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Sights and Sounds of Central Market: The Warfield

Photo courtesy of the SF Arts Commission

San Francisco’s Central Market neighborhood is the focus of a lot of attention these days. The long rundown area has become a canvas of urban planning: local art and mural projects fill the sidewalks, and big businesses like Twitter have decided to locate there because of generous civic tax breaks.

The idea is to return the stretch of Market Street to the activity it once enjoyed as a hub for big-screen entertainment. In it's heyday, Mid-Market (MIMA) boasted seven theaters within two-blocks. Today, you can find these historic theaters in one of three states: they’re abandoned, they’re in the sex biz, or, like the Warfield Theater, they’re still welcoming sold-out audiences.

The Warfield is an iconic centerpiece of Mid-Market. And at nearly 90 years old, it’s got some stories to tell. As part of a San Francisco Arts Commission series, called "The Sights and Sounds of Central Market," producer Stephanie Foo took the Warfield stage and brought back this profile.

STEPHANIE FOO: Right now, I’m doing what many aspiring rock stars only dream of: standing onstage at the Warfield Theatre. House manager Larry Sikes is giving me a grand, behind-the scenes tour.

LARRY SIKES: I’d put the sound of this theater up with pretty much any theater of its size in the world. The acoustics are great. And if you stand on that stage and speak, if you can project, the people at the top of the balcony can hear you. FOO: Can I try? SIKES: Sure. FOO: CLAP CLAP CLAP! HELLO! I AM PROJECTING MY VOICE! I AM A PROFESSIONAL TOURING MUSICIAN!

I’m in great company. In the offices downstairs, Larry shows me the room where hundreds of stars have left their marks on the Warfield’s walls. Like Iggy Pop, Snoop Dogg, James Brown…

SIKES: Bill Clinton, the Ramones, Nirvana. Right up there, to the top right, one of the Ramones drew that.

And it’s beautiful in here. Idyllic paintings on the ceilings, intricate gold molding, sweeping arches over the ceilings. But this venue doesn’t seem like it was exactly designed to house Nirvana.

David Addington, the current owner of the Warfield building, tells me about the Warfield’s history from his penthouse suite above the theater. We’re drinking champagne on his couch, and underneath us, I can hear the bands sound-checking.

DAVID ADDINGTON : It’s coming up on 90 years. Since we opened, May 15, 1922. The two theatres were built in a race by competing movie moguls from Los Angeles. The Golden Gate opened about six weeks before the Warfield.

He tells me that the Warfield was built by the same architect who built the Golden Gate Theater around the corner.

To have two really ornate beautiful movie palaces built next to each other was indicative of the Roaring ‘20s and made this area, 6th and Market, the center of the entertainment business for the city of San Francisco. There were movie palaces everywhere. The Fox and the Orpheum gleamed at night.

ADDINGTON: It was the golden age of the movies. A movie in that era meant much more than it does today. Dancing girls, and a comedian act, and there was a news reel and a cartoon and a feature and maybe a second. FOO: And what was sort of the fall of that? ADDINGTON: Television.

People stopped going out to the movies as often. The Fox was torn down in 1963; Market Street was just a big construction site, as it was torn up to construct BART in 1964. And in 1967, all the marquees and neon lights were shut off.

And so the theatres started introducing other attractions to bring in patrons. Like gambling, and X-rated movies.

ADDINGTON: The theaters became more seedy, and began to show things that were certainly not as family…oriented. So, a little more risqué. And as you went into the later ‘60s, fully pornographic. The Crazy Horse is a great example. The predecessor to CNN … Crazy Horse. Used to be the News Reel Theater. They played news reels, 24/7.

Now, the Crazy Horse is a strip club. The Warfield suffered, but it never got to that point.

ADDINGTON: 2,567 is our posted occupancy. You don’t want to go to a porno theater with 2,000 people.

In the late ‘70s, the Warfield was taken over by Bill Graham, who transformed the stage into a live music venue. 

ADDINGTON: Bill Graham was a huge supporter of the GD – Grateful Dead. Was for many years, considered the Warfield House Band.

The Dead played here more times than any other individual venue.

ADDINGTON: I think it’s really cool that we still have Jerry Garcia’s dressing room in the basement. Salim who runs the Underground, has Jerry’s last carton of cigarettes still behind his desk.

And that legacy has since encouraged generations of bands to play here at the Warfield. And just when I think I know everything about this theater’s debaucherous rock and rolling history…

ADDINGTON: And this is Al Capone’s old office. FOO: Wait…really? ADDINGTON: Yeah. He had the speakeasy in the basement. We heard it was from the Capone organization. There was a tunnel that went from here to the Golden Gate Theater.

What? Al Capone ran alcohol from under the Warfield? I find out a little more from the guys in the theater.

BEN: There used to be tunnels under all the theaters down here, they were all interconnected underground. When the liquor revenuers would come in, everyone would grab their alcohol and run across the street underground. And hide from the liquor revenuers. SIKES: I mean, you had to get it in here somehow. And it might be easier to bring it in underground where nobody can see it.

Well, of course I have to see this. Larry takes me deep underground.

SIKES: So this here used to be the dance floor of the speakeasy.

It’s a cement room with a wooden floor … not hiding much but extra amps, now. But on the walls is evidence from years past. Golden art deco swirls cover the ceiling and genies are painted on the walls. There’s even a little alcove that’s designed like a harem. Larry said it used to be an opium den back in the day.

FOO: Sailor soaring off on a magic carpet with a woman in a hijab. SIKES: Yeah, and the monkey’s got a martini…. FOO: This place is really creepy. Why are there bullet holes here? SIKES: Never made much sense to me, but… FOO: …Okay! SIKES: And so you’re right back up into your normal area! FOO: Wow, that’s crazy! It’s really the underground of San Francisco!

But the ghosts that are buried in the tunnels under our feet may not be gone forever. David wants to restore the old ‘30s glamour of the theater district.

ADDINGTON: We’ve got the people! They’re going to be here tonight! Sold out shows! We’re packed! But today it just doesn’t look like it. It feels abandoned. FOO: It needs to be glamorous. ADDINGTON: It needs to be … it needs to be something that you’re gonna call your friends and say, “Oh my gosh! You gotta see all this stuff! It’s just about as cool as it can be.”

This story was produced by Stephanie Foo for the San Francisco Arts Commission through its ARTery Project, and is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

This story originally aired on July 26, 2011.