History of San Lorenzo, California

History of the Lorenzo Theater

Excerpt from Historic Resource Evaluation Report [Final]: Lorenzo Theater, San Lorenzo, California, Jan. 21, 2011, prepared by Page & Turbull for the Alameda County Redevelopment Agency. Figures are not included here. See also Historical Evaluation of the Lorenzo Theater.


Bay Area Movie Theaters

Prior to the invention of film, vaudeville shows were the primary form of popular entertainment for the newly urbanized American population. Beginning in the 1850s, they featured singing, dancing, comedy, and novelty acts. Around the turn of the century, the invention of the motion picture projector, which debuted in a New York City music hall in the 1890s, allowed movies to emerge as an additional type of popular entertainment. Vaudeville theater owners did not initially anticipate that motion pictures would threaten their industry, and even began showing short movies between acts in an attempt to attract larger audiences.

However, the American public was soon enamored with the new medium of film. By 1905 “nickelodeons,” or small storefronts where customers could see an entire program of films for a nickel, had become the most economical way to entertain the masses. These establishments popped up all across the country, often in converted vaudeville houses, and by 1910, 26 million people a week attended nickelodeons. In the years following World War I, the general increase in American wealth and desire for luxury, combined with the production of higher quality motion pictures, the predominance of feature length films, and the conversion of ornate vaudeville houses into movie theaters, resulted in the establishment of a higher standard for the theater-going experience and subsequently the construction of elaborate movie palaces nationwide. [FN 8]

Movie theaters were first constructed in the large Bay Area cities of San Francisco and Oakland. In San Francisco, the development of motion pictures as a popular form of entertainment corresponded with the growth of the city after the 1906 Earthquake and Fires, allowing theaters to be incorporated seamlessly into the city’s urban fabric. Additionally, early silent films were a medium that had universal appeal, and the customer base of the early nickelodeons and movie theaters was therefore able to include the two cities’ large immigrant populations. [FN 9]

Between 1910 and the 1930s, neighborhood movie theaters were also constructed in the smaller suburban towns around the Bay. These neighborhood venues were a more convenient and less expensive option for those living in outlying areas. Neighborhood theaters were also a forum for architectural experimentation, and were often designed as high-style examples of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, or Exotic Revival design. A number of California architects, such as the Reid Brothers, Timothy Pflueger, G. Albert Lansburgh, S. Charles Lee, and B. Marcus Priteca, specialized in movie palace construction and were responsible for creating the opulent aesthetic that characterized Bay Area theaters.

Construction of new theaters lessened during the Great Depression, as the harsh economic conditions took a toll on the film industry, reducing attendance and the number of theaters in operation nationwide. After World War II, neighborhood theaters fully rebounded and even gained increased importance. [FN 10]

Despite the post-war success of neighborhood theaters, nationwide changes in motion picture studio organization, film distribution, and audience movie-going habits led to the decline of single-screen movie theaters in the 1960s and 1970s. Multiplexes replaced the old theaters as it became apparent that featuring multiple films with smaller audiences was the most profitable way to adapt. Many of the ornate motion picture theaters in both urban cities and suburban towns closed their doors and were either demolished or converted into second-run theaters, art houses, or adult theaters. [FN 11]

The Lorenzo Theater

Prior to construction of the Lorenzo Theater, the lot was likely vacant and was part of the San Lorenzo Village subdivision plan. United Artists purchased the land from the Bohannon organization in 1946, and commissioned a 700-seat theater to be built for $465,000 (Figure 2). [FN 12] The Lorenzo Theater was designed by San Francisco architect Alexander Aimwell Cantin, who was known for his unique marquee designs and stand-alone box offices.

