Former Rivoli Theatre, 1941 San Pablo Ave. in Berkeley. Photo: John Storey

I venture to say that most people who have driven by the 99¢ Only Stores on San Pablo Avenue just north of University Avenue have never stopped and gone inside. I further venture to say that most people who have shopped at the 99¢ Only Stores have never stopped and looked up. Those who stop and those who look up are in for a quirky treat.

The 99¢ Only Stores at 1941 San Pablo is the former home of the Rivoli Theatre, built in 1924-1925. It seated 1,402 and changed shows four times a week. As a result of changing movie-going habits, the Rivoli first limited screenings to weekends, then closed as a movie theater in the 1950s. Since then, it has been a Long’s Drugs, a Smart and Final grocery store, and now – a 99¢ Only Store.

There is nothing uniquely Berkeley about the vestigial Rivoli Theatre, and I don’t suggest that the culture of Berkeley produced this movie-palace marvel. I only suggest that it is marvelous and quirky and worth a visit.

There is a well-known photo of a steel Berkeley sign from early in the 20th century:

San Pablo Avenue looking north at University Avenue. Photo: Berkeley Historical Society

The photographer was standing on San Pablo Avenue facing north, standing just south of University Avenue. You can see the Rivoli Theatre, before a marquee was added, on the right side of the photo. The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association has in its archives some low-resolution, but wonderful, photos of the theatre.  Here is one of the exterior:

Rivoli Theatre, 1941 San Pablo Ave. Photo from the archives of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

Today we can still see the central fountain tower with its elaborate Moorish tracery relief detailing:

Exterior of the former Rivoli Theatre at 1941 San Pablo Ave. Photo: John Storey

According to a 1978 Historic Resources Inventory prepared by Betty Marvin in 1978: “The Rivoli boasted a spacious lobby with women’s lounge and men’s smoking room. The ‘portals of music’ for the Hope-Jones Orchestral Organ were ‘canopied balconies suggestive of pulpits.’ The walls were treated to look like pillars and massive stone blocks; the cast plaster cornices around the auditorium display lyres, comedy and tragedy masks, and ‘women trumpeters in pairs.’”

The interior? A glorious juxtaposition of hyperactive, sensory-overload bargain basement consumerism and the grandeur of a golden-age movie theater, a little worse for the wear but still proud and free from the hidden suspended ceilings that once masked the original ceiling.

Interior of the former Rivoli Theatre at 1941 San Pablo Ave. Photo: John Storey
Female trumpeter in the former Rivoli Theatre at 1941 San Pablo Ave. Photo: John Storey
Ceiling detail at the former Rivoli Theatre at 1941 San Pablo Ave. Photo: John Storey

The runaway mylar balloons are frosting on the cake — gild on the refined gold.

So stark is the contrast between yesterday and today at the former Rivoli that Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, photographic chroniclers of the ruins of Detroit, include a photo of the Rivoli in their portfolio of forgotten movie palaces.

Tom Dalzell, a labor lawyer, created a website, Quirky Berkeley, to share all the whimsical objects he has captured with his iPhone. The site now has more than 8,600 photographs of quirky objects around town as well as posts where the 30-year resident muses on what it all means. This is the seventeenth installment in the series.

For a fuller treatment of the former Rivoli Theatre, see Dalzell’s post at Quirky Berkeley.

Want to know what else is going on in Berkeley and nearby? Visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. And submit your own events — the calendar if self-serve and free.

Freelancer Tom Dalzell has lived in Berkeley since 1984. After working for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers for 10 years as a legal worker and then lawyer, he went to work for another labor union...