By Frances Dinkelspiel and Tracey Taylor
The long-shuttered UC Theatre on University Avenue was buzzing again Wednesday as city officials and supporters gathered for an official groundbreaking ceremony to mark the start of the renovation of the former movie palace.
While David Mayeri, president of the Berkeley Music Group and the driver of the project, and others posed with gold shovels in front of the theater, the transformation of the 1917 building at 2036 University Ave. began in earnest inside with workers beginning to tear into the building’s floor with jackhammers.
Rehabilitating the theater is expected to cost $5.5 million — with a capital campaign still seeking $2 million worth of support. Mayeri and the five-strong board hope to put on their first show in the building this fall.
The theater will house a first-class, 1,400-seat venue that will host the kind of headliners who play at San Francisco’s Fillmore auditorium, but who can’t find a similar venue in the East Bay, said board member Ann Fischer Hecht.
“It’s exciting, very exciting,” said Mayeri, who served as the chief operating officer of Bill Graham Presents (BGP), the well-known concert promotion business, for years. “I’ve been working on it for almost seven years. It’s a labor of love.”
The new auditorium will have a state-of-the-art Meyer sound system thanks to Helen and John Meyer, who are big supporters of the UC Theatre project and have offered to do the work at a discounted price.
“The sound will be exceptional,” said Mayeri.
Construction workers started taking out the theater’s blue velvet seats March 1. The Berkeley Music Group was able to give away about 500 seats to 60 different community groups, said Mayeri. Some of the takers were local, including Berkeley Rep and Perdition Smokehouse on University Avenue.
The auditorium, which is currently sloped, will have three newly constructed tiers — a main standing area and two levels with chairs and tables — and a 32-foot-deep stage. Mayeri said the configuration should provide “great sight lines,” and would let performers and audience members feel some intimacy.
There will be a full-service restaurant and bar, Mayeri said. Chandeliers will provide multicolored lighting, and the new decor will include walls covered with fabric.
Mayeri plans to hire an independent contractor to book 75 to 100 rock-and-roll shows a year, he said. He also hopes to book organizations like the Berkeley Symphony, and host a lecture series, plays, comedy acts and films.
The Berkeley Music Group will also have an educational component and will bring in student interns to learn about music production.
“We aim to have workshops where 17- to 25-year-olds can learn the technical, creative and business aspects of the music production business,” said Robyn Bykofsky, BMG’s education development director, citing potential partners such as Berkeley Youth Alternatives, Youth Rising and the Berkeley Teen Center.
Michael Caplan, Berkeley’s economic development manager, who planted the seed of the idea to bring back the theater with Mayeri, said the new venue should create 100 full-time and 150 part-time jobs.
When Mayeri originally conceived of the project, he tried to raise private funds for the reconstruction. But that push coincided with the economic downturn. So in 2014, Mayeri created a non-profit organization, the Berkeley Music Group, to take over the project. He has raised about $3.5 million but still needs to raise another $2 million, he said. A bridge loan is allowing him to start construction.
Meantime, the work is being done with savings in mind, he said. For example, rather than spending $400,000 to upgrade the theater’s roof to support the Meyer Sound system, a ceiling-height steel truss costing $90,000 will be erected instead.
Mayeri said the group is spending $3,600 per seat of occupancy, compared to around $35,000 per seat of occupancy at Oakland’s Fox Theater.
“We are value engineering,” Mayeri said. “We’re maximizing the dollars we raise.”
The building was seismically upgraded in 2001, Mayeri said.
Since the project has been in the planning phase for so long, some people were skeptical it would ever happen, said Mayeri. He hopes the groundbreaking ceremony will demonstrate the viability of the project and bring more people to the “Turn on the Lights” campaign to help finance the operation.
Speaking at the groundbreaking Wednesday, former state assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who is serving on the UC Theatre’s capital campaign, described the venue as a community treasure. She said many people remember going there for Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings and Les Blank‘s “smellorama” films.
“Berkeley has fewer live music venues than it did in the past. When a building is shuttered it pulls the energy down in a community. The reopening of the UC Theatre will pull that energy back up,” she said.
John Caner, head of the Downtown Berkeley Association concurred, and said the immediate area of University Avenue would benefit from the theater’s revival. New developments nearby, including the StoneFire mixed-use project and the Berkeley Way West project, will bring the buzz back to the neighborhood, he said.
Connect with the Berkeley Music Group on Facebook and Twitter. Those who are interested can learn about the “Turn on the Lights” campaign and sign up for email updates on the project website.
Long-shuttered UC Theatre to get new life (04.14.14)
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