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City Arts & Lectures Has a New Home in San Francisco

Nourse Auditorium

You’ve gotta love this familiar, whiskey-hued voice as it greets KQED listeners on lazy Sunday afternoons with, “Welcome to City Arts and Lectures, a season of talks and on-stage conversations recorded before a live theater audience in San Francisco. I'm Linda Hunt.”

For 32 years, City Arts & Lectures founder Sydney Goldstein has rolled out a parade of literary rock stars including Joan Didion, Tony Kushner, and Calvin Trillin (whom she considers a godfather to her kids). The format is loosely based on “The Dick Cavett Show” and it still works. Goldstein got her start running a pro-and-con women’s lib series for College of Marin in the seventies with prominent guests like Lily Tomlin, Ella Fitzgerald, and Gladys Knight. Sitting in a box at a chamber music concert at the Herbst Theatre, Goldstein asked her husband, “Wouldn’t it be fun to see Susan Sontag speak in this theater?” Her “experimental series” opened with Fran Lebowitz, Sontag, Jerzy Kosinski, and Ray Bradbury in 1980, and it was an instant success.

Through the years, the Herbst Theatre has been City Arts' headquarters, but due to an upcoming retrofit renovation at the Herbst, City Arts had to find a temporary new home. On a recent trip to Havana, Goldstein remembered Robert Polidori’s photo of “a beautiful mess of a theater” and realized renovating the Nourse Theatre could be achieved with the same faded glamour. The Nourse shares a similar history of fascinating performers like Jim Morrison and Allen Ginsberg, but has been shuttered and used as a storage facility since 1986–until now. With the help of a kind fire marshal, Meyer Sound Laboratories who donated expensive speakers, and her trusted contractor, the Spanish-Revival theater has been restored to its former glory.

Goldstein prides herself on the lessons she learned from her parents (her father was a jeweler and her mother in fashion retailing), which have made her determined to keep ticket prices affordable. A petite force of nature, she is full of stories about her former guests and even struck up a correspondence with Doris Lessing on her IBM Selectric. When Lessing stopped writing, Goldstein asked her, “What happened? You get a Nobel Prize and you stop writing.” She says Mike Nichols remains the one guest she hasn’t been able to book she longs to nab.

A self-confessed “ineffective perfectionist,” Goldstein claims “neurosis” is the secret to her success. She says, “We have presented many different parts of our cultural landscape, we’ve made people laugh, and we’ve made them think.”

This May, City Arts & Lectures will unveil the newly refurbished Nourse with a riveting lineup of guests: Michael Lewis, David Remnick, Fran Lebowitz, Paul Farmer, Adam Savage & John Hodgman, and David Simon & David Chang. In June, Gloria Steinem & Letty Cottin Pogrebbin and Temple Grandin. We can’t wait to see who will appear there next.