The Roxie is the oldest continuously operated cinema in the United States, and the second oldest in the world. From its inception in 1909 through the early ‘60s, the Roxie served as a third-string neighborhood cinema. In the mid 1960s, it transformed into a 35mm (!) porno house.
Around 1975, a group of film lovers including Robert Evans, Peter Moore and Richard Gaikowski transformed the Roxie and enacted an art house booking philosophy that continues today. Here, let us defer to this exhaustive mini-history included in the Feb./Mar. ’79 Roxie Calendar:
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE ROXIE
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s been three years since the Roxie Cinema opened for business on 3 March 1976 with the film SKIDOO – which we’ll be showing again this March 2 and 3. Of course, the Roxie has a long and colorful history which begins long before 1976. In fact, the history of the Roxie goes back to 1914, when it opened as a motion picture theater called the Poppy Theater. (This sounds rather strange, until you realize that the state flower of California is the tame California poppy.) The man who opened the Poppy Theater was one Phillip H. Doll, a watchmaker and jeweler from Berkeley who opened a shop at 1063 O’Farrell Street in San Francisco in 1907, and who eventually (around 1910) moved into the apartments at 3116 Sixteenth Street, across the street from the site of the Roxie. What was on the site of the Roxie at the time, we don’t know – rumor has it that it was a stable.
In any case, Phillip H. Doll decided to take his profits from the jewelry biz and plow them into the motion picture biz. In the 1913-1914 city directory under “Motion Picture Theaters”, there is a listing for “Doll, Phillip” and in the 1914-1915 city directory, the Poppy Theater is listed. The Poppy Theater persevered through the 1916 city directory, and then became the New Sixteenth Street Theater in the 1917-1918 directory. Phillip Doll, meanwhile, seems to have lost his shirt, and vanishes entirely (possibly in response to overwhelming demands from his creditors) until 1920, when he cautiously reappears in the residential listings as “P.H. Doll”.
Likewise, the New Sixteenth Street Theater vanished from the city directory, perhaps in response to the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. The theater reappeared in 1920 as the Rex Theater, and remained the Rex through 1925. Then it was the Gem Theater until 1929, and was the Gaiety Theater until 1933. In 1934, it reappeared as the Roxie Theater, “Roxie” being a rip-off of the palatial Roxy Theater in New York City, which had opened in 1927. Also about 1934, the Roxie got a bit of a facelift, including the installation of the unusual marquee which has no place for the titles of the films playing.
In the thirties, the Roxie remained a neighborhood house, never listing its programs in the newspapers since neighborhood people simply dropped by to see what was on. In the forties and early fifties, the Roxie showed second and third runs of Hollywood films, and, in the late fifties and early sixties, showed German-language films. By the mid-sixties, the Roxie had been passed by, another victim of television and changing neighborhoods. Then it was porno from 1968 to 1975. In late 1975, a Russian-American group took over the Roxie, repainted the façade, and showed Russian-language movies for a couple of months.
On 3 March 1976, the Roxie Cinema was born. Over the last three years, the Roxie has taken over a small but important niche in the Bay Area cinema scene, premiering films such as THE LIFE AND DEATH OF FRIDA KAHLO, Werner Herzog’s EVEN DWARFS STARTED SMALL and FATA MORGANA, REBELLION IN PATAGONIA, Fernando Arrabal’s GUERNICA, Rosa von Praunheim’s IT IS NOT THE HOMOSEXUAL WHO IS PERVERSE, BUT THE SITUATION IN WHICH HE LIVES, THE LAST RESORT, THE OPIUM WARLORDS, Sam Fuller’s DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET, Robert Kramer’s SCENES FROM THE CLASS STRUGGLE IN PORTUGAL, Reinhard Hauff’s THE BRUTALIZATION OF FRANZ BLUM, Jean-Marie Straub’s THE BRIDGEROOM, THE COMEDIENNE AND THE PIMP, Josef von Sternberg’s ANATHAN, THE LAST CAUSE, POPE JOAN, Jean Cocteau’s LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES and THE PHANTOM BARON, David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD, IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE END, THE TRUTH ABOUT DE-EVOLUTION, Luis Bunel’s L’AGE d’OR and ILLUSION TRAVELS BY STREETCAR, CONTROLLING INTEREST, A DAY WITHOUT SUNSHINE, HOMEBOYS, RED DIRT, Curt McDowell’s THUNDERCRACK!, George Kuchar’s THE DEVIL’S CLEAVAGE and SYMPATHY FOR A SINNER, Allan Moyle’s THE RUBBER GUN, EUGENE DEBS, PEOPLES’ WALL, SONG OF THE CANARY, MASADA MIGHT FALL AGAIN, FESTIVAL OF BARDS, Vito Russo’s THE CELLULOID CLOSET, THE NAKED CIVIL SERVANT, SHOWBOAT 1988-THE REMAKE, Ronald Chase’s LULU, Roberto Rosellini’s THE MIRCALE and THE HUMAN VOICE, and DOWNPOUR, and hosting filmmakers such as Paul Schrader, James Broughton, Curt McDowell, Rosa von Praunheim, Yvette Biro and Allan Moyle.
The 1980s and ‘90s saw the ascension of Roxie Releasing under the stewardship of Bill Banning, which released films such as VINCENT: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF VINCENT VAN GOGH, MAN BITES DOG, BENNY’S VIDEO, FREEWAY, KURT & COURTNEY and RIVERS & TIDES, among others. At the same time, the theater presented pioneering genre retrospectives and premiere revivals, as well as regularly showcasing new work too outré for other theaters to touch.
After a brief dalliance with New College of California, the Roxie received 501c3 non-profit status in 2009, and has doubled-down on its iron-willed dedication to showcase the coolest/weirdest/most-thought provoking films of the past, present and future.