Any old-timer will tell you one of the keys to survival is rolling with the punches. San Francisco’s Strand Theater has done a lot of rolling in its day. Since opening as a Vaudeville theater in 1917, its incarnations have included a bingo parlor, a movie house, a porn theater – and most recently, a residence for squatters.
When American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff got a peek inside the theater a few years ago, detritus and death were scattered among the dusty purple velvet seats.
“It was covered in dead birds,” said Perloff, gazing across the dark red hall. “Carcasses of dead birds and just kind of really disgusting and musty.”
But this forlorn survivor of Market Street’s glitzy days will soon get another act. After purchasing the theater several years ago, A.C.T. on Wednesday broke ground on a $32 million restoration project that will transform the crumbling eyesore into a theatrical jewel on Market Street.
The theater is scheduled to reopen in the spring of 2015 as an intimate 300-seat venue with a 120-seat venue upstairs that can be rearranged for even smaller productions. The company said it will also house performances from A.C.T.’s Master of Fine Arts Program students.
The theater’s resurrection comes amid the dramatic transformation of Central Market Street, where tech companies like Twitter and Squared have setup shop – and towering glass apartment buildings rise into the skyline.
“We bought this place before everybody else started moving in,” said Ellen Richard, A.C.T.’s executive director. “But now it’s going to have–I mean there’s 40 other projects happening within a quarter-mile of us.”
San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said, despite the tech hub on mid-Market, the city is hoping to retain arts groups in the neighborhood.
"They often say, 'Please keep investing in our arts programs,'" said Lee of tech companies he’s talked to. "That’s what creates the conditions in which their creativity, their innovative spirit has to happen."
Even before purchasing the Strand, A.C.T. opened a costume shop just down the block, which included a small performance space. Perloff noted the theater is surrounded by tech companies, federal and municipal government buildings, as well as the Tenderloin neighborhood.
“The really kind of challenging and beautiful thing will be to marry many, many kinds of audiences in a unified space,” said Perloff.