Designed by master architect Timothy Pflueger and opened in 1931, the 1,800-seat El Rey Theater at 1970 Ocean Avenue was shuttered and sold to Voice of Pentecost in 1977, which then converted the 35,000-square-foot building into a church and small Pentecostal school.

Mortgaged to pay for upgrades to the building and finance a science fiction film described by the church’s pastor as “the Ten Commandments meets Star Wars,” the never-completed film, which was to be shot on a rented Treasure Island soundstage, effectively bankrupted the church. And the theater building was quietly foreclosed upon at the end of 2015, with the buyers paying $1.06 million in cash on the steps of City Hall.

Never historically protected as a church cannot be forcibly landmarked in California, San Francisco’s Planning Department recently compiled a landmark designation report for the now investor-owned building. And next week, San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission is slated to adopt the report and formally initiate landmark proceedings for the former El Rey Theater which is still occupied by the church.

The El Rey’s new owners, Ricci Ventures LLC and Greenpoint Land Co., are aware of the City’s report and proceedings. And as a related aside, the Gap’s first store was located in one of theater’s five shuttered retail spaces, opening at 1950 Ocean Avenue in 1969:

We’ll keep you posted and plugged-in.

Comments from Plugged-In Readers

  1. Posted by hundo_p

    Looks like a good location for Riley’s hockey rink.

  2. Posted by Metroliner

    Is there any chance that this will return to a theatrical use? Either film or stage shows? It’s so well situated right on the K and an expanding Ocean View population. If anything, lease the stores; this stretch needs some activation.

    • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

      How much money did you personally spend on theater-film or stage shows last month?

      Netflix did not exist when this building was constructed.

      • Posted by SFRealist

        Ding ding ding!

        Winning comment

        • Posted by OtherDan

          Well, as a venture like the Drafthouse in the Mission suggests, there may be a new market for theaters, location notwithstanding. Beautiful building. I guess people can hope.

          • Posted by SFRealist

            ‘location notwithstanding’ are the key words there. And the key problem here

      • Posted by Amewsed

        $27.50 for a ticket to A.C.T.’s A Christmas Carol, got it on sale @ Travelzoo. I go to the theater maybe once or twice every five to ten years.

        That’s why you have theater districts in major cities, not random isolated places where the upkeep is high and quality is questionable. Ditto for museums. Museum Mile in NYC, for instance.

        • Posted by Mark

          Right, because our own “theater district” is in such a great area of town. Sorry, but I’d rather hang out on Ocean Avenue and see a show than deal with the trash in/around Civic Center.

          • Posted by Alai

            If you say so. And yet the theaters in Civic Center are relatively successful. How are the theaters on Ocean doing? Apart from the one that was sold to a church and is now empty.

          • Posted by Mark

            Sorry you didn’t understand…my comment was about theater districts and neighborhood quality. But, getting back to Amewsed’s comment…museums flourish in all different neighborhoods and settings. I’m not against districts, but individual theaters and museums can do just fine in other parts of the city.

      • Posted by Bobby Mucho

        Theaters like Kabuki and Alamo Darfthouse seem to be doing just fine. I think it’s less a matter of comparing viewership / profitability to online streaming services and more focused on the onsite services, like food, drink, events, etc.

        Massive chain theaters like AMC might not be smashing their projections, but that’s likely due to business models based almost entirely on scale and growth as opposed to programming. Sure, sure licensing fees associated with getting bigger films to play may be a hindrance but can pretty easily be offset by running smaller independent films or even older films for frequently.

        Succinctly, I think it’s baseless to blame Netflix (or the Internet as a whole which is often cited for why commercial space lies dormant throughout the city).

        • Posted by curmudgeon

          I don’t know the figures, but clearly movie attendance is down. It seems like desperation moves to me to see theaters that were once packed with seats be replaced by theaters with many fewer recliners (Century theater and Embarcardero have both done this. Maybe others?). It’s clearly a bid to tempt folks with comfort so they won’t stay home on their couch. But it can’t be good economically for the theaters.

