‘The city’s most charming theater’

Michael Blythe at his frequent post behind the Clay Theater concession stand.

Michael Blythe at his frequent post behind the Clay Theater concession stand.

Q & A | MICHAEL BLYTHE

Michael Blythe has worked at the venerable Clay Theater at 2261 Fillmore Street for nearly a decade. In that time he’s had the opportunity to lavish his love of old theaters on the Clay, which is now more than 100 years old.

On New Year’s Eve he helped launch a new venture as the Oasis nightclub on 11th Street began a new life. But he’s not entirely leaving the Clay behind.

What first attracted you to the Clay Theater?

I come from a lighting background. When I was a kid I was obsessed with lights, and still am. I was a nightclub lighting director in San Francisco before I moved to Minnesota, where I honed my craft running large moving rigs for a couple of clubs downtown, including shows I did at the legendary First Avenue nightclub.

When I returned to SF I got the job at the Clay that allowed me to have the freedom to work shows, but also get into one of my other longstanding obsessions: old theaters.

How did you get interested in old theaters?

I grew up down in Burlingame. A little closed theater named the Encore was my first love. I never got to see the theater open, but I was friends with The Rev, who owned it in the late ’80s and early ’90s and was fixing it up to open as a church. Sadly the city forced him out and the theater was condemned and torn down. It didn’t need to be.

As I think about it, all the theatres I loved as a kid are gone: the Encore, the Millbrae, the Varsity, the Burlingame Drive-In, the Palm.

How did you get interested in lighting?

My love of lighting started as a kid. My parents knew this was an interest when we went to Great America. We went to watch a show and I was just watching the lights above the stage. This was confirmed on later trips to Disneyland and Universal Studios, where I talked my way backstage to see how things really work.

In school I was involved with drama and school dances. In junior high I knew all the names of the disco lights and would call the mobile DJ company that did our dances and request specific lights. Our dances were the best! In my sophomore year of high school I discovered raves. They offered me an escape from the bullies at high school and gave me many chances to share my lighting abilities. I got to help the guy who did the liquid light shows at the Fillmore and Winterland, and learned lots about lasers.

During this time I was also quite the “club kid” and was frequenting San Francisco nightclubs, including the DV8, 1015 Folsom, the End-Up, Club Townsend and the Oasis.

You moved north, but eventually came back. Why?

I moved back because I missed the city I love and needed to get back home — that, and the winters are not so fun in Minnesota. When I got back I had already set up a gig with Peaches Christ at the Bridge Theatre on Geary for her show, Midnight Mass. Peaches’ alter ego Joshua was the Bridge Theater’s manager, and he recommended me to the Clay.

I was instantly thrilled when I showed up and discovered that the Clay is home to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, another of my dear loves.

What’s so special about the Clay?

The first movie I watched at the Clay was Elvira’s Haunted Hills. I instantly fell in love with the place. The Clay is the most charming theater in the city.

We have had a ton of big events. Getting to meet Weird Al Yankovic before a screening of UHF has to be one of the tops. I met him at the back gate and got star-struck and said, “Oh my god, you are real!” And he said, “As far as I’m aware.”

Or getting to work with the Godfather of Gore, H.G. Lewis, before a screening of his ’70s masterpiece, The Wizard of Gore. And of course Tommy Wiseau from The Room. I host the midnight screenings every month.

What’s your most special memory of the Clay?

My favorite memory is the night I got to announce that the theatre was not closing after all — August 28, 2010.

Just before the final screening, Michael Blythe announced the theater would continue.

Just before the final screening, Michael Blythe announced the theater would continue.

The weeks leading up to that night were some super dark days. We spent the time clearing stuff out and getting ready to shut the place down. I spent a lot of time crying and watching my favorite films. It wasn’t until the morning of our last day that I got the news. It came in a phone call: The theater would remain open! We decided to keep it a secret until later that night, which was to be the last screening of Rocky Horror. In front of a sold-out crowd, I got to make the announcement. I thought the roof was going to rip off the building — the crowd went nuts!

How’s the Clay doing now?

The future for the theater looks good. Landmark has installed a new digital projector and done some renovations. But as always, the future is really up to moviegoers — and most of all the gentleman who owns the building.

What’s pulling you away?

I’ve been doing side gigs all over town with various theater groups and nightclubs. For the last year the primary group I’ve been working with is led by Heklina, the legendary drag queen, and actor-playwright D’Arcy Drollinger. We’ve been looking for a permanent home, and after a long struggle we found the long-shuttered Oasis nightclub at 11th and Folsom was for sale. The Oasis is one of the oldest nightclubs in the city and was a founding anchor of the 11th Street club row. Many legendary DJs and musical acts have played within its walls, including Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, L7 and Fillmore’s own
Etta James.

But you’re not leaving the Clay behind entirely?

I’ll still be at the theater a bit doing handyman work, helping keep the place charming and protecting it. Given how much I love this place, it’s hard not to be here five days a week. While I’m moving on from day-to-day operations, I’ll still keep the theater looking good.

EARLIER: “How the Clay dodged a bullet

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