Historical society receives $50,000 bequest from movie house historian

PORT TOWNSEND — In 1906, an immigrant named H.S. Levin took the money he earned hauling rubble out of San Francisco after the earthquake and opened a nickelodeon.

When feature-length films came along, he turned the nickelodeon into a movie theater that eventually grew to a family-owned chain that stretched from San Francisco to Sacramento.

On Wednesday, the nickels that Levin’s customers paid to see a silent film in the old days trickled down through the estate of his grandson, Steven Levin, to the Jefferson County Historical Society, where they will be used to promote historic preservation in his adopted town.

Bill Tennent, historical society executive director, said that the $50,000 gift is one of the largest individual bequests from a will that the society has ever received.

“He loved the town, he loved the people and he loved to work with all of you,” said Steven Levin’s sister, Lois Price of Cupertino, Calif., as she presented the check to Tennent and Vicki Davis, historical society president, Wednesday at historic City Hall.

“He knew you would put it to good use.”

A San Francisco native, Steven Levin died in Port Townsend on Dec. 13 at the age of 62.

He had lived in the town since 1991, when he bought a historic house, built about 1880, in the uptown historic district.

Historic preservation

Levin served on the board of the Jefferson County Historical Society and was chairman of the Historic Preservation Committee, presenting awards for historic preservation at the group’s annual meeting.

“We talked about naming one of the awards in Steve’s name, maybe one for the best job of restoring a modest house,” Tennent said. “He was very concerned about giving recognition to small houses that people have kept up.”

According to his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Levin entered the family business, General Theatrical Company, after graduating from the University of Southern California, eventually becoming the business’ general manager.

An avid proponent of preserving the architecture and history of classic movie houses, Levin was a founding member and president of the Theatrical Historical Society of America.

He toured the country advocating the preservation of the early movie palaces, and had an extensive collection of photographs as well as furnishings and memorabilia that he had salvaged, the bulk of which will be donated to the Theatrical Historical Society, Price said.

Rose donation

The collection includes two ticket collection boxes, one of which he donated to the Rose Theatre, where it is in use in the lobby.

Levin also collected movie house pipe organs, including an organ from the historic T & D movie theater in Oakland that was installed in 1915, Price said.

Now in three storage units in Port Townsend, the organ will be shipped to a collector in Portland, Ore., Price said.

Her brother’s collection of movie theater organ music eventually will be given to the Smithsonian Museum, Price said.

Tennent said that the historical society board will determine how to use the Levin bequest.

Levin also was involved in the restoration of the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Calif., Price said, and was a consultant for the restoration of the Fox Theatre in San Jose.


Port Townsend/Jefferson County reporter-columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at jjackson@olypen.com.

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