Tragedy + Time = No Comedy Venues Left In SF

Founder of The Dark Room Theater Opens Up About The Venue's Closure

The announcement late last month that The Dark Room Theater would close at the end of August came as an unwelcome surprise to many. The tiny theater on Mission Street was home to live comedy, theater, and Bad Movie Night (among many other things). 

In a just-released interview on Born Ready, a podcast discussing San Francisco theater and comedy, The Dark Room Theater founder Jim Fourniadis goes into detail about what forced the closing of the venue—and how it has nothing to do with their landlord wanting more money for the space. Instead, Fourniadas explains that he and several other artists are living in the commercially-zoned building, and that someone called the city to complain about the situation. 

“Well I can actually turn all the cards over now and just give you guys the whole story, because we’ve always played the cards pretty close to the chest. We’re basically living and working in the same space—commercial space. And like so many live/work spaces that were questionably zoned, blah blah blah, we just kind of persevered and hoped that no one would bother us. And it worked that way for about twelve years. […]

“So what ended up happening is, some nozzle just decided that they were going to rat us out to the city. Someone called in an anonymous complaint. And I don’t know who they are, because it was an anonymous complaint. And I don’t know why they would do it. I’ve tried to rack my brain and figure did I piss somebody off really bad? And the answer is ‘no, I don’t think so.’ My feeling is that it was probably just somebody, some new arrival to the city who just thought ‘those guys are making noise.’”

That a noise-averse new arrival possibly led to the closure of The Dark Room Theater is upsetting, but not surprising. New arrivals complaining about sound from performance venues or bars has a long history in the Mission. However, the fact that this time around the venue in question is a theater—and not a club or bar—is a bit startling.

And while the entire interview is worth a listen, the below excerpted bit is especially frustrating and worthy of attention:

Host Rob Ready: Do you think, Jim, that The Dark Room closing is at all a barometer or bellwether for indie arts in San Francisco?

Jim Fourniadis: That’s tricky, because like I said I don’t think we were closed by a developer. I don’t think we were closed—I mean, our landlord is a great guy. He’s always been very on board with us, and I don’t think it’s a matter of market pressure in the sense that they were trying to get us out our space so they could, you know, put in another like, you know, fusion-noodle place. […]

I think it was really more of a matter of fact of the changing demographics of the neighborhood. And I think the person who probably called up and ratted us out, probably just… One of my biggest problems with people like this is they’ll come to a place and they’ll get a good deal because they’ve moved into place like the Tenderloin or the Mission or something like that, and then suddenly they’ve forgotten that they got a good deal because of where they are. They start complaining that it isn’t where they want to be. And it’s just like, you know, hey motherfucker, you want a quiet neighborhood? Pay a little extra money and go live in a quiet neighborhood. Don’t move into a noisy neighborhood where everybody’s having fun doing what they’re doing and then just start complaining about things.

Back in the suburbs I remember they used to do this thing where, you know, they used to cut off the street in the middle and make it a cul-de-sac because there was too much traffic coming through. But it’s like, when you moved in you knew that there was traffic coming through. But now it’s like, it doesn’t matter everyone else has to get from point A to point B, what matters is that “these cars are whizzing by my yard.”  It’s just like, hey, you know what? There’s a lot of cul-de-sacs already—GO MOVE. You know? And I think a lot of people are coming in and they’re like “oh this is a hip, funky, neat neighborhood—the Mission—I’ve heard all about. It’s kinda neat. But now that I’m here…well, isn’t it kinda a little noisy at night?” […]

I’m sure this person, who did this to us, has absolutely no fucking idea how much they’ve disrupted my life, and all the other lives of the people there. And how much they’ve taken away this resource for both the audience and the artists. I’m sure they have no clue how they fucked up this shit with their little phone call. And I think that’s what up ended closing us. It wasn’t really a market pressure, it was really just changing demographics of the neighborhood.

The Dark Room Theater’s farewell show is going to be staged reading of an original script based on the Adam West Batman television show. It takes place on August 22nd, and you can buy tickets here and tickets are donation only, at the door.

