices of midnight movies, and the San Francisco theaters he hopes stay in business.

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On What the Clay's Closure Means to Him

"It's very sad to me because San Francisco is one of the first places outside of Baltimore where my films caught on ... 'Pink Flamingos' started there, became quite successful there, and was really a help in my career.

"If you played at the Clay it gave your movie kind of a little honor of being a real art movie, and being difficult, and causing trouble, and it was just a good club to belong to ... it really mattered very much of climbing up from the underground to play there.

"I also lived very near the Clay Theatre during those years on California Street near Pierce. So it was my neighborhood theater, too. And they always had good cutting-edge movies there. I would say it was the coolest theater. It was the hippest art theater. So I was really proud to show there."

On the Movies He Watched at the Clay

"I don't remember, because this was in the '70s. You know, as they say, if you remember the '70s, you weren't having fun ... but I went there all the time.

"It played first-run art movies. It usually always played the movie I wanted to see first in San Francisco. So it was really lucky for me that I lived so near it.

"A real era for me is shutting down in San Francisco ... all these theaters that I went to are no longer there.”

The historic Clay Theatre, in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood, is slated to screen its final film on Sunday.
The historic Clay Theatre, in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood, is slated to screen its final film on Sunday. (Jeremy Brooks/Flickr)

On the Decline of Independent Movie Houses

"It's not just San Francisco. It's everywhere that independent film is having a tough time because of television, and because young people maybe don't like art movies quite as much as our generation did.

"I think there's always going to be a market for offbeat movies. I don't care if you call them underground, midnight, independent — they're all the same thing. They’re movies that regular people don't like and we always need a showcase for them. And I think we'll always find one.

On Indie Theater Culture and Midnight Movies

"This was before the Internet, this was before DVD, when that was the only way you could see a movie. You couldn't rewind: You had to come and see it again the next weekend. So it was like church. And I mean, everybody smoked pot at this midnight movie, are you kidding? That was a huge part of it.

"And as soon as the VCR came out, the midnight movie kind of ended. People could smoke pot and have sex in a theater at home. I'm not saying people had sex in the theater at the Clay ... but I bet they did.

"I think the last real movie that worked at midnight was 'The Human Centipede' — and yes, I did see that. But I don't know that the midnight movie now is a phenomenon. What was then a midnight movie could easily play at a regular theatrical run today."

On Which Other Indie Theaters Need Support in SF

"All of 'em! The Opera Plaza, that's next. And the Roxie, of course, I've gone to for years — and the Castro [Theatre], are you kidding? I mean, my movies all played there.

"San Francisco's always been a great movie town and it will continue to be so forever, I think."