In this new series, we explore the histories (and mysteries) of some of the Bay Area’s theatre buildings. This month, Lisa Drostova takes a tour of the (possibly haunted) 450 Post Street Building, and lives to tell the tale.
450 Post Street
by Lisa Drostova
Describing how a burning rope might save a film projectionist’s life, SF Playhouse producing director Susi Damilano is giddy. We’re touring the future home of the SF Playhouse, and she’s showing off the metal-clad projection booth, designed to close itself off in case the highly flammable celluloid should ignite. Three stories of changing rooms. Alcoves with beautiful murals. An opulent lobby and stunning ceilings. Ladders to nowhere and holes punched seemingly at random through walls to allow for wiring upgrades. Together we discover a wall-mounted box labeled “rectifier for 11 o’clock chime,” which we believe silences the reminder to all good Elks to pause and drink a toast to members of their number who have “passed through the veil.” After making the best use they could of 533 Sutter, a space most charitably referred to as utilitarian, Damilano and artistic director Bill English are thrilled to be moving into a larger theatre that is beautiful and richly historic—and maybe gently haunted.
The 450 Post building is a fifteen-story Spanish-Gothic confection, which besides a 729-seat theatre built in 1982 currently houses the Kensington Park Hotel, a gallery dedicated to art glass, Elks Lodge No. 3, and the undersea-themed Farallon restaurant. Ground was broken for the building by the Elks in 1923, and construction was completed in 1925. Lodge No. 3—the longest-running Elks lodge in the country—was begun by San Francisco actors and entertainers, and it seems that many of the ornate and often whimsical design details (gargoyles in the ceiling, elaborate wooden rosettes, Art Nouveau murals) were crafted by the members. Altogether the Elks built a beautiful clubhouse, complete with a hundred hotel rooms, a pool, a ballroom, a dining room and a viewing room for members who had died (a freshly restored painted angel watches over this space, tucked behind what is now the theatre’s lobby bar).
It took producer Jonathan Reinis to see the commercial theatre lurking in the ballroom; with architect Gene Angell he built Theatre on the Square, a venture that would last 22 years. Reinis produced a steady string of long-running hits, including a couple that won Tonys when they went to New York. In 2002, the rent tripled, Reinis declined, and the theatre came under new management as the Post Street Theatre. Lately it’s been the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, but that company has decided to become nomadic again and use a more flexible range of spaces. So the day after the last rental (Paul Flores’s “Placas”) closes, SF Playhouse is moving in. That gives them just shy of a month before the opening of the Jon Tracy-helmed “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” to bucket-brigade all their stuff around the corner from Sutter and adapt the space to a cozier 200-seat theatre—a task that will involve building out the stage, closing off the side alcoves and befriending the ghost that an Elks bartender swears has been tossing his glassware around. Perhaps by reinstating that 11 o’clock toast.
Lisa Drostova was a theatre critic for the East Bay Express before jumping ship in 2007. She is now acting around the Bay Area and a member of Butterfield8 Theater Company.
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The 450 Post Street building, San Francisco.
Photo: Moanalani Jeffrey