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A final farewell to the Clay?

Fixtures and furnishings being removed from the Clay Theatre.

DEMOLITION OF THE interior of the 110-year-old Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street began today, with workers hauling out the seats, the projectors and the popcorn machine.

Landmark Theatres, the company that operated the Clay in recent decades, has instructed its staff to leave the building empty by the end of the month.

The theater closed at the end of January, but ongoing discussions between building owner Balgobind Jaiswal and the S.F. Neighborhood Theater Foundation — which had offered to buy or rent the theater — had given supporters hope the Clay might continue as a nonprofit.

Those negotiations have proved unsuccessful and the landlord’s agent, neighborhood resident Pamela Mendelsohn of the Maven real estate firm, has been showing the space to other potential tenants.

EARLIER: “Clay Theatre to close

Lights, Camera, Washington Street

Eleanor Coppola shot her new film at 2561 Washington Street.

By ALISON OWINGS

The audience gasped.  

Eleanor Coppola’s triptych, “Love is Love is Love,” comprised of three shortish California-based films, was having a solo showing a few weeks ago at Dolby Laboratory’s splendid theater in downtown San Francisco, her purpose partly to thank people involved in the production. The longest and final of the three, “Late Lunch,” opened simply with an exterior view of a house.

Located at 2561 Washington Street, between Fillmore and Steiner, the fancifully handsome Victorian was home for decades to neighborhood notables John and Carol Field and their children Alison and Matt. John, an architect, remodeled the rear of the house, fashioning a soaring solarium and library and a rustically sophisticated kitchen; while Carol, among other accomplishments, baked and breaded and simmered, creating recipes that often made their way into her Italian food-themed cookbooks. 

John and Carol died within three weeks of one another in 2017. Now, in “Late Lunch,” the house re-appeared, a touchstone for many in the audience to the Fields’ years of hospitality and friendships.

Thus, this October evening, the gasp.  

As it opened, the first of the 10 actresses in the film began walking up the familiar front wooden steps to the landing. A door opened into the living and dining room — more gasps — to reveal their home had been converted into a movie set — an especially cozy movie set. The gasps turned to tears as the plot unfolded, especially for Carol’s women friends.

An email exchange with director Eleanor Coppola provided the backstory.

How did you and Carol and John meet?

“Francis [Coppola, my husband] and I met John and Carol in 1969 when we moved to S.F. from L.A. We bought their house a few blocks away on Webster Street, which was a small Victorian that John had renovated in his stylish good taste for his family.”

When the Fields moved from Webster Street to 2561 Washington Street, the two families, their children about the same ages, stayed in touch.

Carol and John Field died within days of each other in 2017.

“I found myself asking Carol to recommend a pediatrician, where to buy kids’ shoes, where she bought her groceries, etc. She was super helpful and always had the best information. So much so that when Francis bought City magazine (a publication about what was going on in the city at the time), he began asking Carol to write articles about where to get the best bread, the best meat, etc. Her articles were terrific, and I think may have been the beginning of her food writing. We remained friends over the years.”

“Then our family moved to the Napa Valley in 1977 and we drifted out of touch. Some years later I joined a writing class that met once a week in Marin and there was Carol, part of the group. We reconnected. In the writing group, we often made an altar in the living room of our instructor’s house with photos of people we were writing about, or objects from seasonal nature walks we took together for inspiration before sitting down to write.”

“I was feeling isolated living in the Napa Valley and, along with a friend, hosted a number of weekends at our ranch for 10 or 12 women from near and far to talk about their lives, aspirations and whatever was on our minds. We’d hike, eat from the garden, etc. I was very interested and often surprised by what the women were willing to reveal about themselves. I found that women in a group with no men in the room spoke differently than when there were men present.  I always wanted to try and capture that experience on screen.” 

How did the idea for the movie come about?

“At a memorial lunch [for Carol] I had that feeling again, with just women attending, who talked so openly together and so fondly of Carol. I decided to write a script. I set it in the house where the lunch was held.”

The lunch was co-hosted by Carol’s daughter-in-law, Camilla Field, at her home a few blocks away, and Carol’s daughter, Alison. The film centers around a candid reckoning at a lunch the deceased woman’s daughter has for her mother’s best friends. In fact, Eleanor planned to shoot the movie at Carol’s daughter-in-law’s house. Camilla was willing, but she and Matt have two children of their own, and a family of four on a movie set meant “attendant problems for a movie crew.” Camilla suggested 2561 Washington Street, which was then empty, pending a family decision to move in or sell.

“It was perfect for our production needs. Of course I had visited Carol and John there numerous times. I have fond memories of going to the Fields’ house to watch the Academy Awards with Carol and John and their friends. Carol was a huge movie fan and we would always have the ballot printed out and guests would make their picks for the awards in advance. At the end, we’d count up who got the most right. Carol always won. So I was especially touched to be able to shoot a movie in Carol’s house in the very room where we watched the movie awards. It was a miracle that it worked out.” 

The 10 actresses on set in the Fields’ house, which was empty after their deaths.

