Camera Phone Theatre: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

When I went to grammar school, history classes were still mostly dates and timelines featuring armed conflicts, colonialist expansion, and (what I liked best) invention stories. We learned about mechanical ingenuity ushering in the industrial revolution, facilitating economic expansion, and with Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, leading to increased enslavement of millions of people. (Actually, the nuns at Star of the Sea didn’t emphasize that last part.)

Often tossed into the list of important technological achievements—perhaps because it seemed more relevant to a 1970s fourth grader—were motion pictures and the break-through addition of sound to feature films with Al Jolson in the The Jazz Singer in 1927. (His character in minstrel blackface for the big number was something else the textbooks and nuns didn’t get into).

But a decade before the introduction of “talkies,” audiences could hear film characters love, declaim, and wax poetic at the Camera Phone theatre, which opened in 1908 on Fillmore Street with “Pictures that talk like Living People!” 

Camera Phone Theatre, 1908.The Camera Phone Theatre on west side of Fillmore Street between Ellis and Eddy Streets, 1908. (wnp5.50463; Jack Tillmany Collection.)

In 1908, motion pictures were still somewhat a novelty and theatres such as the Camera Phone operated out of simple storefronts. This was just a couple of years after the great earthquake and fire, and Fillmore Street, beyond the burned zone, established itself as major commercial corridor while downtown was being reconstructed. Decorative iron archways spanned intersections and many clothing and furnishings stores moved to Fillmore Street after the fires. 

Fillmore Street near Eddy, 1908.View south at iron arches and Great White Fleet decorations at Fillmore and Eddy Streets, 1908. (wnp26.2082; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)

The arrival of the U.S. Navy’s “Great White Fleet” had the whole city decorated with flags, bunting, warship artwork, and in the photo of the Camera Phone at top, a decorative curbside pillar with a battleship model. The image is from the collection of theatre historian Jack Tillmany, who explained on the excellent San Francisco Theatres blog 1908 talking picture “technology”:

“Simple. Hire a company of live people to read the words in synch (more or less) with the players on the screen in films, which they accompanied around the country! No microphones yet, so they used megaphones! Impractical? Just a bit, from a number of points of view; for instance, how much did they pay the speakers, and how and where did the cost of their travel & boarding come from? Even if they raised the admission from 5 cents to 10 cents, a capacity audience would only yield $50. But there was actually a circuit of such sites across the country, for a short time! And the films only ran one reel (about 15 minutes).”

Just across the street from the Camera Phone, the operators of the rival Electric Theatre brought in their own sound in the form of the “Human Ova Talking Picture Co.” 

Electric Theatre, 1909.Human Ova Talking Picture Co. cast in front of the Electric Theatre on east side of Fillmore Street between Ellis and Eddy Streets, December 1909. (wnp5.50504; Jack Tillmany Collection.)

The gimmick wasn’t around for long. Both the Camera Phone and Electric closed by 1912, victims of poor business and increased fire department regulations. In 2019, the block is occupied by residential towers, the Fillmore Heritage Center, and storefronts built in the mid-2000s.

Gas Station Santa: A Closer Look

by John Freeman 

Shell Station at Fell and Baker Streets with elaborate holiday decorations, 1927.Shell Station at Fell and Baker Streets with elaborate holiday decorations, December 1927. (wnp4.1895; courtesy of a private collector.)

During the boom times of the 1920s, the automobile, which previously had a reputation previously as a plaything of the rich, started to become more affordable and attractive to wider social groups.

Here in the Bay Area, the infrastructure needed to be changed to meet this personal transportation marvel of the ages. In San Francisco, traffic lights had to be installed to control traffic on major streets by mid-decade, and service stations popped up everywhere to meet the petroleum needs of those machines. Shell Company of California was competing with Standard Oil of California and independent stations to tap that market. In 1926, Shell had 14 stations in the city, and added 20 more by 1927. Major motoring routes added gas stations, and the competition became brisk, with stations offering prizes or decorations to draw in the drivers.

A new Shell Station opened on gas-station-competitive Fell Street at the corner of Baker Street to lure in the traffic on this major driving route to the western part of San Francisco. By Christmas time, this Shell Station added a huge holiday tableau, complete with a 25-foot Santa flanked by two brightly colored nutcracker-style soldiers. An ad ran in local newspapers on December 10, 1927, encouraging children to pester Pop to drive them over to Fell and Baker that evening at 7 p.m. for free candy and balloons. At the station, the attendants pumped gasoline dressed in elf costumes. It was quite a spectacle. 

San Francisco Chronicle newspaper advertisement for holiday decorations at Fell and Baker Streets Shell gas station, December 10, 1927.

