Great Star theater preparing to rise again
March 12, 2010 | By Sam Whiting,
Chronicle Staff Writer

People in Chinatown await a screening at the Great Star Theater.
(Photo: Courtesy of A Moment in Time)

The Great Star movie theater has been dark for 12 years and would be dark still if George Kaskanlian Jr. hadn't gotten into a fight with his girlfriend.

Walking it off, Kaskanlian passed from North Beach into Chinatown. Midblock in the mishmash of Jackson Street, he came upon a roll-up security gate blocking a theater foyer. His mind was instantly off his relationship troubles. Kaskanlian, a real estate refurbisher, could see the possibilities, though it took him a month just to track down the owner of the building and get a tour.

"It was dark and moldy," he says. "The fabric on the walls was stained and ripped up. The seats were filthy. The bathrooms looked like a scene from a horror movie. The projection room was filled with cobwebs and dust."

Thus it was perfect as a venue for "Another Hole in the Head," Kaskanlian's enticingly named film festival that he runs as an offshoot of SF Indie Fest. Kaskanlian, 35, and business partner Ken Montero, 36, got a 10-year lease and it has taken the first year just to clean the place, which seats 540. Next, they are taking on the 1950s-era Christie projectors with Xenolite lamps.

"The goal is to revitalize it and to do local community Chinese events and bring in concerts and film festivals," says Montero, who, like Kaskanlian, grew up in San Francisco but has no previous connection to Chinese culture.

"I never hung out in Chinatown once," Montero says. As such they had no idea that the musty old Great Star may be the last of its kind in America - a Chinatown theater that shows both Chinese-language films and Chinese opera.

There ought to be a documentary about that, and coincidentally a documentary that features the Great Star will receive its North American premiere Saturday at the Asian American International Film Festival. But it is not a documentary about Kaskanlian and Montero and doesn't even mention their heroics.

"A Moment in Time" is about the tradition of Chinese movies and their effect on the population of San Francisco's Chinatown. The one-hour film is by the husband-and- wife team of Ruby Yang and Lambert Yam, who were both born in Hong Kong and came to America to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, where they met in the 1970s. At that time, there were half a dozen theaters in Chinatown showing filmed opera and action. Anyone who frequented the Great Star wouldn't forget the experience.

"That place was run by gangs and very dirty, but they were showing some good films there," says Yang, who turned out to make some good films of her own. Four years ago, a short documentary she directed, "The Blood of Yingzhou District." won an Academy Award in the short-subject category.

In 2003, Yang and Yam started working on a film about the Chinese movie theaters that had by then closed down and been converted to shopping malls. But the Great Star is still there. Yang and Yam rented it for a screening of "The Legend of the Purple Hairpin." They invited customers Yam had known from managing both the Great Star and the World Theater, and filmed the old Chinatown crowd watching the film.

This was before Kaskanlian and Montero took over and cleaned the place, a development that Yang had not heard about when reached by telephone. For five years, Yang and Yam have lived in Beijing, but they both keep their 415 area codes on their cell phones, as if they will be back any day now.

As it is, they are here for the premiere of their film, which would have been a perfect time to premiere the Great Star under new management. That way the audience could watch a film at the Great Star that includes scenes of the people watching a film at the Great Star.

It would have been the most site-specific premiere since they screened "The Rock" on Alcatraz 15 years ago. "We tried to work it out, and they tried to work it out," Montero says. "We just couldn't pull it all together."

Too bad, because there is no other way to convey the deprivations involved in watching a film here. Though built in the 1920s, the era of the great movie palaces, there is nothing palatial about the Great Star. All four sides are concrete and when empty the place is cold and dank.

Whatever warmth there is must be created by the bodies in the seats, sitting shoulder to shoulder. That's how it was heated Sunday for a five-hour Chinese opera put on by an independent promoter. These stage events, which have happened sporadically through the dark years, will bolster the film program, which they expect to be underway by June (www.greatstartheatre .com.)

Kaskanlian was able to save the Great Star but unable to save the girlfriend. "We're done," he says with a laugh. "She dumped me."

A Moment in Time: 7 p.m. Sat., 6 p.m. Tues. at the Kabuki. The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs through March 21. (415) 865-1588. www.asian americanmedia.org.

Original link: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/03/12/MV3R1CBJKJ.DTL