The Golden Age of the Golden Gate Theatre
When the Golden Gate Theatre was built in 1922, it was praised for its rich ornamentation and clear acoustics. With more than 2,200 seats, the venue became the grandest addition to the RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) chain of theatres in San Francisco. Unlike the designs of other vaudeville houses, which focused primarily on aesthetics, the Golden Gate’s architecture embodied the perfect marriage between form and function.
The man chosen to design the Golden Gate Theatre, G. Albert Lansburgh, was a well-respected architect who had already built many theatres nationwide. His difficult childhood and early losses may have contributed to the determination and drive that defined his career.
- Struggles and Successes
A native of Panama City, Lansburgh was uprooted at the age of 3 after his father, a successful ship chandler, died, and his pregnant mother chose to start anew by relocating to San Francisco. Though the family had been fairly wealthy in Panama, Lansburgh’s mother struggled to find a home for her two sons in the United States and was eventually forced to settle into a crowded apartment building in the Tenderloin district. Then nine years after their father’s untimely death, the Lansburgh boys were tragically orphaned when their mother passed away from tuberculosis. The brothers spent the remainder of their childhood in a foster home, and their guardianship was assumed by the esteemed Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger.
Despite all the challenges he faced, Lansburgh attended Lowell High School and was offered a scholarship to UC Berkeley. While in college, he was one of only 15 international students chosen to study at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, which was then the world’s leading architecture school.
- Unparalleled Beauty
On March 17, 1922, the Golden Gate Theatre opened its doors to the public and staged seven vaudeville acts in one night: Patrons were astounded by Lansburgh’s meticulous attention to detail. Marjorie C. Driscoll, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, remarked on the theatre’s unparalleled beauty: “[The auditorium] suggests the outdoors, with none of the roofed-over feel that characterizes the average theatre. … It is like sitting under a bit of blue sky, so effective is the color suggestion.”
Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, the Golden Gate Theatre presented famous musicians and performers such as the Three Stooges, Ethel Waters, Roy Rogers, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters and Frank Sinatra. In 1954, RKO decided to turn the Golden Gate into a first-class cinema and leased the building to the Cinerama Corporation.
During the years that it functioned as a cinema, there was a strong effort to stamp out its seemingly outdated vaudeville past in hopes of appealing to a wider audience. Consequently, much of Lansburgh’s interior work was torn down in favor of giving the theatre a more modern appearance. The grand marble staircase was replaced with an escalator, and the walls were covered with neon signs. However, within a matter of years, business began to dwindle, and, in 1972, RKO was forced to close the theatre.
Seven years later, BroadwaySF bought the Golden Gate and launched a multimillion-dollar refurbishment with the goal of restoring the theatre’s Art Deco and Gothic Revival heritage. On Dec. 27, 1979, BroadwaySF presented A Chorus Line—the first performance on the Golden Gate’s stage in 25 years. Today, the theatre regularly features major touring Broadway shows and continues to be an integral part of San Francisco’s rich artistic culture.
By Gracie Hays