What we lost when the theaters closed

Please indulge me my nostalgia.

As 2019 turned into 2020, none of us really knew what would soon happen. Looking back at the first months of this year, it seems amazing how many great films were available theatrically in real, hard-top movie theaters; some of them even using physical film. And you didn’t have to wear a mask to enter. And all that was less than a year ago.

When we were innocent

On February 21, 2020, I posted my last What’s Screening newsletter that didn’t mention pandemics, masks, drive-ins, or virtual cinema. We would soon lose the experience of movie watching in a crowd.

That weekend, you could have gone to the Stanford for a Kurosawa double of Rashomon and Stray Dog. That was one great film and another very good one – both in 35mm.

The Stanford played one of more Kurosawa double bills in February

We were celebrating the late Agnès Varda and her work back then, and BAMPFA played her loving One Sings, the Other Doesn’t. Meanwhile, SFMOMA continued celebrating Varda with La Pointe Courte, Faces Places, and Vagabond.

Silent movies really belong in theaters – especially if the movie is a comedy. To be at its best, slapstick needs an audience and live music…and you can’t get that staying in place. That Saturday, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum played one of Harold Lloyd’s best, Girl Shy, with Jon Mirsalis accompanying on the Kurzweil keyboard.

Girl Shy calls for an audience and live music

That week, the Lark offered John Boorman’s autobiographical, child’s-view of war in Hope and Glory. The Castro presented a new, 4K restoration of Federico Fellini’s first feature The White Sheik.

The New Parkway offered another movie filled with color, sex, nudity, and a female director: Julie Taymor’s biopic of artist Frida Kahlo, Frida.


For something more conventional, you could have gone to the Balboa to see Bullitt.

Not everything was old. The Elmwood and Rafael played the epic-length Grateful Dead documentary, Long Strange Trip.

Feline lovers could see the 2020 Cat Video Fest at the  ElmwoodRafael, or Roxie.

When the theaters started closing

Three weeks later, we weren’t too sure when we would know when we’d watch a movie on the big screen, again. On March 13, I posted my last weekly newsletter covering movies playing in conventional theaters. A few days later, theaters were closing left and right. One day a theater would post a message about their strict sanitation rules. The next day, the theater closed. I could barely keep up with the news.

Some great classics were scheduled to play theatrically that week. Eight months later, I’m not sure which of these actually screened.

For instance, despite what my newsletter said, the Castro may or may not have played a wonderful Kirk Douglas double bill of Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.

Kirk Douglas double bill that may have screened

The original 1933 King Kong played (maybe) in various theaters via Fathom Events.

If I remember correctly, the New Mission was one of the last theaters to close. So, it’s a good bet that the 1954 version of A Star is Born played the New Mission that week, along with Goldfinger and Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winner The Departed. A representative of the theater’s owner, Alamo Drafthouse, told the Chronicle that the theater’s reservation system will help enforce the six-foot rule. Then the theater closed.


Touch of Evil may or may not have played at the Alameda. Other classics that were scheduled, and may have been screened, included Stripes (also the Alameda), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Albany Twin), and an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (New Parkway).

What didn’t play at the Castro

The Castro’s web-based schedule hasn’t changed since the theater closed, so we can clearly see what was scheduled but didn’t play during the second half of March. I’ve already mentioned the double bill of The Bad and the Beautiful and Ace in the Hole, but there was a whole lot after that.

On Saint Patrick’s Day, the Castro would have played another great double bill: The Crying Game and Miller’s Crossing.

I’m one of the few cinephiles who doesn’t care for Vertigo, but for the majority that love it, it would have played in 70mm March 19 – 21.

The Crying Game

And the next day, they would have played Stanley Kubrick’s first masterpiece, Paths of Glory. It was on a Kirk Douglas double bill with Lonely are the Brave.

Another film I would have loved to have seen in the Castro was The Conformist (March 23). Deadheads would have had yet another chance to see Long Strange Trip (March 24).

No one understood three-strip Technicolor like the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff. On March 25, the Castro would have shown the delightful A Matter of Life and Death along with Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, (which I haven’t yet seen).

A Matter of Life and Death

Another Kirk Douglas double bill contained Lust for Life and Spartacus (March 29; although Spartacus is really way too long to play on a double bill).

Finally, the March schedule ended with Francis Coppola’s overlooked near-masterpiece, The Conversation. On Tuesday, March 31, you could have seen it with The Rain People. On April 1, the second movie was Rumble Fish.

We lost a lot of enjoyment as the movie theaters closed. Hopefully, they will open soon.