Berkeley High graduation ceremony at the Greek Theatre in 2013. The 2019 ceremony will be at a new venue. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Scroll down for update on the question of when BHS first held a graduation at the Greek.

It’s the end of an era for Berkeley High with the announcement today that it would no longer be holding its all-school graduation ceremony at the Greek Theatre, beginning this summer.

The decision, which will likely come as a blow to the class of 2019, was made due to “capacity, accessibility, security and cost” issues at the UC Berkeley-owned venue, wrote the school’s top management in an email sent out to the BHS community around 8:30 a.m. BUSD and Cal shared the same concerns, according to both organizations.

The district said it is “actively exploring” using the Haas Pavilion on the UC Berkeley campus for this year’s ceremony. The pavilion, on Frank Schlessinger Way, is used by Cal for basketball, volleyball and gymnastics and has 8,000 seats when set up for graduations, according to Cal. It is an indoor venue, unlike the Greek, which, while offering a dramatic setting for graduation ceremonies, did expose students and spectators to the weather – often sunny and hot during the June ceremony.

Another change is switching from a Friday evening ceremony to one that, starting this year, will be held on Saturday during the day. This year’s graduation will be on Saturday, June 15, with a start time of around 1 p.m., according to the district.

BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans, BHS Principal Erin Schweng and Heidi Weber, principal of Alternative Programs, who all signed Thursday’s email message, said key considerations that informed the decision to relocate the graduation were: parking, accessibility, entrance points, security and seating for patrons, especially those with disabilities. They also said the cost and availability for staffing and security is “significantly better” for daytime events.

Using the Haas Pavilion, with its larger capacity, would allow graduates to have more guests at the ceremony, too. Currently there is a limit on the number of graduation tickets allocated per student as the Greek can only seat 3,910, according to UC Berkeley.

Berkeley High graduation in 2013. The Greek can seat 3,910 compared to the Haas Pavilion’s 8,000. Photo: Tracey Taylor
Berkeley High graduation in 2013. The Greek can seat 3,910 compared to the Haas Pavilion’s 8,000. Photo: Tracey Taylor

“The new venue offers significant improvements in comfort, capacity, accessibility, audio/video quality and other amenities that provide exciting possibilities for creating meaningful and memorable graduation traditions,” BUSD wrote in its email. “Our goal is to have a graduation ceremony that is comfortable, accessible, safe, and open to graduates’ family members and friends for a very celebratory and joyful event. We are working hard to confirm a location that fulfills all of those requirements, and we will write again soon with more details.”

UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore said, “Both the campus and Berkeley Unified School District officials have had mutual concerns about holding the event at the Greek. We are pleased to host this event and are happy to work in partnership with the school district to ensure a successful and memorable event at the UC Berkeley campus venue the school district selects.” Gilmore also pointed out that the Haas Pavilion is closer to Berkeley High, provides more parking and public transportation options, and avoids graduation attendees having to walk up the hill to the Greek.

Karen Racanelli, the mother of two recent Berkeley High graduates, said she was disappointed to hear the news.

“I loved the Greek as it provided the right scale and context for the large and diverse BHS population,” she said. “There was room for family and friends and accommodation for both elderly people and one on crutches in my experience of attending two graduations there.”

Another parent of two BHS grads, Stephanie McKown, agreed on the merits of the Greek: “Personally I loved it there. Great ambiance and history,” she said. “Yes it required some suffering on hot or rainy days. But that was part of the adventure.”

The Hearst Greek Theater on Gayley Road was built in 1903 on the site of a rough outdoor bowl already in use as an amphitheater since 1894 known as “Ben Weed’s Amphitheater,” according to Wikipedia. Berkeley High, whose current campus was established in 1901, has been holding its graduation ceremonies there for at least the past 45 years, said Gilmore. BUSD spokesman Charles Burress said he had seen documentation of the BHS graduation being held at the Greek as early as 1967. It was held in the Berkeley Community Theater earlier, he said.

Berkeley High students also saw the loss recently of another longstanding tradition when administrators decided to scrap Rally Day, part of the school’s annual Spirit Week. Rally Day was canceled at the end of the 2012-13 academic year due to concerns about “rampant alcohol abuse and accompanying hazing and bullying behavior that had seemingly become hallmarks of the celebration.”

UPDATE, Dec. 3: Larry (“Boris”) Harding wrote Berkeleyside to offer a clarification on when Berkeley High held its first all-school graduation at the Greek Theatre. Here is what he wrote:

I would like to correct your article of November 29, re: BHS Graduations at
The Greek Theater.
The first ceremony there was held for my graduating class of June, 1964, a
large class further swollen by a number of early graduates from the class
of January, 1965.
The number of participating graduates which sticks in my mind was 1,113,
which would not have allowed even two guests for each graduate in the Civic
I know that June, 1964 was the first in The Greek Theater because I also
played oboe/English horn in the Concert Orchestra for the five previous
graduations in the Civic Auditorium during my three years at BHS.
A mind- and bottom-numbing number of iterations of ‘Pomp and Circumstance.’
Larry (“Boris”) Harding

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...