Sutro’s: The Palace at Lands End

Sutro's: The Palace at Lands End (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Tom Wyrsch
viewed: 11/12/2011 at the Balboa Theater, SF, CA

From my earliest times of living in San Francisco, now over 20 years, I, like many others before and since, developed an appreciation for the Sutro Ruins at Land’s End near the Cliff House.  Just a month or two ago, I walked the kids up there and we explored the cave that the waves shoot under, traipsed across the stone bulwark and traced the leftover walls by foot.  It also sparked their imagination.  Hardly the ruins of old Rome or Stonehenge or anything, it is the footprint of the Sutro Baths, a Victorian-era creation which most locals know of via some iconic photographs that suggest its immensity.

I even knew that Adolph Sutro, who had the thing built, was a mayor of San Francisco and had once owned most of the Western part of the city, including the nearby park that also bears his name.

But what I didn’t know…

Sutro’s: The Palace at Lands End is a documentary by local film-maker Tom Wyrsch and is presently playing at the Balboa Theater, not a whole long way from where Sutro’s once stood.  Wyrsch has also had another film that ran similarly, Remembering Playland at the Beach (2010), also about a seaside treasure of San Francisco’s that went the way of the dodo.

The film about Sutro’s does indeed shed light on what must have been an amazing place, even more amazing than the famous poster-sized photo of the huge baths.  The building had any number of restaurants in it, over 500 changing rooms, and a massive collection of collections, from Egyptian mummies to stuffed animals, one diorama after another, things weird and wild, all under glass true to the Victorian sensibilities.

The film is shot on video, mainly of a couple of local historians or patrons who recall the place in its later years.  But the film is loaded with images from the collections of a woman who fell into the treasure trove of photographs and negatives and other memorabilia.  For San Francisco locals or anyone interested in the city’s rich past, it’s really quite eye-opening.  I certainly came away far more amazed and appreciative (and disappointed that it is lost to time).

The quality of the production is good but vaguely amateurish.  Locally, even our Public Broadcasting channels tend to make more polished work than this.  Actually, the film could have used a bit more structure and cohesion.  For instance, after starting out with Adolph Sutro’s birth, his career, and his build of the fantastic place, his death is mentioned only briefly in passing.  It wouldn’t be too hard to bring it together more.

Still, I don’t mean to complain.  I think that Tom Wyrsch’s efforts are all in good intent and appreciation.  I think the kids found it interesting.  They certainly learned a thing or two and it’s nice to be able to tie it to a place that they know and have tramped across (and no doubt will tramp across again).

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