Now Showing: The Lost History of the Former Cortland Theater

BERNAL1045 Cortland

Cortland-c-Dec-56-Bwood

BERNAL1047 Cortland as Capri

Capri-May-June-1958-header

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.

Cortland-May-57-Bwood

“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.

Capri-June-July-1958-Bwood

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.”

Cortland 1955 Save-carfare-Bwood

Cortland-1955-nhood-merch-Bwood

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.” 

Capri-May-June-1958-Bwood

Cortland-lion-Liberace-1956-Bwood

PHOTOS: Cortland Theater (year unknown) and Capri Theater facade (1965). All photos and programs courtesy of Jack Tillmany.

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28 thoughts on “Now Showing: The Lost History of the Former Cortland Theater

  1. I would love to have the theater back too – maybe a community coop? Kids matinees on Saturday afternoons; family night; artsy films. I know the Red Vic closed recently and I have no business sense, but if anyone is interested in fleshing out this idea – let me know!

  2. Went to the Capri as a kid, used to get a discount being a traffic-boy at Paul Revere.
    It was a time when few had color televisions so seeing a movie, usual a double feature, in color was a big deal, even though most of what they showed at that time had already been shown on TV.
    Even as a ten year old I recall it being pretty much a grimy dump in major need of maintenance.

  3. How long has the church been there? It seems so temporary with it’s makeshift sign. Do they own it or is it a rental spot? Not that the church is going anywhere – but I love Inga’s idea. Would be fun to have a Brew & View there, too. Good beer and good movies – seems like a fun idea. And during the day family films or early Saturday morning cartoons, coffee & bagels.

      • I rented from the owners of the building. They own most of the block across the street. The church is very pushy. I filed noise complaints for years about playing amplified music without a permit. They were always super rude to me even as I tried to engage with smiles and handshakes. They’re evangelicals. Honestly, they’re way nicer and neighborly then before. I remember walking up and down Cortland with big, huge signs that said “Jesus is coming” etc..They are the same church that is taking over the mission commercial spaces. They’re taking a lot of Catholic parish members. It’s a fast growing faith.

  4. Question for the historians- at some point in its history, was Cortand actually spelled Courtland? I see it spelled both ways in the theatre’s marketing mailers here, and would think actually misspelling the name of the street you are located on would be a pretty big gaffe for even a mom-n-pop operation, much less one that went to the trouble to do those mailers.

  5. I grew up in Bernal and I remember going to the Capri (during my time it wasn’t a grimy dump) almost every weekend. $0.50 to get in, 2 movies, popcorn, candy, it was the best!. I wish it was still there, especially now that the neighborhood has so many children living here again. It was great having a movie theater in the neighborhood.

  6. I think the whole area of the New Mission Theatre will spring to life after the remodel job is finished at the New Mission.. Movies will be back on Mission Street. Some smart person needs to buy the Tower and Grand Theatres that are now for sale in a 4 block area of the New Mission. Turn them into campy B movie house Grindhouse mixed with live entertainment. Mission Street is about to change once the New Mission opens. Terry

  7. Oh man I’d love it if that were a functioning theater. Tough business to be in (but I think there’s more room for alternative houses than there has been since the 70s), and it would need MAJOR work to get there (am I crazy or did someone install a drop ceiling in there at some point?), but I’d certainly buy a membership (like the Roxy offers).

  8. My great-grandmother Belle Navarrete Ferro and her mother Elizabeth Arriola Navarrete probably saw movies there. They lived on Winfield Street in the 1920s. Both of them died in 1928, Eliza in February, Belle in October. Their funerals were at St. Kevin’s. Mother is buried at Holy Cross in Colma. Daughter is buried at St. Mary’s in Oakland.

  9. Great to see this article. My father went to the Capri to see “The Gaucho” (1927) with Douglas Fairbanks and Lupe Velez. The organist who accompanied the silent film was terrific! Wish we knew his name. Our beloved Avenue Theatre on San Bruno Ave. was also turned into a church.
    Jack Tillmany’s book “Theatres of San Francisco” is a wonderful reference about a golden era that was gone too soon.

  10. Hi a group of us girls (now aged to age 76 now) just had a reunion on the streets of Cortland Avenue last September. We all lived on the”HILL” (in the very late 30’s through the 50’s,) as we called it and we walked from the corner of Cortland and Folsom all the way to Cortland and Holly Park. We had lunch at the restaurant on Cortland Avenue where Preziosi Market used to be. Marlene Preziosi was with us and saw the changes the restaurant had made to her parents store.

    Many of the residents found we were walking the streets of Cortland and made an effort to talk and greet us. It was really a great time. We were remembering Joe’s Creamery, Keane’s Market, St Kevin’s CHurch, the library, The Cherokee (my uncles owned that establishment), the 5 and 10cent store, Bank of America and of course the Cortland Theatre.. Oh so many stores we remembered. We all rode to see the houses we had grown up in. We are planning to do this again in 2014. Thanks for listening and thanks for the history and memories of Bernal Heights as we knew it. Gloria Fonti DeSilva.

  11. from the picture it looks like there was a safeway next to the original movie theater?? what a great piece of history. thanks Bernalwood for continually teaching us such interesting history about our ‘hood!

  12. My Uncle Lawrence Borg was the owner of this theater from 1915 to 1921 from what family records show. He updated and upgraded this theater upon its purchase. I would love to see it back

  13. Pingback: New Andi’s Market Opens in Old Storefront on Cortland | Bernalwood

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