Clay Theatre to close, last Bay Area single screen in Landmark art house chain

Breaking News 4.15.2019

Another sad indicator of the changing scene in San Francisco

San Francisco Chronicle 1.22.2020

The warm white-on-red neon blade and marquee at the Clay Theatre, one of the oldest movie theaters in San Francisco and a signpost on Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights since around 1910, will flicker off after one last picture show as the shoebox-shaped room is scheduled to close Sunday, Jan. 26.

With the 325-seat Clay going dark, that leaves San Francisco with the Vogue Theatre on Sacramento Street as the only neighborhood first-run single screen in the city. The Clay is part of a chain of art houses across the country owned by Landmark Theatres, including venues in Berkeley, Albany, Oakland, Palo Alto and Santa Cruz in addition to the Embarcadero Center Cinema and Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.

Landmark President Paul Serwitz, reached by phone in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Jan. 22, confirmed the closure and said the Clay had been losing money for six consecutive years.

“Much of Landmark’s DNA is in older theaters like the Clay, but we’ve put many efforts into making the Clay work and are unable to operate it viably,” he said.

Serwitz added that the Opera Plaza Cinema on Van Ness, which also had been rumored to face closure, will remain open and is scheduled for refurbishing.

The Clay’s fate “came as a shock to me,” the Clay’s landlord, Balgobind Jaiswal, said Tuesday, Jan. 21. Jaiswal, who also owns Cielo Boutique on the same block of Fillmore as the theater, said he has been exploring the concept of combining the movie theater with a restaurant to make it viable but has not yet found a food partner for that venture.

Despite the pending closure, Alfonso Felder of the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation sounded hopeful for the future of the historic building.

“There is a level of interest in the community for it staying a theater that I’m optimistic will result in another chapter,” said Felder, whose organization bought and saved the Vogue. “The Clay has been around since 1910, so it has some fortitude.”

The darkening of the Clay Theatre follows the recent closure of the Guild in Menlo Park as the last two single screens in Landmark’s Bay Area portfolio.

The chain was launched in 1975 by San Franciscans Gary Meyer and Steve Gilula. Landmark took over the Clay in 1991 and throughout that decade was a major force in the indie film craze that was fed constant product by studios like Miramax and Orion Classics.

Meyer sold the chain to Samuel Goldwyn Jr. in the late ’90s, starting the long, slow whittling of the chain through sales and a bankruptcy before Landmark was purchased by Cohen Media Group in late 2018.

By then the Bridge Theatre, another beloved Landmark single screen off Geary Boulevard, had already folded and it was rumored that the Clay would be next to fall.

In 2010, the Clay looked as if it was going to be saved by the San Francisco Film Society (now SFFilm), which had been in talks to take it over from Landmark. But that deal fell through, compelling Jaiswal to reduce rent for Landmark to keep the theater running.

This time around, Jaiswal said he was not offered any terms by Landmark, which is on a month-to-month rent. He expects to be served notice that Landmark will vacate any day now and suspects it is closing to give the operator ample time to remove its equipment.

But in a post on the Facebook page “Save The Clay Theatre San Francisco” on Tuesday, Clay floor staffer and in-house historian Michael Blythe blamed the impending closure of the Clay on the landlord Jaiswal, not the operator Landmark. He implored moviegoers to contact Jaiswal by email and come to the theater to demand it remain open.

“Ask that he work with Landmark to make the improvements needed to the facility without destroying its simple charms,” Blythe stated. “Tell them how much you adore this building before it is too late.”