Friends in the audience gasped again at certain scenes — especially when the daughter gives each of her mother’s friends a scarf from her collection, which is precisely what Camilla and Alison did at their lunch. 

“Late Lunch” is indeed an homage to Carol Field, but the director said her movie is more about women’s friendships. 

Rosanna Arquette, Nancy Carlin, Polly Draper, Maya Kazan, Elea Oberoin, Valarie Pettiford, Alyson Reed, Cybill Shepherd, Joanne Whalley and Rita Wilson filled the bill, but not each was planned for the part. 

How did the casting work?

“I wrote the parts for the women with specific actors in mind, but when it is actually time to cast there are always many variables. I was able to get some of the actors I had envisioned, but since I was casting 10 women, it was impossible to find all of actors available at the same time.” A casting team brought her up to four candidates to interview for each of the parts. “Amazingly, the actors came together as an ensemble stronger than I had originally imagined.”

What happens now? 

“ ‘Love is Love is Love’ is in the hands of a sales agent who is strategizing as to how best to get it to its intended audience. It may be sent to a film festival or two, it may or may not have a theatrical release. It may go directly to streaming. I await the fates.” 


Since the movie wrapped last April, John and Carol Field’s house at 2561 Washington Street starred in another act: a difficult family decision not to move in, but to sell. The house was spiffed and staged, and sold in three days.

Alison Owings is a neighborhood resident and the author of three books. She is currently writing a biography of Del Seymour, “the mayor of the Tenderloin,” a study about homelessness. 

Yet Another Hole in the Head

FILM | ANDREA CHASE

The 16th Annual Another Hole in the Head Film Festival, brought to you by the fine people at SFIndieFest, gathers a scintillating collection of the best of the genres of sci-fi, horror, fantasy and just plain odd films currently out there, along with the now traditional rescoring of a classic.

The fest is running now through December 15 at the New People Cinema in Japantown, and there’s not a dud in the program.

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Buster Keaton on Divisadero

A still from the opening scene of The Navigator, filmed in the neighborhood.

FILM | CLASSICS SHOT LOCALLY

Atop the crest of the hill on Divisadero Street, looking north between Pacific and Broadway, a car slowly makes a U-turn, then stops on the opposite side of the street. Buster Keaton filmed almost exclusively on Hollywood lots, but traveled to San Francisco to get this one shot. 

The first five minutes of The Navigator, from 1924, are among the funniest in the entire film. The opening gag introduces Keaton’s character to us as the rich bachelor Rollo Treadway, who wakes up with the bright idea that he should get married — immediately. The caption card reads: “He had completed all the arrangements — except to notify the girl.”

Treadway instructs his chauffeur to take him at once to his girlfriend’s house. The car starts and does a U-turn and stops across the street. Treadway exits clutching a hopeful bouquet of flowers and marches up the brick-lined steps. His girlfriend, played by Kathryn McGuire, is caught off guard by Treadway’s epiphany and rejects his offer of “Will you marry me?” with a “Certainly not!”

Dejected, Treadway slinks back down the steps to the street below and quietly informs his chauffeur that he won’t be needing the car; instead what he chiefly needs is a nice long walk to clear his mind. He then walks back across the lonely street to his own mansion. 

The hilarity of this scene only works due to its extravagance. In seconds, we learn that Rollo Treadway is a young man with more dollars than sense, coupled with a keen inability to read a situation. The fact that the chauffeur is not surprised in the least to be instructed to drive his boss a mere 180-degree turn across the street paints a picture of the blissful wastefulness of the young millionaire. Keaton’s brilliance was his ability to create a character no one could relate to, but with whom everyone would instantly sympathize.

The casual viewer will laugh at the scene, but the extravagance goes past the joke. Keaton picked this spot on Divisadero Street purely because the northerly crest prevented other structures from cluttering the scope of the scene. His minimalist vision makes this scene that much more endearing. It’s as if these two giant mansions and a few others exist all by themselves. That makes the fairy tale of the two young lovers that much sweeter, even when she rejects him. 

The ivy-choked mansion on the right, which was meant to belong to Rollo Treadway, is now sadly long gone, demolished in the 1930s. But his girlfriend’s mansion is still in place at 2505 Divisadero. Built in 1899, it was more recently known as Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett’s residence. It sold for $10 million three years ago, a price at which Rollo Treadway might barely blink an eye.

There is something magical and unique about the top of Divisadero Street. Buster Keaton saw it in 1924, and we can see it still.

— Mark Fantino

VIDEO: Buster Keaton goes for a ride in The Navigator

Alfred Hitchcock on Buchanan

The entry at Sacramento and Buchanan appears in Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

FILM | CLASSICS SHOT LOCALLY

Walking north on Buchanan Street across Sacramento, you hardly notice the home on the corner. Built in 1900, this sheepish three-story house seems to endeavor not to draw attention to itself. But Alfred Hitchcock saw it differently. It was here that he filmed climactic scenes of his very last film, Family Plot, released in 1976. 

It may never be considered one of Hitchcock’s greats. While it does include many of his trademark suspenseful moments and thrilling intrigue, Hitchcock injected a level of zaniness in this film he had not mastered. Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern play the out-of-their-element young couple dead set on uncovering the truth about an unclaimed family fortune, as well as an enormous diamond. But instead they get caught up in the sinister skulduggery of the shiny-toothed villain William Devane’s murderous schemes.