        • Posted by Jake

          ha, I can stream hd quality movies at home anytime I want because of the intertubes. FTR, USA moving-picture-theater total number of tickets sold in 2016 were about the same as 20 years ago (2016 vs 1996), while USA population has grown by about 20% since then. Looooong term decline in per capita consumption of moviepictureshows and cableTV and telephone-landline all directly due to broadingband Internet and mobile/wirelessly.
          Digital communications ate the movie theater.

          • Posted by editedge

            Anecdotal : At Century Cinemas in Daly City last week. It was packed. Might there be a rediscovery of the cinema as a public gathering space/commons, place of shared experience? (This is my hope.) Do not discount the power of our social needs as humans, and the novelty of internet fading ..

          • Posted by Jake

            Nope, the long term decline of the movie house continues. Of course as more theaters close, some of the remaining will be packed, and not just anecdotally. The current decline is gradual, but unrelenting and follows on the decline in movie houses in the USA that began with the adoption of TV after WWII. Don’t discount the dilutive power of ever expanding choices.

            BTW, the “novelty” era of the Internet “faded” in the previous millennium with the invention of HTTP. That “P” stands for protocol. The text, voice, and video protocols hosted on the Internet since the http breakthrough have made the Intertubular the dominant carrier of human communications beyond earshot. I’m sure in Daly City that far more hours of video are watched via the Internet than in movie theaters.

            Oh, and most movie theaters are lousy “shared experience” spaces compared to live performance spaces. Most movie goers do all they can to ignore folks there not in their party.

      • Posted by stevenj

        The new owners are committed to restoring the theater and of course renting out all the retail space.

        While it may not become a full time movie theater ala the New Mission or Castro the new owners are looking at both SF State and City College’s involvement for stage productions and or concerts. The supportive stance taken by the owners to restore this Timothy Pflueger gem could ultimately help invigorate this stretch of Ocean Ave.

        • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

          Sweet Jimmy, the owners only paid $1.06mm for it. I can’t find any references to a stated built square footage, but the building easily covers 2/3rds of the 35,000 sf site. If they have 25K of space, I think that means $40psf, give or take. They could run a chicken farm there and still make money.

          • Posted by SocketSite

            As reported above, the structure is roughly 35,000 square feet.

          • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

            SF Property Information Map says the parcel is about 35K square feet, silent on the size of the building itself. Not sure about other sources.

   says Samuel Levin paid $500K to build it in 1931. CPI adjusted to today would be nearly $7.9mm. Whether the building is 25K or larger, it seems like a comparative steal at $1.06mm.

            Good luck to the new owners.

          • Posted by SocketSite

            That’s great. And as we reported above, it’s 35,000 square feet of built space, based on an architectural survey.

          • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

            Anyone can find the preservation report by asking Larry and Sergei for “2016-011052DES”

            Page 24 of 72 states that the building is 35,209 square feet. Page 65/72 suggests that the parcel is 35,209 square feet. One of those numbers is clearly incorrect. This is likely just sloppy work conducted by the Planning Staff members who conducted the report. I’m going to bet that number is actually the parcel size, given the @187^2 measurements on the property map.

            Anyone is of course welcome to emphatically repeat the conflation of the numbers. Maybe we should call it a case of real estate agents purposefully overstating square footage?

  3. Posted by Paul

    Per Ocean Ave Association, developer is looking into potentially adding housing to the back while maintaining the front for commercial use. City College might be interested in turning the space into a local arts theater.

    • Posted by curmudgeon

      Can City College afford to do anything in Real Estate these days? Didn’t they just dodge a bullet on expanding way too aggressively.

    • Posted by AnonAnon

      City College has longstanding plans to build an art center on campus that do not appear to be any closer to coming to fruition.

      I think your idea is a good one, but I believe that much of the CCSF community wont give up on this dream.

