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Scaffolding, tower cranes, fenced vacant lots, and heavy trucks hauling construction equipment and material are commonplace across the City these days, as San Francisco is in the midst of the greatest construction boom in at least 7 years. Over 140 projects, private and public, are underway across the city. These include more than 4,000 new housing units, and several major public works such as the Transbay Transit Center, a new hospital complex at Mission Bay, and the Central Subway to Chinatown.
In this context of massive new development, it is easy to overlook a project with a relatively small footprint, centered on a long-neglected spot in the heart of North Beach. Of note is the demolition late last month of the former Pagoda Palace Theater, along the western edge of Washington Square on Powell Street. Before the building was taken down, it had been a shuttered eyesore for almost twenty years, fenced by graffiti-covered plywood, with little but a painted-over blade sign to recall its former glory as North Beach’s beloved neighborhood movie house—and much more.
The building’s transformation over the years bears witness to major historical changes in the City and in the North Beach community. “Pagoda Palace” was only the last in a string of names over its hundred-plus-year history. The “pagoda” part came from the opening in 1967 of a Chinese movie theater here, in what had previously been a traditional neighborhood motion picture house, called simply the Palace. By the ‘60s, many Italian families had moved out of the neighborhood and Chinese families had crossed the “border” from Broadway to buy or rent in formerly Italian North Beach. Chinese films, and occasionally, Chinese Operas were in demand.
Earlier, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Palace was where locals came to catch a matinee, along with a hot dog and a shake. Before that, in the ‘30s, the place was a movie theatre called the Milano. Despite the Italian name, however, the films shown at the Milano were American. At that time, following restrictive immigration laws passed in the ‘20s, Italian-Americans were sensitive about their immigrant background and bent on assimilation into the mainstream of American society. Hollywood films were a window into American values and behavior, and going to the movies was a most American pastime.
It was before the ‘20s that the theatre, then called simply the Washington Square Theatre, reached its cultural zenith as a house of unapologetically Italian cultural expression. Built in 1909, the Washington Square was the work of Antonietta Pisanelli, queen of San Francisco Italian theatre impresario, and a star singer and actress of her day. A few years earlier, in 1905, she had established the popular Circolo Familiare Pisanelli, inside the Bersaglieri Hall at the other end of Washington Square, on the corner of Union and Stockton streets. The Circolo featured a variety show mix of popular song, opera, and short plays, in a Parisian café-theatre atmosphere.
For Pisanelli and for the Italian community, the Washington Square Theatre was a different, much grander project than the Circolo. This was the city’s first purpose-built Italian theatre, with a seating capacity of one thousand, offering serious dramatic works as well as opera. Antonio Maori’s New York company was in residence there from 1910-1912, and produced the plays of Shakespeare, Dumas, and Goethe, all in Italian. The famous Mimi Aguglia, who was playing across town at the Curran and the Court theatres, also graced the stage of the Washington Square in 1914. And of course, there was opera too. Tito Schipa sang here, and Enrico Martinelli.
The zenith of Italian dramatic theatre in this location was short lived, coming to a close in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I, and reinforced by the departure of many Italian families to the newly built Marina district in the ‘20s. Opera continued to be produced here for several more years. Signora Pisanelli eventually sold the Washington Square, and went on to establish other Italian theatres in the city, until her retirement in 1931.
The theatre’s demolition marks a major change in the cultural landscape of North Beach. An eyesore is gone, and there is more sunlight at that end of the square now. Muni was able to tear it down because it was deemed not to be “historically significant.” This is arguable. Perhaps it is not historically significant as a structure, but it certainly is as a piece of local cultural history. Muni plans to use the ground where the theatre once stood as an “extraction site” for the tunnel boring machines that are now eating their way through bedrock to make way for the new T-line subway station in neighboring Chinatown. This will mean digging a massive hole on the site in order to get those machines out of the ground. What will happen after that remains uncertain; there is talk of building condominiums and a restaurant. There are no official plans, and no allocated funds, for a North Beach subway stop.
In an essay of the same title, geographer J. B. Jackson wrote of “the necessity for ruins” as a means to redeem what has been neglected. If history is a cosmic drama, he said, ruins provide us with the incentive for restoration, and a return to origins. The Washington Square/Milano/Palace/Pagoda is a now undeniably a ruin, an erasure on the landscape. Will its disappearance also serve as that fallow time and place, in which we may conceive a new interpretation of history?
Elizabeth Vasile is a cultural geographer and Principal of Genius Loci, an applied geography practice dedicated to supporting community-based cultural tourism through the development of local historical narratives and cultural heritage programming. She can be contacted by e-mail at: Liz@GeniusLociTours.com