AKA: American Embassy Theater, Mid-Market, San Francisco, CA; Bell Theatre, Mid-Market, San Francisco, CA

Structure Type: built works - performing arts structures - theatres

Designers: Reid Brothers, Architects (firm); James William Reid (architect); Merritt Jonathan Reid (architect)

Dates: constructed 1906-1907, demolished 1994

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1123 Market Street
Mid-Market, San Francisco, CA 94103

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Building History

The prolific San Francisco architectural firm, Reid Brothers, designed the American Theatre. Under construction before the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 04/18-19/1906, the American Theatre opened on 01/21/1907 with 1,387 seats. According to the web site "San Francisco Theaters, Cinemas, Dancehalls, after 1906," (accessed 05/07/2015), this theatre was known by various names during its life span from 1907 until 1989: the American Theatre (1907-1914); Rialto (1916-1923); Rivoli (Opera House) (1923-1927); Embassy (1927-1931); Vitaphone (1929-c.1931); Warner Brothers (1932-1933); Embassy (08/31/1933-1989). As the list would indicate, it would have been known best as the Embassy Theatre, its name for 55 years.

As reported on the Cinema Tresures.org web site, the alterations had been ongoing on March 25, 1916, when The Moving Picture World, noted: “The announcement is made that the Rialto theater, on the site of the old American on Market street, will be opened early in April, when improvements costing in excess of $70,000 will have been completed.” (See "Embassy Theatre," Cinema Treasures.org, accessed 08/05/2015. This information was supplied by theatre historian Joe Vogel.) On the same site, Vogel also indicated that the July 15, 1916 issue of The Moving Picture Worldreported:"The latest and one of the largest houses to enter the downtown field is the Rialto theater on Market street, above Seventh. This theater occupies the site of the old American and is conducted by the Western Theater Company, under the management of Howard J. Sheehan. It has a seating capacity of 1,600 and is showing a Metro program, with an International Film Service serial and news pictorial at ten, twenty and thirty cents.”

Building Notes

The Embassy Theatre was the first San Francisco venue to install the Warner Brothers' Vitaphone sound system for motion pictures. (See "Embassy Theatre," Cinema Treasures.org, accessed 08/05/2015.) Another Reid Brothers-designed San Francisco theatre, the Coliseum (1918) installed this sound system and the Movietone system on 02/18/1929.


The American/Embassy Theatre sustained significant damage in the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989. Money could not be raised to retrofit the facility and was torn down in 1994. In 12/2012, the San Francisco-based development firm, MacFarlane Partners acquired the former site of the American Theatre for $7.8 million in order to erect a 12-story apartment tower. The company never built the tower, however, selling the property in 06/2015 to Pacific Eagle Holdings Corporation, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based of Great Eagle Holdings Ltd., for an undisclosed sum. The price was undoubtedly a profitable one for MacFarlane, as this 12,900-square-foot site was one of the last vacant locations in the hot Mid-Market neighborhood of San Francisco, a site that was zoned for commercial and/or residential construction.

PCAD id: 4441