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Arts & Entertainment

The Victoria, San Francisco’s oldest theater, is the last of its kind

The Victoria Theatre on the corner of 16th and Capp streets in the Mission District is pictured on June 30, 2023. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

A two-block stretch of 16th Street in San Francisco’s Mission District holds an unusual distinction: It’s home to both the city’s oldest-operating movie theater (the Roxie, established in 1913) and its oldest theater of all, the Victoria, which predates its neighbor by five years, having opened in 1908.

It was probably a vaudeville house, according to Robert Correa, who bought it some 45 years ago.

“It was called Brown’s Opera House. And then, I'm sure, they turned to films in the ’20s and ’30s,” Correa told The Standard. “And then in the ’60s, there was burlesque. We got it here in ’78. So there was burlesque all the way up to about ’74.”

Robert Correa, center, and his sons Rob, left, and David, right, pose in front of the stage of the Victoria Theatre, which the family has owned since 1978. | Source: Astrid Kane/The Standard

The Victoria has also hosted plenty of what’s sometimes quaintly called “legitimate theater” over its long history, particularly storied 20th century companies like Theatre Rhinoceros and Julian. Back when the National Endowment for the Arts was bestowing large grants on dance companies, dance companies performed there.

These days though, the Victoria’s calendar is sparse, listing only the September run of Cruel Intentions, Ray of Light Theatre’s version of the jukebox musical based on the 1999 teen romance.

“Right now, we’re still recovering from the pandemic. We've never been a full-time movie house,” said David Correa, one of Robert’s two sons who helps manage the Victoria. “Before the pandemic, we had five theater productions. Now, we’re down to two. We had four film festivals. Now, we have two.”

Claiming to be San Francisco's oldest theater, the Victoria opened in 1908. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

The Victoria’s situation has been overshadowed by the high-profile drama surrounding another century-old venue, the Castro Theatre. A temple of Bay Area cinema and an icon of queer culture, it’s been the subject of a controversy over its future as a venue for the better part of two years.

The Correas own the Victoria Theatre outright and insist they are in it for the long haul, with no plans to sell. Nonetheless, theirs is an atypical house. With 466 seats facing a proper proscenium, it’s too large for the kind of experimental theater that fits in a black box and too small for the traveling, Broadway-scale productions that keep the Curran, A.C.T. and the Golden Gate Theatre going strong.

As Rob Correa, the other son, put it: “These are the theaters that are gone.”

In spite of the magnificent Albers Flapjack mural on its east-facing exterior—Carnation, the instant breakfast brand, once paid to restore its Gold Rush-era miner—the Victoria does not appear to be in good shape. Compared with the nearby Roxie, which draws a healthy base of fans to 16th Street night after night, the Victoria can look forlorn—derelict, even. In late May, the marquee was still advertising the dates for HUMP!, sex columnist Dan Savage’s annual traveling amateur-porn festival—which came through town in February.

The Albers mural was restored by the Carnation brand of instant breakfasts. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

The theater’s beloved, all the same.

Shane Ray, founding artistic director of Ray of Light, said his company has been performing at the Victoria since 2005 and is happy there.

“It’s the historic nature of the theater,” he said. “For us, as a company, we’ve always wanted to do shows that serve San Francisco—and being in the Mission is cool.”

Ray of Light has staged a number of musicals at the Victoria, including The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. For the midsize company, a midsize venue is just intimate enough, and aside from the somewhat run-down Great Star Theater in Chinatown, Ray says there’s almost nowhere else left of this size.

“You’ve got an old theater that’s still run by a family. They fix the roof and repair the seats and run concessions,” he said. “If we were in a polished, shiny, state-of-the-art theater, it wouldn’t have had the same feel. I think a lot of our programming lends itself to that: edgier rock musicals that fit more in that space than they would at Yerba Buena.”

While 16th Street's nightlife corridor is largely bustling, the Victoria's foyer can often appear forlorn. | Source: Isaac Ceja/The Standard

“We have definitely become an anchor to them,” said D’Arcy Drollinger, San Francisco’s inaugural drag laureate and the owner of Oasis, who also plays Rose Nylund in the annual live re-creations of classic Golden Girls episodes every December at the Victoria.

It’s also, Drollinger adds, a non-union house.

“That made it accessible for smaller productions like ours, because there are very few others—and then you jump way up after that in terms of seats,” he said.

In spite of the April death of drag legend Heklina, Golden Girls Live confirmed that it will return to the Victoria for the holidays this year, with Coco Peru stepping in to play the bitingly witty Dorothy Zbornak.

The Victoria contains all the trappings of an old, multipurpose theater. The plaster on the walls is so delicate and stained by nicotine that paint jobs never last long. Mae West, the brashest dame of all, played there. Concessions keep the whole thing afloat, led by the popcorn machine. It has 2K projectors for films, and—the Correas claim—it’s haunted by benevolent ghosts, who have given musicians a gauzy, gooey feeling of positivity.

Nonetheless, Robert Correa said, it’s hard to explain the complexities of owning such a business to outsiders.

If someone owns the most successful theater in San Francisco, then “they’re the most successful theater in San Francisco because they lose less money than anybody else. That makes success.”

Victoria Theatre

📍 2961 16th St.