Proposed renovations of the Berkeley Community Theater would keep the Art Deco exterior intact. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The Berkeley High Community Theater once hosted performers like Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead. But for many years, it’s barely even supported student functions.

Now Berkeley Unified has drawn up plans to renovate the neglected 3,500-seat theater, one of the largest in Northern California, as well as the connected classroom space and Florence Schwimley Little Theater. Eventually, the district wants to cut the Community Theater seats down to 1,200.

The cost of the full project is $106.4 million — money BUSD does not have. Instead, the district plans to start with somewhat more modest renovations of the performing-arts classrooms and Community Theater stage. That project is still expected to cost $38 million, including seismic and accessibility improvements. The work would be funded with existing revenue from Measure I, the 2010 school facilities bond.

District staffers hope to get the go-ahead on the renovations from the School Board in the next month or two and to break ground in summer 2020 after getting a state permit. They expect the project to take two years to complete.

The Berkeley High Afro-Haitian dance program uses the Community Theater for performances. Photo: Mark Coplan

A small but passionate crowd turned out Monday night for a community meeting on the plan. The 20 or so people took up a tiny section of the vast Art Deco theater, built in the 1940s.

Many of the building’s historic features — the rippled walls, the ceiling, the relief sculptures of trumpet players on the exterior — would be preserved. The theaters sit in two different landmarked zones, so the district is required by state law to keep those elements.

Otherwise, the full project will “essentially demolish this entire building and keep the walls up,” said Bill Savidge, a facilities consultant with BUSD. The Community Theater rigging would need to come down to enable the seismic work.

“There’s just such a need to take this and clean it up and create a more usable space,” said architect Brent McClure, with the firm CAW. “Everything’s really worn. There are a lot of unsafe conditions for students and no place to gather. The only access door to the stage is off the street.”

Staff and architects explained Monday that the initial phase would connect and expand the disjointed, isolated classrooms in the “A Building,” attached to the Community Theater.

“The first time you tour through the classroom building, you feel like you need a compass and a map,” said John Calise, the new BUSD faculties director.

The renovations would nearly double the classroom space, creating facilities for a scene shop attached to the stage, a drama light lab, a recording studio and a digital design classroom, presenters said. The plans for the new offerings are part of a recent focus on career technical education in BUSD and nationally. The proposal also adds a student lobby and a more prominent entrance to the A Building.

During construction, the 17 classes affected by the work would be relocated to new portables, Savidge said.

The first phase of the plan also creates a hallway behind the stage, allowing performers to cross from side to side for the first time ever. That feature was requested repeatedly during the 20 or so planning meetings held at Berkeley High so far, Savidge said. The addition of the walkway would reduce the stage depth significantly, by about 25 feet.

Some people at Monday’s meeting said the stage and seating reduction would prevent the Community Theater from ever becoming a world-class venue again.

The Community Theater is home to the second largest Wurlitzer organ in the U.S. It would stay put during construction. Members of an organ society came to Monday’s meeting. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

In the 1960s and 70s, and into the 80s and 90s, the theater was regularly packed with fans of Ike and Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell, Santana and countless other performers and speakers. Hendrix played there during his final tour in 1970.

“This won’t be that kind of theater anymore,” said Nicolie Bolster-Ott, a former member of the BUSD Construction Bond Oversight Committee, Monday. After the meeting, she said she views the deterioration of the theater, and its fall from grace, as a result of the district’s decisions not to invest in upgrades over the years.

Some accessibility features were added several years ago as part of the settlement of a lawsuit.

“The changes that have been made recently to this building have all been made in a vacuum,” said Judson Owens, the former 30-year manager of the Community Theater. He said the venue would be popular once again if more people knew about it. When he was in charge, he said, the large size of the theater made it a strong competitor of nearby venues like the Paramount.

“We used to steal shows from them all the time,” Owens said.

The expansion of the Downtown Berkeley arts district in the years the Community Theater has been largely out of use, including the reopening of the UC Theatre, introduce new factors that could affect the renovated venue. The Community Theater could add something new to the array of performing arts options, or it could struggle next to professional competitors.

The project architects, with Palo Alto-based CAW, said they surveyed dozens of comparable venues. There is heavy demand for theaters with 600-800 seats, not 3,500, they said. There are unavoidable limitations to the theater’s popularity, like the state prohibition of alcohol sales at school facilities, and the district’s scheduled uses of the site, they said.

At Berkeley High, which has more than 3,000 students, the full student body almost never uses theater at once, mostly for security reasons.

The proposed scheme for the first floor of the building, annotated by architects. Photo: CAW presentation
The proposed scheme for the second floor of the building, annotated by architects. Photo: CAW presentation

In a rare case in 2009, the whole school squeezed into the theater to watch President Barack Obama’s inauguration, a moving and unifying event, said Bolster-Ott. Recently, every seat in the theater was filled for a rally with Senator Bernie Sanders. Typically, however, the largest crowd the space draws these days is around 1,200 people who come for the Berkeley High Afro-Haitian dance performances, according to project planners. Other student shows are held in the Little Theater, which has fewer than 600 seats.

Staff emphasized that the seat reduction would come way down the line, if at all.

That work is likely dependent on the passage of a new facilities bond measure in 2020.

The theater renovation was included on the original list of Measure I projects and was the most significant project on the list when the remaining $112.6 million in bond revenue was reallocated in 2017.

Other big district construction projects are in the works. A major renovation of Oxford Elementary is scheduled for 2019-20, which will displace the entire school. Meanwhile, BUSD is working on renovations of its West Campus, so it can serve as a temporary site for schools during projects like Oxford’s. West Campus has been floated as potential new elementary school too.

The first phase of the Community Theater project will likely come before the board in January or February. Calise said there will be other opportunities for the public to weigh in.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...