California Theatre closing: Landmark won’t reopen Berkeley’s movie palace

Landmark Theatres is vacating the century-old theater. One of downtown’s most distinctive buildings now faces an uncertain future.

The California Theatre has been shuttered since March 2020. Now Landmark Theatres, which operates the movie palace, says it is vacating its historic downtown Berkeley home. Credit: Nico Savidge

The California Theatre may have raised its curtain for the final time.

Landmark Theatres, the West Hollywood-based chain that has run the California since 1994, will not reopen the century-old downtown Berkeley movie palace that has been shuttered since the early days of the pandemic, company spokeswoman Margot Gerber confirmed Thursday.

“The landlord didn’t want to renew our lease, so we are vacating the theater,” Gerber said.

That was the news many Berkeley movie buffs had been dreading, as reports trickled out on social media that the theater was closing for good.

On Sunday, past and present theater employees gathered inside the California for a farewell party, according to two former staffers who attended the event, brought together by reports that a permanent closure was imminent. Attendees reminisced about its history and fired up the projector for a final show in the grand main auditorium.

On Thursday, a large dumpster sat on Kittredge Street beneath the California’s iconic script neon marquee, with items from the theater visible inside.

Landmark continues to operate nearby Shattuck Cinemas, as well as the Albany Twin and Piedmont Theatre.

Built in 1913, the California Theatre is one of downtown’s most distinctive buildings, instantly recognizable thanks to its blue and gold marquee, and the bold lines of its Art Deco facade. That sense of grandeur extended inside, even after a remodel decades ago turned the single-screen movie palace into a triplex. A state report on the theater described it as a “local historic resource” that was eligible for the National Register for Historic Places.

With more than 500 seats, the main auditorium was the largest in downtown Berkeley and hosted blockbuster premieres too big for Shattuck Cinemas.

The California Theatre’s box office and lobby are visible through an open door in its boarded-up entryway. Credit: Nico Savidge

“It’s just such a beautiful place,” said Dale Sophiea, who managed the California Theatre for 18 years. “There’s nothing like it.”

It’s not yet clear what the California’s next chapter might look like; Gerber said Landmark does not know what the property’s owners have planned for the theater.

“Maybe Landmark will end up with the lease again, it’s hard to say,” she said. “If an opportunity avails itself in the future, it’s always possible.”

Berkeleyside has not been able to identify the building’s owner, and attempts to reach several individuals listed as owners in public records have not been successful.

Gary Meyer, a co-founder of Landmark Theatres who is no longer involved with the company, said he hoped another operator could take it over, much like Alamo Drafthouse’s revival of the New Mission in San Francisco, or that it could be turned into a music venue, as happened with the UC Theater on University Avenue. The ultimate hope, said Meyer, is that downtown Berkeley doesn’t lose the California altogether.

“I’m concerned, I’m hopeful — both at the same time,” Meyer said.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.