Visions of how Solano Avenue's Oaks Theater could one day look. Illustrations: Miguel Lievano
Visions of how Solano Avenue’s Oaks Theatre could one day look if Laurie Capitelli’s vision becomes a reality. Illustration: Miguel Lievano
Visions of how Solano Avenue’s Oaks Theatre could one day look if Laurie Capitelli’s vision becomes a reality. Illustration: Miguel Lievano

The possible transformation into a performance space of the shuttered Oaks Theatre on Solano Avenue remains uncertain, but the final word on the deal could come sometime in November, according to several people involved with the transaction.

In the meantime, local real estate agent and council member Laurie Capitelli has been raising awareness, surveying the public and drumming up pledges of financial support to the tune of more than $120,000.

The Oaks Theatre was, for many years, an anchor site on Solano Avenue. It was built as a single-screen theater in 1925 and upgraded to two screens in 1973. Renaissance Rialto Theaters operated the Oaks between 1994 and 2005, and the Metropolitan Theaters Corporation ran it until 2010. Merriment Media used the theater to show Bollywood flicks for several months in 2010, but the company lost its lease after it failed to pay rent for three months.

Capitelli, along with the Youth Musical Theater Company, formed a task force to spearhead the campaign to renovate the auditorium to remove the wall that separates the two theaters, take out several hundred seats from the balcony, and rebuild the main stage as a single performance space. The idea would be to bring together a group of anchor tenants from a range of arts organizations, and also potentially to offer simulcast viewings of special events like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl, as well as host film festivals or smaller symposiums or panels.

Last week, Capitelli spoke to a group of 40-50 neighbors from the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association about his plans for the theater.

“They were all encouraging,” he said Tuesday. “Many indicated they’d be willing to provide some small amount of financial support. There are models out there, like the Lark in Larkspur, that are partly supported by a very enthusiastic community that wants to see it be successful.”

Illustration: Miguel Lievano
Illustration: Miguel Lievano

Capitelli said he will continue to collect feedback and pledges of support via a Survey Monkey poll that will run through Sunday night. He invited members of the public to participate, and said many people who have taken the poll live in the area immediately around the theater. (He too lives in North Berkeley, and represents Council District 5.) More than 1,000 people had taken the poll as of mid-September.

Still to be determined, however, is whether landlord and property owner John Gordon will agree to the deal Capitelli has offered. Negotiations are underway, and Capitelli said a resolution could come in the next few weeks.

Dave Fogarty, of Berkeley’s Office of Economic Development, was invited to last week’s neighborhood meeting to weigh in on the state of business on Solano Avenue. He said Capitelli has made “quite a bit of progress” on his plans, and agreed that residents who attended the meeting want to see the dream become a reality.

“They all love the idea,” said Fogarty. “Some people regretted in a minor way that it wasn’t going to be a movie theater, but other than that it was general enthusiasm.”

Added Jane Tierney, who organized and attended the meeting as president of the Thousand Oaks association board, “So far there’s a lot of public support. There weren’t any negative comments about the ideas.”

Tierney said Berkeley architect Donn Logan, who worked on both Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre and The Freight & Salvage, is involved with the project. Tables and comfortable stadium-style seating inside the theater, a concession area in the lobby and dressing rooms in the back are all part of the vision for the project. (Gordon received permission from the city in 2012 to sell beer and wine, as well as quick-service food, at the theater, though the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control does not appear to have an application on file at this time.) Tierney said Capitelli is also in the midst of securing agreements from nearby business owners with large parking lots to let their parking be used for theater-goers.

The project could take at least $400,000 to retrofit, she said. A number of ownership ideas, such as a non-profit charter, were discussed as a possible financial solution; the non-profit would seek a range of funding sources, including from the public, to accomplish the necessary changes.

“This whole idea has come about by people in the public bringing it forward,” she said. “It’s really a public effort.”

Tierney pointed to Capitelli’s history of helping save The Elmwood’s Rialto Cinemas on College Avenue as one reason the project could ultimately work. The Elmwood nearly closed for good after a fire in 1988 put it out of business for several years. When a developer tried to win approval for a mall in the space, numerous people, including Capitelli, came forward to say, “We can’t let that happen.” Tierney said the group of funders turned the venue into a non-profit to maintain it as a theater. (Capitelli is on the board of the Elmwood Theater Foundation, which purchased the theater in 1991.)

“Every time I bring it up to people they’re like, ‘Great idea!’” she said, of Capitelli’s plans for the Oaks. “And nobody could pull it off but him, because he’s done it before.”

Tierney also said, if the project for some reason doesn’t go through, Capitelli has promised to return any of the public money he collects in the future.

Property owner John Gordon could not be reached for comment. Berkeleyside reported in September that Gordon had agreed to hold off on renting the space for four months, as the task force worked on fundraising and organizing.

According to Gordon’s website, the Oaks was designed by the Reid Brothers in 1925 in the “modified Moorish” style, was remodeled in the Art Deco style in 1935, and has seating for 1,000 people. The property, which has “historical landmark” status, spans 16,000 square feet and has an asking lease rate of $10,400 per month.

Capitelli’s task force would need to submit plans to the city by the end of the year to get up and running by September 2014, Capitelli said last month.

The Oaks Theatre may be reborn as performance space (09.16.13)
Oaks Theatre on Solano closes, future uncertain (01.03.11)
International flavor on the cards for Oaks Theatre (04.29.10)
Thousand Oaks Theatre to reopen with new focus (04.01.10)

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...