Historic Cinemas—The Alhambra

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Historic Cinemas—The Alhambra

Location: San Francisco CA
Built: 1926
Status: Fitness Club

I’m trying to remember what was the first film I ever saw at the Alhambra, and I can’t. I remember its splendid Moorish Revival architecture. I remember the beautiful mezzanine. The ornate ceiling. The gold starburst motif. The big Moroccan urns. Over the years it closed for renovation into a twin screen, then back to a single screen, but the glorious Art Deco interior was basically preserved. It was designated an official San Francisco Landmark in 1996. My parents had come to this place on dates, and so had I—maybe I even saw the last film they screened before it closed (Wag the Dog, 1998). I’m not exactly sure, but the Alhambra was the jewel of Russian Hill and when I left the Sunset District for a flat in North Beach, it had been closed for a couple of years.

We always joked that, living in North Beach, no one needed a gym membership: The neighborhood was walkable, absolutely. And to get to any other neighborhood on foot you’d likely be cresting hills so steep that on some blocks stairs were carved into the sidewalks. Over Telegraph Hill was the Embarcadero. Over Nob Hill was the downtown area with all the live theaters, not to mention hotels where doormen inexplicably wore “beefeater” type red livery a la Buckingham palace, and where tourists shivered in tacky “Alcatraz inmate” sweatshirts because for some reason they still don’t believe anyone who warns them that July in San Francisco is cold.

And over Russian Hill was Polk Street, with its mix of bars and clubs, gentrification bellwether restaurants and remaindered male prostitutes. And the Alhambra was open again.

Except it was a gym.

San Francisco lost a large percentage of its early-20th century single screen theaters in the latter part of the century. One of them is a Goodwill store now. One’s a dollar store. Some were just torn down. By many people’s lights, the Alhambra’s a success story—they have managed to keep much of the beautiful original interior intact and the space is being used. The projection room is now a yoga studio. On the mezzanine level you can hit the elliptical and watch below you as the front of the house plays host not to a vintage Wurlitzer but to a kickboxing class. Sometimes they even still play movies on the big screen, with subtitles.

So, yeah, it’s not a Ross Dress for Less, or boarded up. It’s an active space with a life.

I don’t know, though. I had a gym membership there for a while. (It turns out that after suffering the many bodily indignities of pregnancy, even those hills aren’t enough.) And I never really got over the feeling that I was … oh, “defiling a sacred space” is too strong a phrase for it, but seriously, it made me uncomfortable. Like we were disrespecting the building, even if the beautiful light fixtures had been left intact. It always just felt wrong.


Amy Glynn’s interests include Italian wine, home beekeeping and serendipity. You can follow her on Twitter.

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