The main entrance of the corner home at Sacramento and Buchanan is used a couple of times in the film. Around the corner on Buchanan is the garage door (below) where some deliciously dastardly scenes take place. 

— Mark Fantino

From Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

Fighting as a metaphor for peace

An Israeli and a Palestinian spar in local filmmaker Pietro Pinto’s “Jerusalem in Between.”

FILM | ANDREA CHASE

Italian-born neighborhood resident Pietro Pinto didn’t set out to make a film about boxers. After winning a place in the Jerusalem Film Workshop a few years back, he arrived in Israel for the first time in his life with less than two weeks to find a subject for his short film, which will screen at the upcoming San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Pinto had been one of the Bay Area’s young and emerging filmmakers between the ages of 19 to 27 chosen to participate in a six-week summer filmmaking workshop in Israel and produce a short to be screened at the festival. Fate led him to the Jerusalem Boxing Club, and to Nur and Arthur, the two protagonists of “Jerusalem in Between,” his visually poetic, philosophically dense consideration of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Pinto acknowledges the irony of using boxing when talking about detente. “It’s the perfect metaphor,” he says. “Of course, it’s fighting — but it’s also training together, instead of just looking for a victory.”

In fact, he says the first time he saw Nur and Arthur, they were sparring together in the only boxing club in Jerusalem in which a Palestinian and an Israeli could do so.

He knew it was the film he wanted to make, but convincing the Jewish Film Workshop was another matter. He persevered, introducing the young men to the producers, who finally agreed the story should be told. Thus began a four-week shoot and, for Pinto, two new friendships.

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24 years on retreat

“What I like about it most is I’m really in charge of my own ship,” says Judith Skinner.

FILM | JESSICA BERNSTEIN-WAX

My mother’s friend Judith Skinner started a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in her Pacific Heights apartment in 1995. At the time, she thought it would last the traditional three years, three months and three days.

Almost 24 years later, she remains on retreat, a Buddhist practice that involves solitude, meditation and introspection — and can take place anywhere from a remote cave to a rent-controlled studio apartment in San Francisco.

I have known Judith almost all of my life. As a child, I visited her at the Ewam Choden Tibetan Buddhist Center near Berkeley, where she lived for many years. When Judith started her retreat, I thought three years sounded like a long time to lead a mostly solitary existence.

As her retreat extended for more and more years, I started to get curious. What did she do all day? And why had she dropped out of “normal life”?

To find out, I spent about a year and a half filming her on my days off and weekends. The resulting short documentary, On Retreat, will screen at this year’s SF DocFest, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival. It screens on June 8 at 12:15 p.m. and on June 11 at 7 p.m. at the Roxie Theater.

You might think documentary footage of someone on a meditation retreat would be about as visually exciting as watching paint dry. But Judith is an engaging San Francisco character.

To help finance her retreat, she worked as a gardener for many years. Now in her 70s, she follows a simple daily routine involving Buddhist practice, writing and trips to Cal-Mart in Laurel Village.

She has almost no belongings and owns just one fork, but still manages to look sharp every day. She goes for regular haircuts at Patrick Richards Salon on Sacramento Street, where she tended the flower boxes for years.

Rather than focus primarily on the logistics of Judith’s retreat, my film explores her reasons for going on retreat in the first place and why she’s continued for so long.

“My friends tease me that retreat is the all-purpose excuse: I get out of everything,” Judith told me laughingly during one of our interviews. “On a deep level, what I like about it most is I’m really in charge of my own ship.”

Judith truly does seems to be content with her quiet, somewhat isolated life. She credits Buddhist practice and her retreat with making her a calmer, less reactive person.

Despite her solitary lifestyle, Judith says she hasn’t felt lonely these last 24 years. The retreat and the city of San Francisco have been her constant and familiar companions.

A master sommelier — and a film star

Verve Wine’s Dustin Wilson returns for a third installment of the Somm film series.

FIRST PERSON | DUSTIN WILSON

For me, becoming a sommelier meant taking part in something much larger than myself. Working with a team of like-minded individuals on a restaurant crew for the greater goal of unforgettable hospitality really excited me.

I was totally ready for the overall restaurant scene, challenging as it was at times. But taking part in a three-part film documentary along the way was completely unexpected.

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Previewing “A Dance With Death”

Kelly Johnson and his daughter Leda Meredith in the final minutes of his life on May 7, 2018.

KQED TODAY OFFERS a preview of the New Fillmore documentary A Dance With Death, screening Wednesday night, August 15, at 7 p.m. at the Clay Theatre on Fillmore Street. It tells the story of longtime Fillmore resident Kelly Johnson’s decision — after a celebrated career as a dancer, musician and vaudeville performer — to end his life earlier this year.

PREVIEW ON KQED

A lesson in how to die
A podcast conversation with director Arash Malekzadeh

EARLIER: “The final days of Kelly Johnson

A Fillmore film premieres at the Clay