Permits from the city for the Emporium—a combination bar and arcade on Divisadero—dragged on and the Chicago-born and raised entrepreneur, Danny Marks began to fret.
“I asked a friend if I was supposed to grease the wheels,” he explained in the hollowed-out space of the old Harding Theater that opened in 1926, and that was named after the twenty-ninth U.S. President.
“No,” he was told. “Things just move slowly in San Francisco.”
Still, on a recent Wednesday morning, with the forty-fifth president in the White House, electricians, carpenters, plumbers and contractors dashed this way and that way. Next-door neighbors gaped at the multi-million-dollar makeover, while Danny Marks himself poured over blueprints and wondered when his big project might be completed.
As he knew, it’s far more challengingly to build, or rebuild or renovate in San Francisco in 2017 than it was 1926. Materials cost more and skilled labor is harder to come-by; most workers can’t afford to live in the city and so they commute three-hours round trip to get to and from the job. Then, too, projects take much longer to complete, with or without payoffs, bribes and the less blatant forms of corruption that once tainted the construction industry.
Danny Marks grew up in the 1980s and 1990s when he played the kinds of video games that he’s bringing back to the Emporium. He’s also a throw back, at least in his thinking, to an earlier era when entrepreneurs greased the wheels on a regular basis.
If he were to be faulted for suggestion that he had pay off an inspector, he ought to be forgiven.
After all, in Chicago, his hometown, that’s how business was conducted, at least in the 1960s and 1970s when his parents, Jerald and Pamela Marks, built, owned and operated movie theaters, bowling alleys and roller-skating rinks.
“Chicago was mob-run and the entertainment industry was a great place to launder money, though that’s not what my parents did,” Danny Marks said. “Like them, I operate aboveboard.”
Now, the Marks Brothers, Danny, 36, and Doug, 33, aim to reinvent entertainment in San Francisco for the age of instant communication.
“We’re not talking about sitting in a dark movie theater for hours and staring at a big screen,” Danny said. “This generation doesn’t care much about going on a date to the movies, driving a fancy car and living in an expensive house. It wants to collect experiences and share them on Instagram.”
Five-years old when Nintendo arrived in the world, and a self-defined member of the Nintendo generation, Danny grew up playing Space Invaders, Asteroids, Galaga and the ever popular Pac-Man that replaced the old pinball machines, though they never disappeared entirely.
Movies like The Blues Brothers and American Graffiti helped keep pinball culture alive, as did rock stars like Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who, with Tommy, their rock opera, about a “deaf, dumb, and blind boy” who becomes a pinball wizard.
The Marks Brothers are betting that at least two generations will flock to the Emporium at 616 Divisadero, then belly up to one of the bars, wander into the arcade, play pinball, air hockey, sky ball and shoot pool. There will also be live music and movies, too, on a screen that’s thirty-feet wide and sixteen feet tall.
The Marks brothers own and operate three successful bar arcades in Chicago, where Doug holds down the fort, while Danny plays high roller in San Francisco. Their Chicago followers include gamers, bar flies and connoisseurs of craft beers.
“San Francisco and Chicago are both great American cities,”
Danny Marks said. “Here, everyone cares too much. There, no one cares at all. In both places, people love bars and arcades.”
Danny Marks attended Tulane in New Orleans where he studied philosophy, then played in bands, worked in bars and became a booking agent for musicians. When a visitor to the Emporium told him that Karl Marx insisted that change took place faster in California than anywhere else, Marks thought for a second and replied, “Maybe change is deeper here than elsewhere.”
At New York University, he enrolled in the entertainment, media & technology program, but didn’t finish. He met his future wife, Laura, proposed, got married, and then bought a big house for $200,000, and settled in Jackson, Mississippi—now his hometown. Marks considers it a steal.
Almost every week, he flies from Jackson to Chicago and then to San Francisco. If it’s Monday, he knows he must be in the Emporium at 616 Divisadero Street, conferring with Michael Lacina, 60, the president of JK Sound who’s in charge of the audio, the video and the lighting—all digital.
“I was elated when Danny invited me to work on the project, Lacina said. “After all, it’s in my neighborhood and Yoshi’s SF, one of my favorite haunts, recently shuttered. I was happy that a new venue was going to open.”
Lacina added, “The first time I walked through the building, I knew I had a big challenge ahead of me. It’s 110 feet from the dance floor to the upper reaches of the balcony. The system we have created has a minimum of reflected sound and a maximum of direct sound that greatly improves clarity and intelligibility.”
On Mondays, Danny Marks also confers with Mark Huff, 43, the general contractor who keeps his eyes on the clock and on the contractors and subcontractors, but doesn’t do any of the actual work himself.
“I took the tools off seven years ago, and haven’t put them back on,” he said. He added. “Just getting the guys to come to work on time is a big part of my job.”
Huff, who comes from Cleveland, also gives guided tours of the building at 616 Divisadero, where he spends nearly all his waking hours and that’s perfectly suited for a history lesson.
“In the 1960s, the San Francisco Lamplighters light-opera company performed hundreds of shows here,” Huff explains. “Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead played here. Legend has it that Sun Ra held the stage for 72-hours straight. Before it went down hill, the building was a church. Skateboarders invaded and sprayed graffiti on the walls and floors. Homeless people moved in and took over. For a long time it was empty.”
What drew Danny Marks to 616 Divisadero was its history, from the 1920s to the start of the twenty-first century.
“This place is emblematic of the changes San Francisco has been through,” he said. “Now, we’re taking the past into the future.”
To launch his project and transform the Harding Theater into his bar/arcade, Danny Marks courted citizens’ groups, like the Alamo Square Neighborhood Association in the Western Addition, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s President, London Breed, who gave him her blessings for the project.
“We have a very sweet deal with the landlord, Michael Klestoff,” Danny Marks said. “He paid for much of the restoration and we’re getting 12,000-square-feet for $30,000 a month.”
Klestoff and his partners have owned the property for fourteen-years. For most of that time there was no tenant.
“We’re very happy to have Danny there now,” Klestoff said. “We think the Emporium is a good addition to the Western Addition.”
The Marks Brothers own and operate a medical marijuana dispensary in Chicago. Danny Marks is thinking about a pot venture in Humboldt County, but he’s not planning to bring marijuana to San Francisco. BASA, a long-running dispensary, operates two blocks away.
“We don’t want cannabis to compromise our liquor license,” he said. “People will show up to the Emporium stoned, anyway.”
He looked from the stage to the balcony one hundred feet away, and then back to the stage.
“I’ve worked on this project for three years,” he said. “When we open in January 2018 we’ve got to make a big splash.”
Maybe he would do just that. Maybe the Chicago entrepreneur knew what San Francisco wanted and needed, more than San Francisco itself knew or understood. In any case, change had come to 616 Divisadero in a big way. Nearly all its history been lost, perhaps forever.