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Presidio Theatre Reborn as a Major New Performance Venue

September 19, 2019

In a lifetime of pre-opening exploration of new opera houses, theaters, and concert halls, rarely have I experienced something as instantly promising and impressive as the Presidio Theatre, rebuilt, after a two-year effort, from the ground up.

A press tour ahead of the official opening on Sept. 21 revealed a 600-seat, multi-use theater with full facilities for various music and theater productions, an appealing, welcoming venue described by Margaret Haas as “feel[ing] like the theater is hugging you with its curves.”

Haas is the singular source of this splendid nonprofit gift to the community, the $40 million project planned, realized, ushered through all challenges and difficulties, and paid for by Peggy Haas, daughter of the late Levi Strauss & Co. executive Peter Haas.

The board chair of the Margaret E. Haas Fund, she worked in partnership with the Presidio Trust to rehabilitate the old, long-shuttered Presidio Theatre building, located in the heart of the national park site on the Presidio’s Main Post, at 99 Moraga.

Vacant since 1995, the building — not to be confused with the Presidio (movie) Theatre in the Marina — is now ready to be home to live theater, film, dance, music, lectures, educational programming, and special events.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to create a modern and accessible performing space for artists in San Francisco and the Bay Area,” said Haas. “There is a dearth of high-quality theaters for live performances, and many of the available spaces are not accessible to smaller performing arts organizations. The Presidio Theatre offers a place for these groups to showcase their work to a wide range of audiences.” The theater aims to keep rental affordable to nonprofit organizations.

Originally built in 1939 as a movie theater for the officers and enlisted men at the post, it hosted both Jack Benny and Bob Hope, who brought full casts to perform and record their hugely popular radio shows in the theater during World War II. The theater was renovated by the Army in 1962, but ceased operations as a movie theater in 1994.

Preserving its original Spanish Colonial Revival design, with a functionally expanded stage, new accessible seating, and code-compliant facilities, Mark R. Hornberger, founding principal of Hornberger + Worstell, personally supervised the project. His company is responsible for many major projects in the Bay Area, including the Grand Hyatt at San Francisco Airport, Park James Hotel, and many others.

Working with Hornberger were the historic preservation consultant Knapp Architects, acoustician Dennis Paoletti of Paoletti Consulting, and the Meyer Sound Laboratories. Their contributions to the theater were impressively demonstrated during the press event, especially the excellent acoustics of the hall, even without use of Meyer Sound.

Two years ago, before renovation began, the architectural firm described the theater’s state:

The paint is peeling, some of the doors have nearly rotted through, and the ceiling in the lounge is gone. Last winter’s heavy rains in the San Francisco Bay Area flooded parts of the auditorium. The carpet lining the twin ramps that connect auditorium and lobby is still sodden, and the air is heavy with mold. But the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco, a nearly century-old venue first built for entertaining U.S. troops, is about to begin its next chapter.”

A timelapse video has recorded the building process. An important addition to the venue in rebuilding is a new pavilion that opens onto a new courtyard created in the open area to the west.

And now the theater’s new life begins with its inaugural season with a gala opening and a free pop-up orchestra concert on Sept. 21. The season proper gets under way via a collaboration with the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival during two evenings celebrating 400-plus years of unity and tradition in Filipino and Mexican dance and music, Sept. 28 and 29.

Already scheduled events for the fall include anniversary celebrations by the SF Mime Troupe, ODC, and Gamelan Sekar Jaya; performances by The Family Crest, Jane’s Declaration of Independence, The John Santos Puerto Rico Del Alma Project, The California Noir-Off, and others.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].