You read it here yesterday: the gloomy news that the venerable Red Vic Movie House is officially closing shop July 25 (the theater's 31st birthday). I caught up with Red Vic collective member Claudia Lehan today to talk about the rep house, whose signature red building has long been a Haight Street institution.
SFBG: There've been rumors for a little while that the Red Vic was in financial trouble. What ultimately led to the decision to close?
Claudia Lehan: We've known for awhile that it was coming, we just weren't sure when to tell everybody. It's this month because it's our birthday, as you pointed out — July 25 — and we just thought that would kind of be a way to set a marker for ourselves for the closing.
SFBG: Was it just that not enough people were coming to the theater, that you weren't selling enough tickets?
CL: Yeah, that's kind of the bottom line, lack of attendance or lower numbers. It's been a long, slow, steady decline. Then again, I worked last night and it was pretty busy for Vertigo. So it's just hard to know, but if it's not busy enough on a regular basis that we can make it a sustainable a business...
SFBG: It must have been pretty serious, since I remember from writing my article on the Red Vic's 30th last year that the building is actually owned by a collective member, Jack Rix, and his wife, Betsy Rix, a former collective member and one of the Red Vic's founders.
CL: Right. Yeah, it's hard for them. There's definitely no bad guys in this story. I know people are always like, "Is it your rent?" — and it's obviously not. It is really hard for them, and I think they let us go quite a lot longer than is really sensible in order to, like, hit this marker of our birthday, which is really sweet.
SFBG: What's the mood among the staff? You mentioned you were sad, but kind of ready, too.
CL: I think for us — we've been telling patrons who come in to see a movie, people are asking and we're like, "Yeah, we are closing," and it's kind of like doing a bit of grief counseling. People who you tell are sometimes really sad about it. I think for us we're sad but we're kind of at the acceptance stage. But...it is a sad thing. We definitely don't want to close, but it's just sort of not realistic.
SFBG: What's next for the Red Vic staff and space?
CL: I've been in grad school part-time for something completely unrelated to film, Chinese medicine. And [collective member] Sam Sharkey is still gonna be hosting The Room at the Clay [every second Saturday of the month at midnight, starting August 13]. I'm glad all the people who come out to enjoy The Room can continue, and Sam is a great host.
It's pretty sure that our neighbors the Alembic are going to expand into what is now our lobby, and the auditorium is — there's a few different ideas up in the air. I think Betsy is someone who is just very community-minded, and she wants to put something else in there that's gonna have that spirit of the Red Vic. Something that'll be good for the Haight, as well as San Francisco. So there's a small chance that there'll be a small screening room in the back, much smaller than the 140 seats we have now. It'll be more of a community space. Sort of a multi-use space. And with the rest of the auditorium, she has a couple of different ideas, I'm not sure yet.
SFBG: The theater is saying farewell with Red Vic favorite Harold and Maude.
CL: Yeah, it's a four-day run, and we'll end on the 25th, and we'll try to make the whole run special, and then see what happens on the 25th. I think it will be bittersweet. We're trying to keep it a little bit positive, you know — kind of, "We're so grateful we've been here for 31 years." It's pretty amazing that a collectively-run, single-screen theater survived for that long. We kept plugging away, but it's kind of time.
SFBG: Well, you guys will definitely be missed...everyone I've talked to about it has been like, "Red Vic closing? Noooo!"
CL: I know! But, I don't want to have any tone of, like, pointing fingers at people. I think people are very nostalgic for movie theaters and bookstores, and these places where we love to hang out, but they don't really turn out in the numbers they used to. It's just a different world.