Film Exchange Tenderloin Building • The Nob Hill Gazette

HWithin sight of the Tenderloin are more than 20 of San Francisco’s least-known architectural gems: the Film Exchange Buildings. These unique structures are an architecturally significant connection to a lost world: the chaotic, rugged beginnings of the film industry.

The film exchange arose from a fundamental change in the film business. When theater owners started showing films at the end of the 19th century, they had to buy them from the producers. As Max Alvarez Notes in “The Origins of the Film Exchange”, a 2005 film history Item, a 15 meter roll of film could cost an exhibitor $25 and was non-exchangeable and non-refundable. From 1896, some industrial entrepreneurs developed an alternative business model: renting films to theater owners.

San Francisco played a key role in this development, thanks to four pioneering brothers – Harry, Herbert, Joseph and Earl Miles. Contrary to popular belief, the quartet were not the first to rent films to cinemas, but they made the practice widespread. The siblings got into business by filming films about the Alaskan wilderness and presenting it to prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897 and 1898. They later showed the films at a theater in Seattle. After Harry moved to San Francisco to open another movie theater, he and Herbert began renting films to exhibitors around 1902.

The Miles brothers opened their first film exchange at 116 Turk Street, near Market Street’s arcades and nickelodeons—storefronts and other informal spaces where films were shown for a dime and that later became full-size movie theaters. They were soon shipping rolls to every city west of the Mississippi and Canada, and were supplying films and illustrated song slides to 10 of San Francisco’s 14 arcades. A few films were sent to New York, with stops at theaters along the way. It was estimated that the Turk Street exchange office processed 300 to 400 films before the 1906 earthquake. Business was booming and by 1907 the Miles’ had opened offices in other cities.

The atmosphere in the early film exchange was busy, chaotic and mundane. Young male customers—Nickelodeon executives or projectionists—treated the stock exchanges like commodity markets, bickering with sellers, snatching films off storeroom shelves before other customers could, and often resorting to bribery to get coveted films. A 1910 report states: “It is a well-known fact that a busy stock exchange looks much like the Tower of Babel, if anything [projectionists] yelling to be served first and engaging in loud talking, jokes, singing and cigarette smoking abuse.” The exchange was particularly hectic during the “crushed hour” between 11pm and midnight, when projectionists flocked to screen films return and pick up new ones.

These unique structures hark back to a lost world: the chaotic, raw beginnings of the film industry.

For the first two decades of their existence, the San Francisco film exchanges were housed in ordinary small brick commercial buildings. But from the 1920s through the 1930s they occupied buildings specially built for them, usually two stories of reinforced concrete. The reason for this change was simple: the old buildings were literal powder kegs.

Until the advent of so-called safety films in the late 1940s, films were shot on nitrate film, which was extremely flammable and whose chemical composition was described as “very similar to gun cotton.” Nitrate film could spontaneously ignite at temperatures as low as 120 degrees – the heat generated by a cigarette ash. Safety precautions at the early changes were minimal to non-existent, as discarded reels of film were simply tossed into bins or left on the ground while the inexperienced projectionists who thronged the change chain-smoking. Not surprisingly, between 1907 and 1918 there were more than 30 stock exchange fires across the country.

San Francisco was no exception. At 9 a.m. on March 7, 1911, a fire broke out at the Miles brothers’ Variety Film Exchange at 51 McAllister, destroying the building. An employee, James SciaroniShe was badly burned trying to salvage rolls of film. In 1917 a fire at the Fox Film Exchange ruined a printing of the 10-reel feature Jack and the Beanstalk.

Although the industry tried to deny that nitrile films were dangerous, the outbreak of fires led to regulations mandating safe film storage and film changing in fireproof buildings. Many cities forced their stock exchanges to move to remote areas, often near railroad tracks, which became known as “Film Rows”.

In San Francisco, the film exchanges were established in the tenderloin. There are no fewer than six in a row on Golden Gate Avenue between Leavenworth and Hyde, plus four in a row on Hyde between Turk and Eddy, including the two majestic 1930s modern style buildings pictured in PaulMadonna‘s. draw. Many of the bourses are adorned with theatrical motifs (like the comedy and tragedy masks perched atop 255 Hyde), feature graceful ironwork (253 Hyde) and are prime examples of Art Deco architecture. Gorgeous survivors of the film industry’s colorful early decades, they add unexpected flourishes to the mean, wonderful streets of the tenderloin.

Table of Contents

Leave a Comment