  4. Posted by AnonAnon

    Forget about the building, where can I see a cut of this “Ten Commandments meets Star Wars” film. Sounds like they had grand plans to be the next Scientologists.

    They should install a GAP museum in the original GAP space.

  5. Posted by Mark

    Many neighborhood theaters continue to prosper. Not everyone wants to deal with driving and traffic to hit up a multiplex. However, I can see the point of why even bother in the digital age. Although Netflix may be a disruptive force, many people still want enjoy going out and interacting with other people. But is that enough to make a place successful?

    • Posted by Alai

      Are they prospering? In the Richmond, the Coronet and Alexandria (and others) are long gone, the Bridge closed recently after 75 years, the 4-star is for sale as a potential site for housing, and the Balboa seems to be doing ok, after fundraising around $100k to keep going. “Relying on donations to survive” doesn’t really equal “prospering” to me, though.

      • Posted by Fishchum

        Chestnut Street has two theaters and they appear to be doing fine.

      • Posted by Mark

        Yeah, many are prospering.

  6. Posted by Amewsed

    Tumbleweeds blow across this stretch of Ocean. Usually, this means I can speed through this portion to get to Whole Foods on the other end of Ocean or the Outer Mission area faster.

    The Target store on Ocean seems pretty slow and empty the two times I’ve been there. I suspect the upcoming Target store at the Stonestown mall will have substantially more traffic thus making the Ocean Target redundant.

  7. Posted by InclineJJ

    Colma Target is one of the highest grossing stores on the West Coast. And there is another Target less than one mile away in Serramonte Shopping Center.

    Not to mention 5 miles down El Camino is another Target Store in Tanforan Shopping Center in San Bruno.

    • Posted by Freeloader

      Both Targets, less than a mile apart, are very high performing stores.

  8. Posted by tom

    Redevelopment of the reservoir site should help some of the Ocean Ave retail. Without more of the buildings on Ocean getting upzoned/redeveloped with upper level residential or office, I would posit it is better to focus on creating nodes with a critical, strong retail presence at important points — perhaps around the Whole Foods and between Junipero Serra and 19th.

    At some point CCSF was thinking about a new performing arts building, so it could be a success if those previous plans got incorporated into the redeveloped theater and the old performing arts site got used for other things.

  9. Posted by Notcom

    “Never historically protected as a church cannot be forcibly landmarked in California,”

    So if a church buys a property that has already been landmarked, does it become de-landmarked, or is it just “tough, you knew what you were getting into?”

  10. Posted by donjuan

    Sometimes these landmark provisions can be superfluous..but this is actually a good application of it.

  11. Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

    What would you call the architecture of this building? Exterior looks like a mashup of Spanish Moorish with Art Deco. And then there’s a Googie touch thrown in. Interior is Streamline Greco-Deco-Rococco

    • Posted by emanon

      By “Googie touch” are you referring to the zig-zag awnings along the front facade? Those, as well as the stone work, were not part of the original design. Also, the tower had more original Art Deco features that have been removed. I don’t think the theater has been designated an historic landmark by the city. I’m not saying it’s not eligible.

      • Posted by Notcom

        “… next week, San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission is slated to adopt the report and formally initiate landmark proceedings.”

        It would seem it is.

    • Posted by Notcom

      I would call it Art Moderne: it’s really too basic (i.e. lacking in ornamentation) for Art Deco, and, as noted here, the tower originally had Buck Rodgers streamline elements.

    • Posted by The Milkshake of Despair

      The Chronicle article that skynxnex linked calls the style “Spanish-Colonial Revival”. And yes, I was referring to that zigzag awning as the googie touch.

      After reading the Chron article the pastor in charge of the church sounds like a charismatic con man with a huge ego.

      • Posted by SocketSite

        To quote the historical report for the theater:

        “The El Rey Theater is architecturally significant as one of the only remaining movie theaters originally designed in the Art Deco style by master architect Timothy Pflugger.

