Fourth Street’s Home For Cinema

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Fourth Street’s Home For Cinema

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As I walk down Fourth Street one overcast Thursday evening, the giant RAFAEL sign is visible from several blocks away. The lights are turned off and the white exterior makes itself at home among other buildings, yet the place has a bold presence. Originally, called The Orpheus, the theater remains one of the most easily identifiable and historically significant landmarks in downtown San Rafael.

I was welcomed inside by Dan Zastrow, the theater’s manager, whose long, blond ponytail seems miraculously intact despite the humidity outside. He’s worked here since the theater reopened in 1999 after already having worked several years in the film industry: “It was a night job while I was going to college. When I was finished with college, I just stayed at the theater. It was too much fun, really enjoyable, and then I got involved with a couple of theaters that were doing some renovation work and consulting. It just grew into a career. It’s been fun. Still more to come.”

Anne T Kent Room, Marin County Free Library
What walking down Fourth Street looked like in the 1940s. Courtesy of Anne T Kent.

Dan’s first order of business was to give me a detailed tour of the theater’s three screening rooms, the first on the bottom floor. “This ran as a single-screen theater right up until 1989. It was shut down after the Loma Prieta earthquake,” he said as we step into the elegant Theater One. Murals and columns, all original from 1938, frame the large screen up front. The theater simultaneously reopened with the California Film Institute, which is the organization responsible for running the theater, educational programming, and the famous Mill Valley Film Festival.

The first thing you see when walking into the theater’s main screening room.

A couple of days later, Joanne Parsont, the Director of Education at the California Film Institute, invited me into her office a few blocks down the street in the building that was the city’s second theater, the El Camino, in 1924 through the ’50s. The dim light of her desk lamp reflected off the Moonlight and Liyana posters hanging on her wall. I sat on her couch as she told me about My Place My Story, a digital storytelling workshop intensive for underserved youth.

“Basically, each student creates their own personal narrative story about an issue that they’re dealing with. So, you know, a lot of times students will do all things on bullying or body image or anxiety or immigration or homelessness, whatever issues they’re struggling with,” she explained, “Then, we actually do a public screening of their films about a month later for their friends and family and for the community, which is very cool.”

It turned out that not only has the screen in Theater One premiered future Academy Award-winning films, Dan’s most recent favorite being Free Solo: “He’s just this zen guy who’s just had this passion. He did something that anyone else would’ve done, choked, and probably fallen to their death. He just did it. He wanted to do it, he worked on it and made it happen. Amazing, right?” The screen has also showcased the lives of thousands of Bay Area youth. Dan spoke excitedly of the educational programming’s impact on young filmmakers: “It’s powerful for the audience to get that insight into this person’s life and that’s what cinema is. It’s stories, right? It’s usually personal stories that maybe show you something you don’t think about before.” 

Dan and I then went up a shiny, curved staircase to our next destination, his ponytail swinging across his back as he told me more about the theater’s architecture. In order to build the second floor, the balcony of the room below was torn down and completely rebuilt as the second screening room, or Theater Two. Recognizing my shock at the stark difference in aesthetic from downstairs, Dan explained, “So, the Orpheus Theater that was here before the burn, this is kind of a version of what that might have looked like. The stencil on the wall, it’s a simplified version of the original stencil that was on all the walls, all the surfaces, when it was the Orpheus between 20 and 37, 1920 and 1937.” The room is significantly smaller than the previous one, yet is just as elegant.

The theater’s second screening room, courtesy of the California Film Institute.

A large ad that read “My Place My Story” flashed on the screen in front of us and I recalled the conversation I had with Joanne about the same program. I was able to get in contact with a student, whose name will not be shared for privacy reasons, who had the opportunity to go through the filmmaking program twice. She shared, “I had a lot of feelings that I wanted to share, but never really knew how. Being a part of this program has been a really fun and interesting way to communicate with people I wouldn’t have otherwise talked to about my feelings before.”

According to Joanne, it is not uncommon for students to return to the filmmaking programs multiple times: “It’s really amazing to see the growth that they have gone through… Some come back to do it when they’re 17 or 18 and it’s amazing to see the level of maturity change and the change in how they present their story.”

The student also shared, “It’s nice to be in a program with other people my age and hear stories about young people that we don’t often see on screen. It’s really great to see stories that I can relate to and that I can continue to learn from.”

This is a student who participated in the My Place My Story program. Courtesy of the California Film Institute.

The third screening room is across the hall. Mark Fiskin, the executive director and founder of the Mill Valley Film Festival, wanted a year-round home for cinema. However, people found difficulty making that possible due to the fact that they only had one screening room: “We wanted to have multiple screens because, with a single screen, it’s really tough to do business with. You only have one movie at a time.” At the time, the Rafael Bookstore, housed in the building next door, seemed like the ideal purchase for a theater that wanted to expand: “We purchased that spot too, tore that down, and rebuilt it. We have a receptionist space below and a third screening room above.”

This is a picture of the third screening room in the theater. It is modeled after George Lucas’s Stag Theater. Courtesy of the California Film Institute.


To my surprise, the style of the Theater Three could not be farther from what I expected. The walls are dark and bright blue lights decorate the sides, purposely made to feel starkly different from the others. The first room is representative of the theater’s Rafael years, the time post-earthquake, which is heavily influenced by art deco. The second room is representative of the Orpheus years, the way it was first meant to be experienced. When speaking of the third room, Dan explained, “This is actually a THX-style room. You know, THX was the company that George Lucas had. It was about theater design and proper acoustics and proper sightlines and everything.” The room is built like George Lucas’s Stag Theater up at Skywalker Ranch, a “more futuristic-looking” approach and also a nod to the man whose early career helped establish a legacy of film in our community.

Mark Cavagnero, the architect brought in to work on the room’s design, wanted the theater to tell a story: “Generations of people have been coming here, generations of people have been working here. Of course, over the years physically it’s changed, but it has this lively history that’s all entwined with San Rafael.” Theater Three is meant to represent the organization’s intention to keep the theater alive for many more years to come.

A student working on a project for his filmmaking program. Courtesy of the California Film Institute.

Host filmmaking programs for young people like My Place My Story has helped The Rafael do just that. Every year, the theater, along with the California Film Institute, inspire more than 3000 students who participate in these programs to practice media literacy and make their own stories heard. Inside the building whose neon lights shine brighter than anything else, these people are all becoming a part of San Rafael’s history in one way or another.