Hiding in plain sight in the Tenderloin are more than 20 of San Francisco’s least-known architectural treasures: the film exchange buildings. These unique structures are an architecturally significant link to a lost world: the chaotic, rough-and-tumble early days of the film industry.
Film exchanges evolved from a fundamental change in the movie business. When theater owners first began showing films in the late 19th century, they had to purchase them from the producers. As Max Alvarez notes in “The Origins of the Film Exchange,” a 2005 Film History article, a 15-meter reel of film could cost an exhibitor $25, and it was neither returnable nor refundable. Starting in 1896, some industry entrepreneurs came up with 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 Earle Miles. Contrary to widespread belief, the quartet was not the first to rent films to theaters, but they did make the practice widespread. The siblings got into the business by filming and presenting movies of the Alaskan wilderness to prospectors in 1897 and 1898, during the Klondike Gold Rush. 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, close to Market Street’s amusement arcades and nickelodeons — storefronts and other informal spaces that showed movies for a nickel and later became proper movie theaters. Soon they were shipping reels to every city west of the Mississippi and to Canada, as well as providing films and illustrated song slides to 10 of the 14 amusement arcades in San Francisco. Some films were sent to New York, with stops at theaters along the way. It was estimated that the Turk Street exchange handled 300 to 400 films prior to the 1906 earthquake. Business boomed, and by 1907 the Mileses had established offices in other cities.
The atmosphere in the early film exchanges was bustling, chaotic and profane. Young male customers — nickelodeon managers or projectionists — treated the exchanges like produce markets, arguing with the clerks, grabbing films off the storage room shelves before other customers could and frequently resorting to bribery to get desirable films. According to one 1910 account, “It is a well-known fact that a busy exchange looks a good deal like a Tower of Babel, when all the [projectionists] are clamoring to be served first and engaging in loud talking, jokes, singing and an abuse of cigarette smoking.” The exchanges were particularly hectic during the “crowded hour” between 11 p.m. and midnight, when projectionists flocked to return films and pick up new ones.
These unique structures link to a lost world: the chaotic, roughand- tumble early days of the film industry.
For the first two decades of their existence, San Francisco’s film exchanges were located in ordinary small brick commercial buildings. But from the 1920s through the 1930s, they occupied structures 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 film in the late 1940s, movies were shot on nitrate-based film, which was extremely flammable, with a chemical composition described as “very nearly akin to gun-cotton.” Nitrate film could spontaneously combust at temperatures as low as 120 degrees — the heat generated by a cigarette ash. Safety precautions at early exchanges were minimal to nonexistent, with reels of discarded film simply tossed into garbage bins or left on the floor while the callow projectionists who crowded into the exchanges wandered around chain-smoking. Not surprisingly, between 1907 and 1918, there were more than 30 fires at exchanges across the country.
San Francisco was no exception. On March 7, 1911, a fire broke out at 9 a.m. at the Miles brothers’ Variety Film Exchange at 51 McAllister, destroying the building. An employee, James Sciaroni, was badly burned trying to save reels of film. In 1917, a fire at the Fox Film Exchange ruined a print of the 10-reel feature Jack and the Beanstalk.
Although the industry tried to deny that nitrate film was dangerous, the rash of fires led to regulations requiring film to be safely stored and for film exchanges to be located in fireproof buildings. Many cities forced their exchanges to move to remote areas, often near the railroad tracks, that became known as “Film Rows.”
In San Francisco, the film exchanges were constructed 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 Moderne-style 1930s buildings depicted in Paul Madonna’s drawing. Many of the exchanges are adorned with theatrical motifs (such as the comedy and tragedy masks high up on 255 Hyde), boast graceful iron ornamentation (253 Hyde) and are first-rate examples of Art Deco architecture. Splendid survivors of the colorful first decades of the movie industry, they add unexpected grace notes to the mean, marvelous streets of the Tenderloin.