Here's lookin' at you, Vic

Big-screen commitment and a handful of daisies: Red Vic Movie House celebrates 30 years

Current collective members pose with Godzilla and friends

FILM Ah, Friday night at the movies: chatty mobs, unable to detach from their smart phones or fathom seeing a movie that isn't both brand-new and unnecessarily 3-D'd. With such a bummer scene in the outside world, might as well stay home and watch edited-for-TV Seagal flicks on TBS, right?

Insert screeching needle-on-a-record sound here. Third option: head to one of the city's most offbeat repertory theaters, collectively-run Haight Street landmark the Red Vic, which celebrates its 30th birthday this week.

"So often we hear people say, 'Oh, we love the Red Vic! But we haven't been there in years,'" collective member Claudia Lehan says. "That's our biggest joke. We're still here, we're hanging in, but we need people to come to the movies. We're doing our best to provide what people want."

For the past three decades, that has meant a unique space (bench-style seating; organic popcorn and home-baked treats) with programming that reflects the theater's eclectic spirit. Along with films skating the gap between first-run cineplex and DVD (Kick-Ass, The Runaways), a recent Red Vic calendar also lists the Burning Man Film Festival, local-interest doc It Came From Kuchar, a surf-movie night, a San Francisco Museum and Historical Society-presented program on the Haight, and the cult classic Freaks (1932).

"I think we're a unique night out," Lehan says. "The whole experience — the movie itself, it's such an intimate theater, and it's community-based."

On a recent afternoon, I met with current collective members Lehan, Jack Rix, and Susie Bell; the fourth and newest member, Sam Sharkey (who late-night movie fans will know from Landmark Theatres), was out of town. Also joining us was Jack's wife, Betsy Rix; she, along with Jack, Brad Reed, and Terry Seefeld, cofounded the Red Vic in 1980, with the help of other key players, including Martha Beck (who appears in the Red Vic's adorable pre-show trailer) and Gary Aaronson.



"We were all door-to-door canvassers in the '70s," Betsy remembers. "We'd go out after, and say, 'There's gotta be something better out there for us to do.' We started thinking about starting a business together: a bookstore, or a movie theater. Movie theater seemed like a really good idea. At that time, there was a thriving repertory scene. We talked right away about having couches, nondisposable popcorn bowls — just to make it a totally different kind of movie theater. We plugged away on the idea for over a year."

After some scouting, the group found its first venue, just down the street from its current location at 1727 Haight. "The Red Victorian Bed and Breakfast had an international marketplace that was closing up. It was a great big space," Betsy says. "We got a lease for 10 years and renovated it."

Visit the Red Vic's cozy lobby, and you'll see their first calendar hanging on the wall. You might be fooled into thinking the theater opened in 1980 on July 14, with a screening of the 1942 classic Casablanca. That was the original plan — until all of the projection equipment was stolen. Fortunately, the group was insured, but they had to delay their debut until new equipment could be ordered. When it arrived, they opened with the film scheduled for that day, July 25: 1977's Outrageous!

Within the first month, Betsy says, they had their first bomb (1969 Oscar winner Midnight Cowboy) and their first hit, Jacques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974). From the beginning, Red Vic audiences were determined to support the theater's more unexpected film choices. A recent favorite has been Tommy Wiseau's The Room (2003), a terrible-amazing vanity project that's drawn hoards of devotees to its frequent Red Vic midnight showings. At $25 a pop, Wiseau bobbleheads are an in-demand item at the concession stand.

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