Underground Film Journal

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Surf Theatre: ’60s Underground Film Screenings

By Mike Everleth ⋅ May 29, 2022

Cover to the 1964 Fall screening program for the Surf Theatre in San Francisco

The Surf Theatre in San Francisco was a beloved independent movie theater located at 4520 Irving Street, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.

In the 1960s, the Surf jumped on the underground film bandwagon, occasionally screening the typical “midnight movies” shorts programs of the time; as well as sprinkling in feature-length underground cinema among their usual repertoire of foreign films and second-run independent movies.

The Underground Film Journal has acquired a complete set of programs from the Surf Theatre between the years 1964 and 1967. The earliest example of an underground film screening that we found was a July 1964 weekend event of John Cassavetes’ breakout hit, Shadows. Since the film was completed in 1959, this may not have been the first time it screened at the Surf, but just the first time it appears in the Journal’s collection of programs.

It’s clear from going through the programs that the Surf frequently screened films numerous times over this four year period. Case in point, most of the midnight movie shorts programs featured Jean Genet’s notorious 1950 classic Un Chant D’amour paired with either more modern underground films, like Mike Kuchar‘s Sins of the Fleshapoids and Ron Rice’s Senseless, or with older classics like James Sibley Watson’s Lot in Sodom and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks.

The Surf was also a big supporter of local filmmakers. Their Winter 1964-65 program heralds the American premiere of The Burning Ear by Edd Dundas that the theater claims it helped “launch” — although it’s not clear what “launch” means here. This is not a film nor a filmmaker that the Underground Film Journal has come across before.

Most interesting to underground film history buffs may be the October 1, 1966 benefit screening “to help establish a SAN FRANCISCO FILMMAKERS COOPERATIVE.” There is no mention in the program of Canyon Cinema, but this benefit was clearly an event to raise money for the distribution arm of the then fledgling filmmakers association. Canyon Cinema would publish their first distribution catalogue two months later in December, so it can be imagined that this benefit screening of works by Bruce Baillie, Ben Van Meter, Robert Nelson, and others was hopefully a success.

Some other screenings of note include Adolfas Mekas‘s feature-length Hallelujah the Hills, which regularly screened paired with Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, as it did here. Two of Shirley Clarke‘s acclaimed feature films were also screened: The then recent The Cool World, and a re-release of her first film The Connection.

Below are the listings of these underground film screenings that we found in the Surf Theatre programs, as well as selected scans of the programs below that.

The Surf Theatre did remain open for another twenty years after these screenings, but closed for good on July 7, 1985, according to the site Cinema Treasures.

1964

Program Calendar: June 26 – August 29

July 5-7
Shadows, dir. John Cassavetes (1959)

Program Calendar: Fall

November 6-12
Hallelujah the Hills, dir. Adolfas Mekas (1963)
Scorpio Rising, dir. Kenneth Anger (1963)
The Case of the Mukinese Battle Horn, dir. Joseph Sterling. Starring Peter Sellers.

Program Calendar: Winter 1964 – 65

December 12
Un Chant D’amour, dir. Jean Genet (1950)
Lot in Sodom, dir. James Sibley Watson (1933)

December 19
Un Chant D’amour, dir. Jean Genet (1950)
The Burning Ear, dir. Edd Dundas (1964)

December 26
Un Chant D’amour, dir. Jean Genet (1950)
Fireworks, dir. Kenneth Anger (1947)

December 25-31
The Servant, dir. Joseph Losey (1963)
The Burning Ear, dir. Edd Dundas (1964)

1965

January 1-7
The Servant, dir. Joseph Losey (1963)
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, dir. Kenneth Anger (1954) (Original version)

February 12 (beginning on or about)
The Cool World, dir. Shirley Clarke (1964)
Scorpio Rising, dir. Kenneth Anger (1963)

Program Calendar: Winter 1965 – 66

December 10-18
The Cool World, dir. Shirley Clarke (1964)

1966

Program Calendar: Spring 1966

March 12
Un Chant D’amour, dir. Jean Genet (1950)
To L.A. … With Lust, dir. Vernon Zimmerman (1961)

March 19
Un Chant D’amour, dir. Jean Genet (1950)
Lemon Hearts, dir. Vernon Zimmerman (1960)

March 25-31
The Connection, dir. Shirley Clarke (1961)

March 26
Un Chant D’amour, dir. Jean Genet (1950)
Senseless, dir. Ron Rice (1962)

April 2
Un Chant D’amour, dir. Jean Genet (1950)
Sins of the Fleshapoids, dir. Mike Kuchar (1964)

Program Calendar: Summer 1966

July 9
Underground Film Series
Titles To Be Announced

July 16
Underground Film Series
Titles To Be Announced

July 23
Underground Film Series
Titles To Be Announced

July 30
Underground Film Series
Titles To Be Announced

August 6
Underground Film Series
Titles To Be Announced

August 13
Underground Film Series
Titles To Be Announced

Program Calendar: September – October 1966

Filmmakers Benefit
Saturday, October 1 at Midnight
New and recent works by leading Bay Area filmmakers Bruce Baillie, Robert Nelson, Larry Jordan, Ben Van Meter and others in a special benefit program to help establish a SAN FRANCISCO FILMMAKERS COOPERATIVE, one of the most promising developments on the cultural scene. Here is an opportunity to assist a group who stand unrivaled for the richness and variety of their creative expression. Admission $1.50.

October 9-15
An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge, dir. Robert Enrico (1962)
Castro Street, dir. Bruce Baillie (1966)

Program Gallery:

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