Under construction from 1946 to 1947, the completed theater featured many details that are no longer extant. For example, the box office and front doors originally contained etched glass. The lobby featured lighting effects produced by neon lighting in the ceiling soffits. The water fountain at the southwest corner of the lobby was backed by a frosted glass pane, which was backlit to produce a soft glow. The telephone booth also featured a frosted glass door. The concession stand was circular and had recessed lighting combined with lights from the candy counter and a back mirror. It was remodeled in the 1970s when the theater became the “New Lorenzo.” The lobby floor was covered with patterned carpet. A “coming attractions marquee,” also backlit, was located over the entrance door (Figures 3 and 4.) [FN 13]

Wall murals were located in the lobby on the way to the auditorium. The women’s powder room contained four geometric mirrors, the outlines of which are still apparent by a change in paint color. On either side of the entryway to the auditorium, plenum chambers (also used as storage and mechanical) were located under the upper level seating and brought air in from the outside and pushed it up through holes in the ceilings of the chambers to ventilate the auditorium. [FN 14]

In the auditorium, fluorescent wall murals were designed and painted by Dutch artist Anthony Heinsbergen. The enormous jungle scenes with palm trees and panthers were the first black light murals in Northern California, and were painted twenty years before the Fillmore in San Francisco made black light murals popular in the 1960s. The back of the theater was originally open, and was not partitioned off until the 1970s for use as a screening room (Figure 5). The projection booth featured fire doors because film in the 1940s was highly flammable. [FN 15]

The Lorenzo Theater opened on April 5, 1947 to United Artist showings of “Swell Guy,” starring Sonny Tufts, and “Dark Mirror,” starring Olivia DeHaviland (Figure 6.) Throughout the years, special events were held at the theater, including Saturday morning “kiddie matinees” in the 1950s, Halloween costume parties, and live amateur performances. The Lorenzo Theater was the first theater in Northern California to house a live production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” [FN 16]

Sol Bolbik managed the Lorenzo Theater for four years until he left to manage the Ritz Theatre in Hayward. Ned Culver and his son Gary took over for ten years. During the 1960s, the theater went through a transitional period where there were sixteen managers in a year and a half.

The Lorenzo Theater continued to struggle through the 1970s. Competing neighboring cinemas brought about a decline in attendance, and the advent of the multiplex further compromised the profitability of the theater. The Culvers returned in 1973 to manage again. In 1978, the Parmar brothers leased the building from United Artists to show foreign films. When the five year lease expired in 1982, the theater closed (Figure 7.) A group of investors backed a young college student to develop the vacant theater into a dance hall, but the proposal was retracted because an agreement could not be made for parking. United Artists then sold the property to realtor Angelo Campana, and when he died in 1991, his estate tried to find buyers. No deals were developed by potential buyers because parking was limited and agreements with the Bohannon organization to rent parking spaces could not be made. The Parmar brothers purchased the theater again in 1993, but sold it in 1996 when they could not provide sufficient parking spaces.17 The Lorenzo Theater has remained vacant since 1982 and has been stripped of its furnishings and utilities (Figure 8.)

Alexander Aimwell Cantin

Alexander Aimwell (A.A.) Cantin (Figure 9) was born on March 4, 1874 in Ithaca, New York. He was issued his architectural license in 1901 and was a member of the American Institute of Architects and practiced for over 48 years.18 Cantin was a prolific architect in San Francisco, designing numerous buildings, especially following the 1906 Earthquake and Fires. For example, he designed the Elks Building (1912) on Powell Street. In the 1920s, he partnered with James R. Miller in the firm Miller and Cantin, Architects Associated. The firm won the project for the Art Deco style Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Building in San Francisco in 1924. Miller enlisted Timothy Pflueger as a partner later during project development. Cantin was the lead architect for the project, and was influential in determining the vertical treatment of the building, rather than a banded and horizontal design.19 Cantin was also known for his Bay Area movie theater designs in the 1920s and 1930s. Around the time that the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Building was completed, Cantin designed the Baroque/Mission Revival style Mountain View Theatre (1926) in Mountain View, California.

During the 1940s, Cantin specialized in movie theater designs, including the Del Mar Theater (1941) in San Leandro, the Orinda Theater (1941) in Orinda, and the State Theatre (1946) in Red Bluff, all designed in the Art Deco or Art Moderne styles. Following World War II, Cantin partnered with his son, A. Mackenzie Cantin, under the title Cantin and Cantin, Architects. The firm designed a number of schools, military housing and hospitals, and commercial buildings. They also continued to design theaters, including the Vogue Theater (1948) in Pittsburg, California. The Excelsior Amusement Company Theatre (1949) in Colma, California, was a two-story, mixed-use theater/retail/office building for the Excelsior Amusement Company. It accommodated 1,200 occupants and cost an estimated $145,000 Cantin also remodeled several older theaters in the Bay Area, including the marquee and entrance of the Fox Oakland Theatre (originally constructed in 1928) in the 1930s, the Fox California Theatre (1921) in Berkeley in 1935, the marquee and tower for the Grand Theatre (1923) in Tracy in 1939, the Strand (now Elmwood, 1914) Theater in Berkeley in 1947, and the Nevada Theatre (1865) in Nevada City, California, in 1947. [FN 20] A.A. Cantin died on January 16, 1964.

