Locals mourn fall of Empire Theater in West Portal


Photo by Nicolas Muzzatti ’24

According to cinematreasures.org, “Built in the Moorish style, [by architects William I. Garren, Irving F. Morrow, and Bernard G. Nobler] the Portal Theatre was opened Dec. 26, 1925. Renamed Empire Cinema, it reopened Oct. 1, 1936. On June 26, 1974 it was divided into three screens. On Sept. 12, 2003 it was renamed CineArts at the Empire. It was closed permanently in January 2021.”

Nicolas Muzzatti ‘24, Staff Reporter

During this pandemic, San Francisco has seen many businesses shutter their doors. The most recent is the permanent closure of West Portal neighborhood’s historic Empire Theater located at 85 West Portal Avenue. 

The 95 year old theater first opened on Dec. 26, 1925 as the Portal Theatre. In 1936, the theater was renamed to The Empire. In 2003, Cinemark took over the theater and renamed it to CineArts at The Empire.

It originally opened as a single screen theater, but in the 1970s it was split into three screens. Hearing of the closure and somber appearance thereafter has residents expressing their thoughts. 

I feel kinda sad that a neighborhood theater is closing due to the pandemic. The Coronavirus is constantly spreading and causing many businesses like this one to close. It would be great if the community came together to try and save it.”

— Sabrina Chin ‘24

“When I first heard the news that the Empire was being shut down, I was not expecting it, but I was not very surprised, either. One of the most eerie features of West Portal Avenue during COVID was the Empire marquee, frozen in time in March 2020 displaying the same movie titles month after month,” said Riordan English teacher Brain Kosewic ‘16. 

In addition, Sabrina Chin ‘24 said, “I feel kinda sad that a neighborhood theater is closing due to the pandemic. The Coronavirus is constantly spreading and causing many businesses like this one to close. It would be great if the community came together to try and save it.”  

The theater has been one of the most beloved cinemas for local residents of all ages. It was easily accessible for many–a short walk from home or an easy train ride by MUNI lines K, L, and M. 

Neighborhood resident Dan Donovan ’70 said, “It is sad to see a theater that has been a fun and easy place to go for so many families close because of COVID. It will change the dynamic of West Portal. We live in the neighborhood and walked down to see movies a lot, especially when our kids were young.” 


Many would agree that the theater was indeed a spot for people to gather together and made for an enjoyable afternoon or evening at the movies. 

Kosewic shared, “Whenever a big, highly anticipated movie was coming out, you went to the Empire first thing to see it, and everybody else who you knew did too.”

He added, “My fondest memory of the Empire was waiting in line to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At the time, I was a senior at Riordan. We lined up on the street at least three hours before the start of the film, and pretty soon the line stretched all the way up the block to Ulloa and around the corner. Everybody who liked Star Wars was there, and it turned out that that was a lot of people!”

With safer and alternative ways available for people to access movies and theater experiences such as virtual screenings, Netflix and Fort Mason’s Flix first ever Drive In, it seems very difficult for a theater like CineArts at The Empire to try and stay open. 

“With new, bigger, fancier theaters that offer more choices and with Netflix, it probably doesn’t have a chance to survive. The pandemic just pushed it over the edge,” stated Donovan. 

Some have suggested that perhaps San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development can come together with the neighborhood to create a new space that brings people together similar to the way the theater once did. 

Kosewic suggested, “If the Empire cannot be a theater again, I would love to see it transformed into a creative arts center for San Francisco youth, with facilities for city kids to make music, films, video, animation, and art. The theater meant a lot to me when I was a kid, and rather than see it developed into a trendy chain business, I would like to see it continue to be a space for the kids.”  

While it is uncertain what the future holds for this historic building space, it is certain that CineArts at The Empire is definitely missed and will always be remembered as a beloved local spot that has provided fond memories to so many people.