Frank Lee, Jr. has been the proud owner of San Francisco’s “4-Star Theater” located on Clement and 23rd Ave. in the Richmond district since 1992. The theater first opened in 1919 as “La Bonita Theatre,” was renamed “Star Theater” in 1926, and finally “4-Star Theatre” in 1946.
The next 6 months will be pivotal for 4-Star, one of only five independent neighborhood theaters remaining in San Francisco (The Bridge Theatre located in the Inner Richmond and The Lumiere in Russian Hill both closed in late 2012). Frank hopes to draw in crowds with the upcoming 4-Star Theatre’s 8th Annual Chinese Film Festival to be held mid November, as well as by screening the 10 films which will be nominated for “Best Picture” in the 86th Academy Awards.
Frank’s interest in film and theaters was passed down from his father. Back in 1964, Frank Lee, Sr. took young Frank to the SF Film Festival where he recalls seeing “Madam White Snake,” a Hong Kong movie by the Shaw Brothers. The elder Lee was bothered that more films like this could not be found showing in local theaters and called Run Run Shaw (still alive today) personally and closed a deal to bring their films to the U.S. Chinese audiences gravitated to these hard-to-find films from the Far East and the senior Lee opened up his first theater in San Francisco’s Chinatown and later in NY, LA, Toronto, and Vancouver. By the 1980’s, the Lee Family had 50 projector screens (owned/operated 5 theaters and distributed to 45 others) in North America with many showing popular “double features.” Then came the advent of the VHS and the senior Lee saw the writing on the wall and closed all his theaters by 1988. However, the young Lee was not deterred; He bought the 4-Star Theatre (film format only) in 1992, the Presidio Theatre in 2004 (converted to Digital) and the Marina Theatre (also Digital) in 2008.
I got a chance to sit down with the mild mannered Frank to get his perspective on the movie industry.
Where did you grow up?
I’m a local boy. I was born at Chinese Hospital, went to St. Mary’s, Sacred Heart, and studied broadcasting at San Francisco State University in the 80’s. I am the third of four kids but the only one who is still in the film/theater business. Growing up, I helped my father set up his theaters (and was very popular with my fellow St. Mary’s class who I snuck into movies on the weekends) all over the US and Canada and opened my first theater The Cannery and then the Parkside Theater in the Sunset (both closed now) before owning the 4-Star. Besides owning movie theaters, my Dad was known as the “Voice of Chinatown” and my mom was a DJ so I’ve been around entertainment since I was a kid. I have one son who helps out in the business and can also operate the film projectors. My father passed away in 2002 but I think we was proud that the Lee Family is still in the movie theater business.
How has the movie theater industry changed and what is the future?
Back in the 70’s there must have been about 20 independent neighborhood movie theaters just in SF. Then the numbers started to decline with the VHS, digital technology, and now you have Netflix which keeps people at home more. Piracy used to be an issue but people like quality and I’m happy to see that there are still people who like to go to the “movies” for the big screen experience, however it’s hard for us little guys to compete with the big corporate movie theater chains today.
What can we expect from this year’s Chinese Film Festival?
I’m putting together the films now. I pick movies primarily based on the Director and Cast and whether it played in Hong Kong, which usually means the movie is more popular. We will have some more obscure ones but those I have to personally preview first. We will announce the films shortly at www.LNTSF.com
Who are your favorite actors? Directors?
I really like Wong Kar Wai, Johnnie To, and Peter Chan, all Hong Kong Directors. And I’m a fan of Andy Lau, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford.
What do you do in your free time and any upcoming projects?
I’m busy with the theaters but what I need to do is catalog my collection of Chinese films from the 1960’s. We bought the films and the perpetual rights and I still have 500 – 35MM films and 300 – 16MM films stored away in different places. I also have 100 posters and 10 sets of color movie stills from various movies from the 1970’s-1990’s. These are probably worth something to someone someday.
Any highlights or memorable moments?
I was 12 years old and we were featuring a Hong Kong film at our SF Chinatown theatre and invited one of the film’s star actors to attend. In walks an unknown guy who wanted to meet the actor…his name was Bruce Lee. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Author’s Note: Please patronize your local independent theaters. The 4-Star Theatre is located 2200 Clement Street, San