Here’s lookin’ at you, Vic

cheryl@sfbg.com

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.

 

RED HEADS

“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.

 

BIG(GER) RED

Though the Red Victorian hotel would give the Red Vic its name, the theater’s address would eventually change. “We’d had a fairly antagonistic relationship with the landlady,” recalls Betsy. “We knew for many years that in 1990, when the lease was up, we had to go.”

Fortunately, “it worked out better for everyone,” Jack Rix says. He and Betsy ended up buying the building that houses the Red Vic today, flanked by Escape from New York Pizza and the Alembic Bar. “Awesome neighbors,” agree the collective members, who tend to cheerfully talk over each other like family members. Though Jack suggests that the success of a collective is “like making sausage — you don’t really want to delve into it too much,” it’s clear the unique structure of the theater’s “management” has enabled it to thrive. The non-collective members at the Red Vic are volunteers who work in exchange for free movies.

The Red Vic’s permanent home holds 143; in keeping with the theater’s cinephile roots, “we remain committed to 35mm. We really try to show things in 35mm,” Jack says.

This dedication can sometimes lead to extremes (thanks to a distributor snafu, they once had to contact director Jim Jarmusch directly to borrow one of his films). But you’ll never see video at the Red Vic, unless the work was specifically made for it.

“If it’s made on video, and meant to be screened on video, we do have a pretty kick-ass projector,” Lehan says. “But if it’s made for 35mm … “

That projector comes in handy when local filmmakers, whose projects are often created using the more accessible video format, are on the calendar. “We really enjoy showing local films that people aren’t going to get to see anywhere else,” Jack says. “Lately something that’s worked pretty well is to rent the theater to filmmakers. It seems to work well both ways, because we get a minimum amount of business that’s guaranteed, and filmmakers get their movie shown.”

 

RED-HOT TICKETS

Though making gobs of money isn’t exactly the Red Vic’s goal, it has had some certified hits over the years. Used to be you couldn’t pick up one of the Red Vic’s signature red-and-black calendars without seeing trippy, time-lapse-heavy Baraka (1992) on the schedule. “We’re taking a break [from Baraka] for a little bit,” Lehan says with a chuckle.

Other success stories (besides The Room, as noted above) include two films coming up in August, El Topo (1970) and Dead Man (1995), plus anything by Werner Herzog, 1998 big-wave surf film Maverick’s (“Lines around the block,” Susie Bell recalls), and The Big Lebowski (1998), which returns every year on April 20, the high holiday for stoners. The Red Vic’s political leanings also draw crowds (“A new Noam Chomsky documentary will always do well,” per Bell), along with “stuff that’s really beautiful that looks good up on the big screen,” according to Jack.

For the past several years, the Red Vic has screened Hal Ashby’s 1971 dark comedy Harold and Maude on its birthday, July 25. It was a favorite of the late Steve Kasper, a friend and regular customer from the Red Vic’s earliest days. “He loved Harold and Maude,” Betsy says. “I don’t think we had really thought about showing it, but he brought it in. He was the one who started handing out daisies [after the film, a tradition that continues]. And it just really caught on.”

For 30 years, its cozy sense of community has remained unchanged. But the Red Vic, like other repertory theaters, has felt the 21st century pinch: DVDs, video-on-demand, and the Internet mean that less people bother seeking out off-the-beaten-path exhibitors. For the most part, though, collective members remain cautiously optimistic about the decades ahead.

“The first time we showed Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), which is a movie I really love, it did really well. I remember being amazed that we could show something like that and people would show up to see pure art on the wall of your funky little movie theater,” Jack says, before turning philosophical. “These are tough times for repertory theaters. To a certain extent, it’s use it or lose it. If people don’t support little theaters, they’re definitely not going to be around much too much longer.” 

HAROLD AND MAUDE

July 25–28, 7:15 and 9:15 p.m.

(also Sun/25, 2 and 4 p.m.; July 28, 2 p.m.), $6–$9

Red Vic Movie House

1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994

www.redvicmoviehouse.com