Anthony B. Heinsbergen

Interior designer and muralist Anthony (Antoon) B. Heinsbergen was born in Holland on December 13, 1894. Heinsbergen immigrated to Los Angeles with his family in 1906, and later studied art at the Chouinard Art Institute and Otis College of Art Design in Southern California. After traveling and working throughout the country, Heinsbergen founded the A.B. Heinsbergen Decorating Company in Los Angeles in 1922. The company’s office was housed in a miniature castle in West Hollywood (7415 Beverly Boulevard) designed by Heinsbergen and constructed out of bricks collected from the demolition of the old Los Angeles City Hall. [FN 21] Some of his notable commissions include murals or architectural ornamentation for the Pacific Southwest Building, Fresno (1923); the Senator Hotel, Sacramento (1924); the Pacific Coast Club, Long Beach (1926); the Roosevelt Hotel, Hollywood (1927); the Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, B.C. (1927); the Beverly-Wilshire Hotel, Beverly Hills(1928); Los Angeles City Hall (1928); Hotel Tioga, Merced (1928); Memorial Auditorium, Fresno (1936); the Pellissier Building, Los Angeles (1931); and the lounge of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, San Francisco (1936) (Figure 10) [FN 22]

While he collaborated with prominent architects on a variety of building types, including hotels, churches, synagogues, libraries, and municipal buildings, Heinsbergen is best known for his theater decorations. His services were a good match for the burgeoning movie industry, which in the 1920s and 1930s needed colorful murals to complement the glamorous movie palaces constructed in cities and small towns nationwide. Heinsbergen received his first theater commission in 1924 from theater mogul Alexander Pantages, and later went on to decorate over 757 theaters nationwide along with his company’s crew of 185 decorative painters. [FN 23] The interior design work of Heinsbergen’s firm played a key role in establishing movie palaces as places of luxury and glamour, and influenced theater design nationwide. Many of Heinsbergen’s murals are still extant.

Heinsbergen’s murals featured a variety of styles and themes, ranging from Art Deco geometric motifs and stylized Moderne figures to classically-inspired scenes and historical events. Although it has been said that Heinsbergen did not favor the type of stylized characteristics evident in many of his murals, his work—especially movie theater commissions completed in the 1930s—reflects the popularity of the Art Deco and Moderne styles, as well as Heinsbergen’s response to changes in architectural fashion and technology. [FN 24]

The construction of movie palaces slowed down in the 1940s, but Heinsbergen nevertheless completed several Bay Area theaters in this decade. In the later years of his career, Heinsbergen participated in the restoration of a number of historic theaters, including the Paramount Theatre in Oakland in the 1970s. Heinsbergen died in Los Angeles on June 14, 1981, and his son, Anthony Jr. (1929-2004) took over the firm, specializing in the restoration of historic buildings and theaters. The younger Heinsbergen supervised the restoration of a number of his father’s murals, including those at the Orinda Theatre and the Fresno Tower Theatre. [FN 25]

Some of Heinsbergen’s most famous California theater paintings include the Metro Theater, San Francisco (1924); the Tower Theatre, Los Angeles (1927, closed); the United Artists Theatre, Los Angeles (1927, closed); Fox Theatre, San Diego (1929); the Pantages Theatre, Hollywood (1930); the Paramount Theatre, Oakland (1930); the Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles (1931) (Figure 11); the Los Angeles Theatre, Los Angeles (1931, closed); the Tower Theatre, Fresno (1939) (Figure 12); the Orinda Theatre, Orinda (1941); and the Garden Theatre, San Jose (1949, converted to mall.) [FN 26]


