It's history versus science fiction at San Francisco City Hall as the Board of Supervisors debates whether to allow its venerable chambers to be used to film scenes for the next Robin Williams movie.
The Walt Disney Corp. appeared before the supervisors' Finance and Labor Committee yesterday to ask permission to use the recently reopened chambers for four days of filming for ,"Bicentennial Man" either in April or June.
The response was anything but promising, setting up a debate at the full board next week on how hospitable San Francisco wants to be to the film industry.
The board chambers, lined in Manchurian oak, are a highlight of the Beaux Art building and national landmark that reopened last month after four years and $300 million of remodeling work.
"That room, aside from the rotunda, is the most significant space in the building. Whether filming there cheapens it is a policy issue for the board," said city architect Tony Irons.
"Approving this request would open up potential uses by others," said Gloria Young, clerk of the Board of Supervisors. "If you approve this one, what does it mean for future requests?"
Deputy City Attorney Ted Lakey warned the committee that approving the Disney shoot could set a precedent. "You couldn't reject someone based on the nature of their organization or the content of their message," he said.
"That's all pretty somber advice," board President Tom Ammiano said after hearing the city officials testify. "I'm nervous about this. Opening the window of opportunity for increased use of the chambers is not appetizing to me."
"Bicentennial Man," based on a novel by the late Isaac Asimov, is a colossal Disney production. In the science fiction story set 200 years in the future, Williams plays a robot who wants to become a man. The film will be Disney's Christmas 1999 feature.
Almost all of the movie will be shot in the Bay Area. A few hundred union workers are already busy building sets and doing other preliminary work before shooting starts.
Ed Raymond, local representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said that for his members alone the production means $8 million to $10 million in wages.
The mayor's administration wants the movie shot at City Hall. "It's very important because it sends a message to Hollywood that San Francisco is film-friendly," said Carole Isaacs of the city film office.
Willie Brown, who has no control over the chambers, said his chief concern would be that no physical damage is done to the supervisors' room, or anyplace else in City Hall.
"You ought to be concerned about damage, in decision-making relating to this building, and you ought to be extraordinarily protective," said the mayor, who advocates opening the building for civic and private functions, as long as people pay rent, clean up and do not do damage.
The chambers has been used only once before in a movie, "Class Action" starring Gene Hackman, filmed in 1989.
Why is the chambers so vital to Disney? "It's gorgeous," said Rory Enke, location manager for "Bicentennial Man."
"The room is about light, and what you can do with light in that room. It's remarkable," Enke said.
If he gets approval from the full board Monday, Enke said he plans to hire the Farnsworth Co., movers for museums, to remove and store the furniture.
Disney wants the chambers for four days at a rate of $5,000 a day, from a Thursday through Sunday. It would film on the first two days and then break down sets and restore furniture.
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle