November 27, 2012
As Herbst Theatre is getting ready for reconstruction, beginning next May, organizations using the halls for decades are scrambling to find new venues, a situation reminiscent of San Francisco Opera's homeless season in 1996-1997.
The boldest and potentially best arrangement so far is by Sydney Goldstein's City Arts & Lectures, which is investing more than $1 million in the restoration of Nourse Theatre, just two blocks from Herbst, on the corner of Franklin and Hayes. Almost all of the required funds — more than the organization's annual budget — have been raised already.
Originally built in 1927 for the High School of Commerce, the 1,700-seat theater had a rich history before becoming storage space for the San Francisco Unified School District. It was named for Joseph Nourse, a teacher, principal, and superintendent for four decades. Under his direction, Commerce had some distinguished graduates, including Pedro Flores, a former Filipino bellboy credited with marketing the yo-yo. In the 1980s, the venue served as a courtroom for the two-year-long asbestos trial, largest and most complex such event in the history of California.
My own recollection of the theater goes back to a Spring Opera production of Britten's Death in Venice many years ago, when the venue already reminded me of the faded elegance of what could have been a perfect setting for Sondheim's Follies. It's somewhat ironic that Herbst and the War Memorial close for seismic retrofitting while Nourse, in a far more precarious building, will serve as the substitute.
"A restored Nourse," says Goldstein, "will offer much-needed space to an abundance of cultural presenters, many of whom find themselves without venues to showcase their work. City Arts & Lectures is excited to restore the Nourse to working order with a minimal amount of repair and redecoration and provide San Franciscans access to a theater with remarkable character and profound historical significance."
City Arts & Lectures is planning a gala farewell to Herbst, its home for 32 years. Scheduled for April 30, "The Last Foxtrot" will feature Garrison Keillor and Calvin Trillin, two of the hundreds of notables participating in the more than 1,300 lectures presented in Herbst. Says Goldstein:
Since our first experimental season in which we hosted Fran Lebowitz, Truman Capote, and Ray Bradbury, among others, City Arts & Lectures has presented some of the most revered cultural figures: from Rosemary Clooney to David Byrne, from John Updike to Tom Robbins, from Jonathan Winters to Fred Armisen, from Patti Smith to Joel Grey and Patti LuPone, from Isabella Rossellini to Diane Keaton, and so many writers and social critics.