[Photo: The Dark Room Theater]

Comments (24)

Not trying to ruin a perfectly good, sanctimonious story, but don’t you think it’s a little weird to go deep on the “some new jerk ratted us out” rant, given that there is absolutely zero evidence whatsoever that a new person did this, other than the fact that the guy who was living illegally inside a commercial space seems to think so?

.. and the number one, totally not sanctimonious, suspect has just been identified.


Maybe the problem is that it’s illegal to live in the same building you run a theatre out of, when there’s zero evidence that it was harming anyone or anything, and lots of evidence that it worked to enrich the neighborhood.

Fourniadis didn’t explain this in the podcast, but I’ve been told by others involved with the Dark Room that they legally had a caretaker unit as part of the building. The problem is that they had more than one person in there, which was not legal. They either could leave the people living in the unit–meaning they wouldn’t be evicted to face our harsh rental market–or they kick out everyone except the one caretaker. The latter means the theater could have stayed open (with more people out), but even then they would have needed to make repairs to get them up to code for a theater, which would have cost hundreds of thousands dollars (which they didn’t have).

Regardless, fuck NIMBY narcs.

Thanks for that, Kev. Yes to everything you said. Also, somebody made the good point that an income derived from an un-subsidized 50-seat theater will barely cover the business expenses let alone paying a staff a living wage. Also, this is (maybe unsurprisingly) a pretty common thing in small theater. The margins are terrible, and to own / operate the place, you have to LOVE making art, LOVE artists, do most everything yourself (clean toilets, take tickets, write scripts, perform etc), and frequently be ok with funky living situations so you can afford it. Off the top of my head, I can think of 5 theaters I’ve performed in that had someone living there at some point. As for Jim’s comments on changing demographics, and other folks comments about proof, his proof is that the City told him in was an anonymous complaint. Who made that? Who knows. But given that TDR ran along fine for 12 years, and the neighborhood drastically changed around it in that time, it’s a reasonable hypothesis that someone new in the area was annoyed by something and picked up the phone, not anticipating the repercussions. The angle in this article is very much Uptown’s beat, and that’s cool, we appreciate any write ups we can get. But the majority of that interview and what’s most compelling about it are the times that Jim is sharing memories of shows and people and jokes. Also, if you have the chance to listen to the full show, you’ll hear at the end that he does not think that TDR closing is a useful way to gauge the health of indy arts in the city. Ultimately, it’s a total bummer TDR is closing. But it’s also exciting to know that the spirit that made that place cool is definitely alive and thriving. We are already talking to Jim about staging some shows at PianoFight, and we’re also talking to a few TDR artists about hosting their now nomadic shows. AND, PF is gonna throw a rager at Dark Room on Fri, Aug 28 as the absolute LAST PUBLIC event. So that will be cool. Anyway, thanks for the write up and thanks for listening to the show and if you want to hit us up about anything indy arts related you can ping @BornReadyShow on Twitter.-RRob ReadyArtistic Director, PianoFightHost, Born Ready Show

“it’s a reasonable hypothesis that someone new in the area was annoyed by something”

Actually, no, that’s not the only reasonable hypothesis. Because a fair number of the people benefiting from the recent changes in the Mission aren’t new at all, you see - they’re long time property owners gleeful at this newfound opportunity to cash in. The new faces are just the easier scapegoat.

Fair enough. And for the record, I didn’t say it was the ONLY reasonable hypothesis. Yours is also reasonable. The larger point being that when Dark Room opened, the neighborhood was much funkier, and this kind of thing was more likely to fly. 

This isn’t accurate.  I was involved in the decision to close the business side down, and we made that decision based on outstanding safety concerns that were mounting on top of the newer development of this complaint. The primary focus needed to be on ensuring the residential use can continue as long as possible. The opening comment is correct, and anyone making a statement about who complained is totally based in speculation. Again, I was there. 

