The Way We Watched

Just over 100 years ago, the film Salomy Jane enjoyed its local premiere at the Lyric Theatre in San Rafael. A melodrama filmed in locations across Marin County, the movie was the first feature produced by the California Motion Picture Corporation (CMPC), a state-of-the-art studio just across town.

A few weeks after these December 1914 screenings, CMPC’s second feature, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, screened at the same theater. An advertisement for Mrs. Wiggs in the Marin Journal mentioned that the film showed “the San Rafael Fire Department doing heroic work,” proudly announced that the movie was “made in San Rafael” and invited patrons to go see it with neighbors and friends.

Clearly, during the dawn of cinema, the Lyric Theatre (aka the “House of Features”) was the place to be for the first local generation of film buffs. If you’re wondering where the Lyric Theatre was, get some breakfast at the Aroma Cafe at 1122 Fourth Street. The San Rafael diner serves comfort food in the space that once housed the Lyric; you can even see where the old projection room was, in the back of the restaurant.

The Lyric Theatre became a restaurant as the larger Orpheus Theatre opened next door in 1918. Within 10 years, sound was added to the filmgoing experience, and a century later, film fans can beam movies off a satellite and watch them on their phones. Yet the Orpheus, which became the Rafael Theatre and is now the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (, is still showing movies, including Mill Valley Film Festival screenings this month. It’s one of several historic venues screening films today in the North Bay.

Two other key venues for the Mill Valley Film Festival, the Throckmorton Theatre and CineArts at Sequoia, have been around almost as long as the Lyric and Orpheus. The Throckmorton Avenue venue, originally called the Hub Theater, opened in 1915 as a venue for silent films and vaudeville acts. The Sequoia was built in 1929 as a 1,200-seat movie palace; its massive auditorium was twinned into two 375-seat rooms in 1975.

Twinning or tripling a former single-screen theater is one way to keep the venue open and showing movies — even if it means decimating the original space. Even then, venues like Sausalito’s Marin theater can have a tough go when there are 20-screen multiplexes in shopping malls a few freeway stops away. The three-screen Marin, which opened in the 1920s, showed movies continuously from World War II till January 2016, before going dark due to low attendance.

Another classic venue, the single-screen Corte Madera Century Cinema, has been the subject of many closingsoon rumors. The 800-seat theater opened in December 1969 and has been the place to see every event movie — anything with James Bond or by Pixar Animation Studios, for example — ever since. Last year’s Mill Valley Film Festival included a special screening of Return of the Jedi here; fingers crossed that fans will get to see all the new Star Wars chapters on its giant screen.

More Than Just Movies

Many historic venues, with their large auditoriums, have to book entertainment other than movies to stay viable in the age of the multiplex and video on demand. Napa’s Uptown Theatre and Petaluma’s Mystic Theatre have transformed into live music venues with great success. Still, the North Bay has its share of tried-and-true local theaters, which thrive despite all the challenges. The Tiburon Playhouse has been showing movies since 1960, twinned in 1989, then added a third auditorium in 1995; it does bang-up business by programming a wellselected mix of blockbusters, family films and art-house fare.

Another success story is Larkspur’s Lark Theater. The charming singlescreen art deco structure, built on Magnolia Avenue in 1936, was threatened with demolition in the late 1990s. But thanks to the passionate efforts of a community group, the theater was renovated, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, outfitted with state-of-the-art sound and projection equipment, and even certified as a green business by Marin County. The Lark now shows a rotation of independent and foreign films, live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and other special selections and is a venue for Mill Valley Film Festival events.

Hopefully, a similar success awaits the Novato Theater, an art deco beauty opened in 1946 that’s been closed since 1991. Realizing that restoring it to its original glory would bring a boon to downtown businesses and community pride, a new nonprofit organization aims to reopen the venue for movies, live music and educational events.