Did you know there once was a movie theater on Cortland Avenue? The Cortland Theater (which became the Capri, after 1957) operated for more than 50 years (!!!) at 802 Cortland, in the building that’s now a church.
In this Bernalwood exclusive, the fabulous Vicky Walker from the Bernal History Project tells us the tale of this former Bernal landmark:
Before television, VCRs, DVDs, Four Star Video, TiVo, and Netflix streaming, residents of Bernal Heights went to the movies for entertainment. The Lyceum Theater on Mission Street was a short trip away, but if you didn’t want to walk down the hill, you could watch a movie at the Cortland Theatre at 802 Cortland.
The Cortland specialized in family-friendly double-features. Opened in 1915, it was revamped with a new facade in June 1957 and relaunched as the Capri Theatre. Despite the impact of television, the Cortland/Capri managed to survive until April 1969, and of course the building is now a church.
Jack Tillmany is a lifelong movie buff and the author of Theatres of San Francisco. In the 1950s, Jack signed up to receive The Cortland’s monthly calendar in the mail, so he often found himself at screenings in Bernal. Jack says:
“When I got my first car (in 1956), going to the movies in remote locations was an adventure. And since I lived in the Richmond District (near Geary Blvd. & 21st Avenue), Cortland Avenue definitely fell into that category.
“I was also concerned about seeing wide-screen movies in their proper ratio, and, I’m happy to report, The Cortland’s proscenium was wide enough to do just that. Alas, my own ‘local’ 4-Star’s did not, and so I never darkened their doors again after I saw how they squeezed and mutilated CinemaScope to fit their painfully too narrow screen in 1954!
“As a result I saw John Wayne in The High and the Mighty, Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, and, one of my personal favorites, Land of the Pharaohs, in their intended wide-screen grandeur at The Cortland.
“At least once a month, I would find some excuse to drive over to The Cortland even though the Alexandria, Coliseum, and Balboa were still in my geographical range.
“This all ended when I went into the Army in 1959; when I came back to the Bay Area two years later, I began managing theaters in the East Bay, and never had occasion to go back to The Cortland, which, by that time, had been renamed the Capri, with a new flat front. But I did return for one last hurrah, in 1966, when, on my night off from theatre management, I drove over from Oakland to see Peter Cushing in The Skull, which was just the sort of thing to see at the Capri!”
Along with all his other movie memorabilia. Jack kept the programs he got in the mail from The Cortland. A few years ago, he sold a few of them at his “Theaters of Mission Street” presentation for the Bernal History Project. Longtime Bernal resident and historian Jerry Schimmel purchased Jack’s last batch of Cortland and Capri programs, and he donated them to the Bernal Heights Branch Library. BHP scanned them as well.
The handwritten notes on some of the programs are quite charming. “SAVE CARFARE AND PARKING WORRIES,” one urges. “Patronize your neighborhood merchants. Movies are your best entertainment.”
Jack also provides proof that Bernal’s little movie house once competed with the likes of the Castro Theatre: In March 1958, the Cortland’s operator, Ward Stoopes (1926-1999), attempted to run silent films in the middle of the week, with portable organ accompaniment. Jack recalls:
“His first offering was A Tale of Two Worlds (1921), with Wallace Beery, filmed in San Francisco and shown via an original, tinted, 35MM print. I was among the very few in the audience, appreciative of the opportunity to see such a rarity, under such ideal circumstances. But, at the same time, future theatre manager that I was, I worried over the lack of attendance. Alas, the series failed, but, for me, at least it was a memorable moment.”
PHOTOS: Cortland Theater (year unknown) and Capri Theater facade (1965). All photos and programs courtesy of Jack Tillmany.