[8] Murray and Tom, “San Francisco Neighborhood Movie Theater Historic District,” 6-7.
[9] Ibid., 10
[10] Murray and Tom, 12; Jack Tillmany, Images of America: Theatres of San Francisco (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 9.
[11] Tillmany, 9.
[12] “About the Lorenzo,” Save the Lorenzo. Website accessed on 1 October 2009 from: http://www.savethelorenzo.org/about/about_the_lorenzo.html
[13] Email correspondence from Kelly McHan to Bill Lambert of the Alameda County Redevelopment Agency. September 29, 2009.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] “Lorenzo Theater,” Cinema Treasures. Website accessed on 1 October 2009 from: http://cinematreasures.org/theater/1456/
[17] “About the Lorenzo,” Save the Lorenzo. Website accessed on 1 October 2009 from: http://www.savethelorenzo.org/about/about_the_lorenzo.html.
[18] “Alexander A. Cantin & A. Mackenzie Cantin,” Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley. Website accessed on 5 October 2009 from: http://www.ced.berkeley.edu/cedarchives/profiles/cantin.htm.
[19] “Letters: Name the Architects,” San Francisco Bay Architects’ Review (May/June 1978) 4.
[20] “Alexander Aimwell Cantin,” Pacific Coast Architecture Database (PCAD.) Website accessed on 2 October 2009 from: https://digital.lib.washington.edu/architect/architects/465/; “Alexander Aimwell Cantin, Cinema Treasures, website accessed on 5 October 2009 from: www.cinematreasures.org.
[21] Edan Milton Hughes, “Heinsbergen, Antoon (Anthony) B.,” in Artists in California: 1789-1940 (Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum, 2002), 508.
[22] John Edward Powell, “Anthony B. Heinsbergen,” A Guide to Historic Architecture in Fresno, California http://historicfresno.org/bio/heinsber.htm (accessed 8 October 2007); ArchitecturalDB, https://digital.lib.washington.edu/php/architect/index.html (accessed 8 October 2007.)
[23] Hughes, “Heinsbergen, Antoon (Anthony) B.,” in Artists in California: 1789-1940, 508.
[24] John Edward Powell, “Anthony B. Heinsbergen,” A Guide to Historic Architecture in Fresno, California http://historicfresno.org/bio/heinsber.htm (accessed 8 October 2007.)
[25] Ibid; Marquee 30:1 (1998): back cover; Marquee 27:4 (1995): 16-17.
[26] John Edward Powell, “Anthony B. Heinsbergen,” A Guide to Historic Architecture in Fresno, California http://historicfresno.org/bio/heinsber.htm (accessed 8 October 2007); ArchitecturalDB, https://digital.lib.washington.edu/php/architect/index.html (accessed 8 October 2007.)


Figure 2. San Lorenzo Village, n.d. (ca. 1947.) The Lorenzo Theater is located at the very bottom right. (Source: www.savethelorenzo.org, accessed 2 October 2009.)

Figures 3 and 4. Entrance doors with “coming attractions marquee,” and lobby with concessions and water fountain at left, n.d. (Source: www.savethelorenzo.org, accessed 2 October 2009.)

Figure 5. Rear of auditorium, n.d. (ca. 1947.) (Source: Doris Marciel and the Hayward Historical Society, Images of America: San Lorenzo. Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006: 72.)

Figure 6. Marquee, opening night, 5 April 1947. (Source: Doris Marciel and the Hayward Historical Society, Images of America: San Lorenzo. Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2006: 72.)

Figures 7 and 8. Entrance and marquee after closure, n.d. (ca. 1980s), and interior of auditorium without seats, ca. 1998. Source: www.savethelorenzo.org (accessed 2 October 2009).

Figure 9. Alexander Aimwell Cantin, n.d. (Source: http://www.ced.berkeley.edu/cedarchives/profiles/cantin.htm.)

Figure 10. Mural in lobby of Sir Francis Drake Hotel (1936), San Francisco, 29 August 1936. (Source: San Francisco Public Library Historical Photograph Collection, #AAB-2441.)

Figure 11. Wiltern Theatre (1931), Los Angeles. 1931. (Source: Los Angeles Public Library, in Cinema Treasures, www.cinematreasures.org, accessed 15 October 2007.)

Figure 12. Fluorescent mural at Tower Theatre (1939), Fresno. 1999. (Source: “Fresno’s Historic Tower Theatre.” http://www.towertheatrefresno.com/history/index.html, accessed 8 October 2007.)