$35 million gift to American Conservatory Theater means historic Geary Theater gets new name

ACT’s flagship Geary Street venue has been renamed the Toni Rembe Theater. Photo: Kevin Berne / American Conservatory Theater

Audiences to American Conservatory Theater’s “Passengers” this week are walking into a theater with a new name, thanks to a $35 million anonymous donation, the largest single gift the theater has ever received from any source — individual, foundation, corporate or government.

“It’s transformative,” Executive Director Jennifer Bielstein told The Chronicle.

On Monday, Sept. 19, the historic Geary Theater was renamed the Toni Rembe Theater, commemorating a gift from an anonymous donor made in honor of longtime ACT board member Toni Rembe, one of the first women to be named partner at a major law firm in the state. The main theater in ACT’s Strand Theater, on Market Street, is also called the Rembe Theater.

“We love Toni!” Bielstein said, adding that ACT is “exuberant and relieved and honored that someone would invest in our work at this level.”

Honoree Toni Rembe Rock with husband Arthur Rock at the Magic Theater Masquerade Gala at the Julia Morgan Ballroom in San Francisco. Photo: Jana Ašenbrennerová / Special to The Chronicle 2018

For Rembe’s part, she said in a statement that she’s “deeply honored and humbled to receive this recognition. She added that the theater “has brought a profound sense of joy and enrichment to my life and the lives of the San Francisco Bay Area community for decades.”

Before the pandemic, ACT’s annual budget was $27.5 million, which shrank to $13 million after the COVID hit. Now that the theater is producing in-person shows again, the budget has rebounded to $22 million.

The company plans to invest a supermajority of the $35 million gift so that it generates revenue annually; separately, ACT already has an endowment of $20 million, which earns approximately $1.2 million each year.

Much of the rest of the gift will help upgrade the space itself, including decades-old lighting, sound and rigging equipment. Some patron amenities, including a slow elevator, will also benefit.

Bielstein said that she and Artistic Director Pam MacKinnon had been searching for a major donor interested in naming rights since shortly after they arrived four years ago. Traffic problems and poor late-night public transit options had been deterring theatergoers even before the pandemic, she explained, and the theater needed a long-term funding source to help offset that decline in ticket sales.

Graduates Gracie Fojtik (left) and Morgan Gunter watch a video tribute at the final graduation ceremony of the American Conservatory Theater’s graduate acting program. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

In May, the theater graduated its last class of master of fine arts students, closing one of the top five graduate acting programs in the country. Tuition covered just a third of the program’s cost, and the decline in ticket-buyers made the program financially unsustainable, Bielstein said at the time. This gift isn’t earmarked for reviving the program, but Bielstein said there’s still the possibility of reinstating it one day.

“We remain in conversation with multiple potential university partners,” she said.

The Beaux Arts building seating 1,025 has had many names over its more than 100 years on Geary Street. When it opened in 1910, it was called the Columbia Theatre, getting renamed the Wilkes Theater in 1924 and the Lurie Theater in 1927 before finally becoming the Geary in 1928.

ACT began presenting in the Geary when it relocated from Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1967, and in 2006, the company renamed the space American Conservatory Theater for streamlined branding.

The company began calling the venue the Geary again after acquiring the Strand Theater, which reopened in 2015.



  • Lily Janiak
    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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