In 1927, the price of gasoline was 21 cents a gallon, and the station had no lube room or products to sell. That much effort for such a meager financial return is hard to fathom today, but this was the roaring 1920s, and I guess building affinity to a specific station or loyalty to the brand of gasoline must explain the extravagance of these Holiday decorations, and not profit at the pump.

A Shell Station remained on that southeast corner until the early 1960s, and was replaced by the Department of Motor Vehicle Office in 1965, where today there sure are no free candy or balloons! 

Fell and Baker gas station at Christmas, 1927Giant santa and employee dressed as elf at Shell Station at Fell and Baker Streets, December 1927. (Jack Hudson collection.)

Naples Street Pergolas: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

Many San Francisco real estate developers in the early twentieth century used place-making “street furniture” to attract attention and potential purchasers. Most installed simple columns with street lamps to act as gateways, but the new residence parks on the west side of town featured everything from massive staircases to fountains to sundials.

One of the lesser known and more interesting of these public amenities stood not in the western hills, but right off the now busy thoroughfare of Geneva Avenue near Mission Street: 

Naples Street near Geneva, September 11, 1928.Naples Street pergolas in median near Geneva Avenue, September 11, 1928. (wnp36.03706; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works book 42, image A1358.)

In the above image, city photographer Horace Chaffee captured Department of Public Works street improvements around what appears to be a Greek temple with vases and stairs up to a colonnaded platform—all protected by a reflective diamond traffic sign.

The double structure in the median is actually two pergolas, meant to be a walkway shaded by bougainvillea, roses, wisteria or other climbing woody vines. Perhaps such flowering plants had hung on the pergolas—they appear a bit worn—but were removed as part of the street work and landscaping Chaffee documented.

Stories have been passed down that the pergola median was called “Naples Piazza,” erected for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition and torn down four years later. This tale was repeated during a recent remodeling of the median. If only they asked us history folks questions when they do these projects. Obviously the “piazza” still stood in 1928: 

Naples Street near Rolph, September 11, 1928.Naples Street pergolas in median near Rolph Street, looking north to Geneva Avenue, September 11, 1928. (wnp27.0517; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works book 42, image A1357.)

And rather than 1915, the pergolas seem to have been installed in 1912 as part of the expansion of the Crocker Amazon subdivision. The Crocker Estate Company invested thousands of dollars to create wide landscaped streets and boulevards south of Geneva Avenue, and erected the pergolas as a gateway, no doubt to install feelings of a sunny Mediterranean villa garden rather than a sometimes foggy San Francisco suburb.1

The developers called the gateway Crocker Amazon’s “Civic Center” and a reported 1,000 acacia trees were planted around the entry and throughout the surrounding streets.2 In this panoramic view north in late 1912, the pergolas are just beginning to be built behind the white house at center: 

View north from Southern Hills, 1912.View north from Southern Hills, 1912. The two new houses in the foreground are on Seville Street, east of Naples Street, and Munich Street runs across the bottom of image. (wnp15.1593; glass negative courtesy of a private collector.)

Detail of wnp15.1593Detail of the above photograph with the forms of the pergolas on Naples Street under construction behind white house. A working farm and cows are the north side of Geneva Avenue. (Detail of wnp15.1593; glass negative courtesy of a private collector.)

The number of cows across the street belays any feelings of a Civic Center in the above image, and the acacia trees have not made their arrival. The fanned Crocker Amazon street plan on the slope of San Bruno Mountain had a few dozen Craftsman-style houses built through the 1910s, but was slow to fill. While there was nearby streetcar service, it was a long way to downtown. It took a booming post World War I economy and the widespread adoption of the personal automobile to start vigorous house building activity in the tract. 

Aerial view of Crocker Amazon and San Bruno Mountain, circa 1925.Aerial view of Crocker Amazon and San Bruno Mountain, circa 1925. (wnp27.4598; Crocker Estate album, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Ten years after the 1928 Horace Chaffee photographs were taken, the pergolas, and indeed the entire median, was gone, no doubt part of street and traffic “improvements.” 

Detail of 1938 aerial showing Naples and Geneva at top with median removed. (Harrison Ryker photograph; courtesy of

The good news is that in 2010 the median was landscaped with seats, pathways, and a whole “Pavement to Parks’ treatment of 18 trees and hundreds of plants. Named “Naples Green,” it’s no Greek temple, but still a very pleasant addition to the former Crocker Amazon Civic Center.


1. “Crocker-Amazon Tract,” San Francisco Examiner, January 7, 1912, pg. 40.

2. “Preparing New Tract for Homes,” San Francisco Call, October 13, 1912, pg. 36.