The Dazzling Golden Gate Theatre
The History of the Golden Gate Theatre
In 1922, the Golden Gate Theatre mades its debut in downtown San Francisco and quickly became the city’s premier theatrical showplace. Its architectural grandeur and majestic stage attracted A-list talent and the region’s most glamorous theatergoers. But over the years, the theater was hard-pressed to keep up with the changing times and its luster began to fade. Today, however, under BroadwaySF’s leadership, the Golden Gate is enjoying a long-awaited renaissance. Having been meticulously restored and upgraded, it is once again a world-class venue presenting top-tier productions.
Now, as the Golden Gate Theatre approaches its 100th anniversary, BroadwaySF takes a look back at the theater’s illustrious history – and its dramatic stories of resilience and rebirth.
The Early Years
The Golden Gate Theatre opened its doors in March 1922, amid the artistic and cultural boom of the Roaring Twenties. At the time, cities across the country were exploding with new forms of entertainment and daring aesthetic styles and the luxurious Golden Gate quickly became San Francisco’s reigning theatrical house. Designed by architect G. Albert Lansburgh, the Golden Gate was launched as a celebrated addition to the Orpheum Circuit, a national chain of primarily vaudeville houses.
With more than 2,200 seats and a steady stream of stage shows and silent films, the Golden Gate dazzled theatergoers. Marjorie C. Driscoll, a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle, wrote of the theater’s over-the-top beauty: “(The auditorium) suggests the outdoors, with none of the roofed-over feel that characterizes the average theatre…It is like sitting under a bit of blue sky.”
By 1928, the Orpheum Circuit had been folded into a conglomerate called Radio-Keith-Orpheum, or RKO (which would go on to become one of Hollywood’s leading film studios), and the Golden Gate underwent a spate of modernizations. In the ensuing years the theater featured headliners such as Mickey Rooney, Louis Armstrong, Roy Rogers, Nat King Cole, Jack Benny, the Marx Brothers and even the beloved German shepherd star Rin Tin Tin. Frank Sinatra, who performed there three times during the height of his bobby-soxer fame, said he recalled the Golden Gate with a rush of warm and wonderful memories – the theater was an important steppingstone in my career.”
The Cinerama Era
In the 1950s, the Golden Gate experienced one of the most radical transformations in its history, when it was converted into a Cinerama movie theater. A film system that debuted with much fanfare in 1952, Cinerama called for a wide, curved screen that typically showed synchronized images from three projectors. Cinerama signaled a revolution in moviemaking and established theaters across the country were eager to become movie palaces. But, to adapt the regal Golden Gate into a Cinerama theater, much of Lansburgh’s exquisite work was demolished. An escalator was added; the upper balcony was sealed off; and a drop ceiling was installed in the lobby, concealing the architect’s lavish decorative elements. Alterations continued over the years, and by the late 1960s the theater’s original splendor had become a dim memory.
As it turned out, Cinerama did not have the legs may had hoped for and it entered the history books as one of moviedom’s short-lived fads. By 1972, the Golden Gate had gone dark, ending its long run as a top provider of quality entertainment. At the time, it seemed that the theater was finished. But new management – and a new vision – would prove that the Golden Gate’s glory days were far from over.
In 1979, the company now known as BroadwaySF bought the Golden Gate and launched a multimillion-dollar renovation with the aim of restoring the theater’s Art Deco and Gothic Revival heritage. The challenge was massive: There were few records or drawings for reference, and the renovation team had to scour microfilmed newspaper articles and archival photos to learn about Lansburgh’s original designs. With painstaking attention to every detail, the team began the process of removing the drop ceiling and escalator, and reconstructing the proscenium arch, mezzanine and marble staircase. The seats were reupholstered and reinstalled, and the ornamental elements were restored to fit seamlessly with the building’s architecture.
On December 27, 1979, the renovated theater reopened with the first live performance to grace its stage in a quarter-century: A Chorus Line. In the years that followed, the Golden Gate became one of the premier theaters on the West Coast to present touring Broadway shows. The list of stars who performed there during these years reads like a who’s who of Hollywood: Richard Burton, Debbie Reynolds, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Quinn, Jerry Lewis, Jim Dale, Angela Lansbury, Joel Grey and many others. It once again became an integral part of San Francisco’s rich cultural offerings, serving as an artistic hub in the mid-Market area. The Golden Gate successfully carried on this way for nearly 40 more years, proving yet again that it was a true survivor. But by 2018, the time had come to renovate this beloved jewel box once again.
A Dramatic Renewal
With the tech boom transforming the Bay Area – and companies such as Twitter, Dolby and WeWork moving into the neighborhood surrounding the theater – it became clear that new upgrades were necessary to keep the Golden Gate relevant.
“We want to ensure that the Golden Gate remains the very best in class,” BroadwaySF CEO Greg Holland explained in 2018. “We saw mid-Market start to take off in a new way, and we felt the happy obligation to keep pace with these exciting changes. We want the Golden Gate to remain a leading light in the neighborhood as well as the theater community at large.”
Once again, a team of designers and architects – this time led by ELS Architecture and Urban Design – was faced with a daunting challenge: to assess how to stay true to Lansburgh’s vision while making state-of-the-art modifications. And because the Golden Gate Theatre is a culturally significant building, it was critical that all the updates were grounded in historical research.
The team began by gathering as much information as possible about the building’s history. It oversaw a comprehensive refresh that included a lighter color palette, customized light fixtures, enlarged restrooms (including the addition of all-gender facilities), and upgraded electrical and air conditioning systems. A new burgundy stage drapery was installed, as was a red-and-gold carpet that incorporates stylistic flourishes – such as scrolling leaves and rosettes – that refer to design elements found elsewhere in the theater. The team also added digital signage, but left the theater’s iconic marquee intact.
In September 2018, with the renovations completed, the Golden Gate’s curtain rose once again (for On Your Feet!, the musical about Gloria and Emilio Estefan). Since reopening, the theater has presented an impressive lineup of stars including Madonna, who performed at the theater in 2019, and Broadway hits such as Waitress; A Bronx Tale; Beautiful: The Carole King Musical; Hello, Dolly! with Betty Buckley, Come From Away; and The Last Ship, starring 17-time Grammy Award-winning musician Sting.
As the Golden Gate celebrates the most recent chapter in its legendary history, it’s a safe bet that this will not be the last. “If you look at the Golden Gate Theatre through the decades, it has shown remarkable resilience,” Holland says. “This building stood through the Depression, flappers, wars, hippies, earthquakes, pandemics and riots. It’s been a vaudeville house, a rock ‘n’ roll palace, a movie theater, a Broadway venue. It’s been abandoned, trashed, refurbished – and when everyone has given up on it, it comes back strong. And it’s still standing.
“The shows may change, but the mission doesn’t,” Holland adds. “This is a building for entertainment, for creation, for art.”