If anyone really needs to see the letter I got from the city inspectors office call me. I never said it was a noise complaint. I actually mention the zoning issue in the interview. There are several of us living here.  Are we somehow villians because of this??  Wasn’t it malicious for someone to call the city inspector on us?  I don’t have some persecution complex, I just tried to do the best I could with the situation I was in. We never hurt anyone, we made a lot of people laugh and we had a lot of people enjoy our theater. and now its gone because someone decided they would rather we weren’t allowed to continue.  I don’t see how I get painted as the bad guy here.

I’m confused. If the problem is that people can’t live there, why does that affect the business? Can’t you just move out, and the Dark Room persists? Is it that the economics don’t work if you don’t also live there? Or is there some sort of noise complaint about the business, independent of the living situation? Finally, if the landlord doesn’t care if you live there, what’s the problem? Does the City come around and enforce residential/commercial distinctions? These are all actual questions, not rhetorical. I don’t get a clear sense of what’s really going on.

This is all real questionable, just blaming a bogeyman with no real reason to believe so, ‘it must be *in hushed tones* them’ is such a bullshit line I’m getting damn sick of.

 There’s almost no question in my mind something else is going on.  Whatever let the $10-15 cocktail bar just fucking move there already, Jesus Christ.

Can you provide more insight to the reasons they are being shut down? Is a violation of use of commercial space reason to discontinue their license to conduct business? If everyone moves out of the space can they reapply to maintain the business? Will the landlord keep their lease going if they move out? Or, can the landlord rezone the property to a live/work space? Where is the rest of the reporting? So many questions. 

I think what he’s trying to tell us is that someone phoned in an anonymous complaint to the city. That’s what happened. That’s how it works…did you just move here?

isn’t there a way to make it live/work by filing something with the planning dept? if the landlord is really ok with the current situation there shouldn’t be a problem.

Yeah, I don’t see what living illegally in the space has to do with operating the business. Unless they can’t afford to rent another place to live in separately.

And if that is the case, they shouldn’t be blaming “changing demographics” but rather the overreaching, nanny-state, zoning laws that the so-called “progressives” have put into place over the years that ultimately kill entrepreneurial endeavors.

Techies, thanks for killing The Mission! You can have your new sanitized neighborhood. 

Yea, “hey techies, you know that thing a guy claimed you did without proof or even reasonable suspicions, then after assuming that premise is true, wrote a several paragraph rambling rant .   Yea, well now that I’ve read that, I also accept the truth of not only the initial premise, but ALL of the paragraphs written, and now am going to add my own thoughts that are even more extreme”

Srsly, you’ve got no time left to be interesting or creative after yelling about techies! techies! TECHIES! every goddamn day. Find something more productive to do with your life.

The tech rich new comers who want wreck and re-make the neighborhood resonates.

But not sure about the techies4Quiet angle, we’re seeing a push from AirBnB hotelization folk to turn the Mission into Spring Break in Mexico. 

To all the people asking, “How come they can’t keep the theater going even though they all have to move out?”…way to go on the critical thinking skills y’all. The theater is their livelihood, and if the income they derive from it clearly is not enough to live off of anywhere else in the neighborhood (or in the whole damn city at this point.)  

Yeah pretty much. I was running the place on a shoestring budget and if the roomies moved out I wouldn’t be able to cover rent. 

The complaint wasn’t a noise complaint, If you listen to the whole podcast I said it was because we were living in a commercial space. Both Sean and I have tried to correct the notion that it was a noise complaint. However, despite the true nature of the call,  I just don’t think that this complaint came in because someone was overly concerned about zoning. I think they decided they didn’t like us and wanted us out.  So they figured out what we were doing was probably against the rules and they called the city. We elected to close down because we knew we couldn’t fight being closed down once this came to the city’s attention. I knew we were living in a commercial space, it hung like the sword of damocles over our heads for  12 years, but somehow it all worked out ok and lots of cool shows happened until someone decided it was more important to rat us out. So yes somebody called in a complaint and the upshot  is we had to close down. If you are looking for some conspiracy, too bad, it just sucked. And if you think we didn’t deserve to live there because you are a champion of zoning laws then I apologize for offending you, I just did what I had to to keep my little theater alive for as long as I could.