Classic SF

Theater of Dreams

by Kendra Boutell

Michael Aicardi had dreamed of opening the San Francisco Baseball Academy since he was 13 years old. He grew up playing the game in North Beach, where his Italian-American grandfather called him “Baseball Joe” after the great Joe DiMaggio. His nonno (Italian for grandfather) also filled him with nostalgia for the glory days of San Francisco baseball. It was a city that produced major league players including the DiMaggio brothers, Tony Lazzeri, Gino Cimoli and Lefty O’Doul.

Aicardi, now 31, batted for Sacred Heart High School and Skyline College, receiving a baseball scholarship to St. John’s University. After his stint with the Red Storm, he returned to San Francisco and coached kids. In 2012, he

Michael Aicardi
Michael Aicardi

founded the SF Baseball Academy, initially located in a Dogpatch warehouse, coaching both children and adults on the finer points of America’s pastime. With the slogan “Bring Baseball Back to The City,” the school moved into the most unlikely of venues—the former Bridge Theatre, an Art Deco cinema in the Inner Richmond—two years later. The love of baseball never left San Francisco—just the opportunities for its youth to play it. Young Joe DiMaggio, the son of an Italian fisherman, practiced with a broken oar on the empty sand lots by The Wharf. With urbanization, the city’s open spaces vanished, and today’s players face limited access to poorly maintained fields.

From its inception, the Academy featured batting cages, bullpen sessions and fielding practice. Aicardi’s concept was a home run, with 80 to 100 kids practicing their swings each week from the Dogpatch site. But when the opportunity arose to relocate to the Bridge Theatre on Geary Boulevard, in the heart of the city, Aicardi leaped at it. “I thought an old movie theater would be perfect because of the high ceilings and generous footprint,” he says.

Just as baseball fell on hard times in San Francisco, so did Art Deco single-screen movie theaters. Only a handful of the hundred cinemas still show films today. Some face demolition; others, like the Bridge Theatre, find a new purpose. Attilio Zerga built the theater in 1939 and named it after the newly constructed Golden Gate Bridge. The Italian-American grew up in North Beach, and worked for the Bank of Italy before establishing an insurance agency catering to the Italian community. The Bridge was one of his investments.

Zerga launched it as a low-price, late-run site for Hollywood films after they premiered at Market Street’s movie palaces. That changed under a new owner, Maury Schwartz, who purchased the Bridge in the mid-1950s and transformed it into a first-run independent and foreign film destination. With its distinctive blade sign painted International Orange, three-sided angled marquee and neon lights, the building became a beacon for San Franciscans seeking out obscure and esoteric entertainment.

The Bridge developed a cult following in the latest 20th century when drag performer Peaches Christ hosted the Midnight Mass, showcasing classic B- and underground movies with a pre-show performance. Still, Landmark Theatres shuttered the theater six years ago; its fate hung in the balance until Aicardi purchased the property in 2014.

Sensitive to its historical significance, Aicardi restored its original façade. Although the seating and stage were removed, and the floor leveled, the new owner kept four glass and metal chandeliers that cast a nostalgic light. It could be argued that the Bridge gained a new life—Aicardi considers that a win-win with some 100 players visiting his theater of dreams each day.

 

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