When Melissa Chittick and I got up on the Castro Theatre stage to introduce Lucky Star at the first Silent Film Festival on July 14, 1996, Frank Borzage’s lost-until-1990 Janet Gaynor-Charles Farrell love story was sixty-seven years old, and I was thirty-eight. Today Lucky Star is ninety-three years old, and, well, you do the math.
When I first met Melissa in 1991 (she: holder of a BA in film studies from UC-Santa Barbara and a dedicated volunteer at the beloved, long-gone Red Vic Movie House; me: Super-8 filmmaker, author, stand-up comedian, avid devourer of films at the beloved, long-gone Sash Mill Cinema in Santa Cruz), she had already conceived of the idea for the festival. She’d had the good sense to recognize that producing it would require more cash than she or I would ever have to put into it and decided to tackle an intimidating application for California 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. Thus, thanks to Melissa, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is both the name of the organization itself, and the name of the event it produces twice a year.
For those of you who might enjoy taking an SFSFF-inspired historical walking tour, the first-ever board of directors meeting was held on Monday, December 16, 1991, at Cafe Macondo, 3159 16th Street in the Mission. Closed in 2005, it is today the Gestalt bar. However, the second-ever board of directors meeting was held just around the corner on Monday, March 16, 1992, at Puerto Alegre, 546 Valencia Street, a beloved fifty-year-old Mexican restaurant, which is not only still open, but you might find Melissa and me there indulging in a margarita on a Thursday or Friday afternoon.
The next stop on your walking tour would be the first-ever administrative offices of the festival, which operated from 1992 to 1998 in the living room and kitchen of Melissa Chittick’s apartment in Alamo Square. I won’t divulge the exact address as Melissa still lives there—and so do I! To round out your tour, hop aboard a 21-Hayes Muni bus which will take you down Market Street (just as the Miles Brothers did prior to the 1906 earthquake) and disembark between Fourth and Fifth streets. Here, beside the long-gone Emporium department store (1896–1996), today Westfield San Francisco Centre, you will come upon a mauvish-pink eleven-story office building with plump gilded cherubs hovering over the lobby door. Erected in 1908, this is the James Bong Building, proud home to SFSFF from 1998 to 2010.
Your walking tour now complete, I’ll conclude with a bit of rare festival lore: those of you today who were actually with us on July 14, 1996, might know this (and thank you for twenty-five years of befriending the festival!), but the festival does indeed have an official mascot: Cardigan, Melissa’s beloved cat. Also long gone, he, too, is part of SFSFF’s history. Ask us and we’ll show you a picture of him.
* Any devotee of Nick Danger will understand
STEPHEN SALMONS is a founder of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and served as its artistic director from 1992 to 2009.