The Rafael Theatre opened to the public 76 years ago, on Wednesday, May 25, 1938. The opening attractions were Boy of the Streets and Bulldog Drummond Escapes, which played for two days, followed on Friday and Saturday by Waikiki Wedding and Satan Met a Lady.


The Rafael’s predecessor at the same location was the Orpheus, the first of the Blumenfeld circuit’s several Marin movie theaters, which opened in January 1920. When a fire destroyed the Orpheus in November 1937, the Blumenfelds quickly decided to build an entirely new theater in its place. By that time, however, the Orpheus was no longer their flagship theater. That honor went to the El Camino, a veritable movie palace at Fourth and Lootens that had opened in 1928 and soon displaced the Orpheus as their premier house.

With the El Camino just down the street, the Blumenfelds decided that the Rafael, even with its original designs, beautiful murals and elaborate fixtures, would be a “second-run cinema, one of the finest of its class in the northbay counties.” A two-page spread in the May 24 San Rafael Independent announced: “The new Rafael Theatre will be operated as a popular priced house, showing second-run pictures in an atmosphere of luxurious comfort which would do credit to many first-run theaters operating on considerably increased admission scales.”

Few films among the Rafael’s early offerings were brand-new movies, and titles often dated from 1937 and earlier. Even so, we need to acknowledge that, back in those days, movies didn’t have “expiration dates” as they appear to have today: no TV, DVD, VOD, download or “streaming” competition to age their theatrical worth prematurely. A movie might make its way around the country much more gradually than we are accustomed to today.

Fourth Street in San Rafael during the early 1940s. Photo Credit: Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library

Fourth Street in San Rafael during the early 1940s. Photo Credit: Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library

In June 1938 a savvy moviegoer might seize the opportunity to catch Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a major motion picture first released two years earlier, and now topping a double-bill with an obscure new B-movie called The Main Event. Certainly the Capra film had played Marin County earlier, but where else could one see it in 1938?

At the same time the Rafael was presenting its “revival” of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the El Camino down the street was just finishing its first-run engagement of the 1938 Technicolor extravaganza The Adventures of Robin Hood.


Now, I could wrestle with “theater envy,” considering the Rafael’s profile was more modest than the El Camino’s. But it is interesting to recognize that, from the very beginning, the Rafael was considered a neighborhood theater, a community asset for city and county. It ran continuously until 1989, in the long history that pre-dates its meticulous restoration and eventual re-opening in 1999.

Today we still regard the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center as a community asset, and additionally as a “town hall” for film art and discussion. Although we no longer specialize in second-run movies, we try to maintain its status as a “popular priced house”… at least for members of California Film Institute!

Unfortunately, the El Camino was closed in 1953, during an era of significant decline in movie attendance, and it was demolished for retail space. By pure coincidence, the current offices of the California Film Institute are located on the same site.


Special thanks to Laurie Thompson, Librarian, and her associate Carol Acquaviva, Librarian & Digital Archivist, at the Anne T. Kent California Room, Marin County Free Library, a wonderful resource for researching Marin history.