        The Art Deco style emerged on the world stage at the 1925 Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Art Deco style was inspired by a variety of sources, in particular the ancient zigguratbuilding cultures of the pre-Islamic Middle East, including Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.

        Signature details of the style included geometric shapes, including chevrons, zig-zags, diagonal rays, stylized papyrus leaves, pulvinated moldings, and horizontal “speed lines” The Art Deco style evolved in a different direction in California than it did in Europe or on the East Coast. In California, architects and designers relied on the pre-Columbian architecture of Mexico and Central America instead of Middle Eastern or African sources.

        With its stepped, soaring tower, horizontal speedlines at the parapet, and Mayan inspired entrance grille and metal and cast plaster interior ornament, [the El Rey Theater] embodies the distinctive characteristics of the Art Deco style.”

  12. Posted by skynxnex

    This is an interesting article about the space and the foreclosure.

    • Posted by Wai Yip Tung

      Here is the nugget: “Pastor Gozowsky said he didn’t fully understand the financial implications of not paying the mortgage. “I just pray and try to follow the Lord,” he said. “It was way beyond my understanding.”

      • Posted by Adam

        This guy… So he mortgaged the building to make a bad movie that will never be released? I’ve seen The Producers…

        • Posted by WisdomB4Anything

          No. The church rented the Treasure Island building in 2005 and converted it into a make-shift movie studio even though they did not have money for the rent. The sponsor-figure had promised to donate the church a few millions of dollars but in the end he copped out. When that happened, the church had effectively rented for nearly two years(~$17,000 monthly rent) without ever producing a single marketable film cut. The city then ousted the church from the Treasure Island and demanded the church to work out the rent payment. The pastor managed to keep dodging the city’s request for several years (Amazing!) so the city finally confiscated the property and auctioned it off. During that time, apparently, the church had mortgaged the property for renovation of the building because it was in a very bad shape: pipe leaks, dilapidated seats, required paint jobs, etc. So, the church was stuck with the mortgage as well.

          The whole debacle was the result of jumping the gun and moving insanely forward with the movie project before actually receiving donations. A very unwise move it was!

          Pastor Richard was not a con man. He was just extremely naive, for he religiously believed in the donor’s promise.

  13. Posted by Aaron Goodman

    Better to do something with the site to the west, (Taco-Bell / 7-Eleven / Wash n Dry) could be rebuilt with all facilities still on ground floor, lower floor of parking and upper floor of housing sim. to the west side project adjacent to the fire-station…

  14. Posted by Jim Smith

    this is a lovely place and it being a church and tv and movie set is just great. glad its being taken care of

  15. Posted by Out of Town

    Not thrilled about the place, but never been a big art deco fan anyway. However, I can’t deny that it gives some diversity, and it isn’t likely that anything like it will be built.

  16. Posted by tyler

    So this is going to be saved? good, it’s definitely a landmark for the neighborhood.

    • Posted by Architect17

      Anybody know how to see the plans by the developers? Got a notice that they were presenting their proposals but couldn’t make it. Haven’t heard anything since then and there doesn’t seem to be anything about it on the city’s planning site.

      • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

        Your notice should have a specific planner’s contact information and the planner can provide whatever is public for review. Or go wait at the public counter at the planning department and take a number and try to find the right person and feel your life slipping away like grains of sand through your fingers.

      • Posted by Notcom

        Here: save yourself a few grains.

        • Posted by bachman_erlich_overdrive

          That’s interesting. I believe the developer Urbano knows a lot about buying foreclosures, but maybe less about multi-unit development.

          Look for a partly-approved partly-negotiated “All plans included in sale” project on the market here soon. I mean it’s a beautiful building with so much POTENTIAL. How could you go wrong?

          • Posted by Notcom

            Well don’t we always applaud those who feel they’re not too old to learn something new ?? And what better place to begin post-grad studies than SF…kinda’ like a frosh dating a senior (a very experienced senior, at that)

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