When Berkeley’s United Artists theater opened its doors on Sept. 16, 1932, the Berkeley Daily Gazette described it as “the greatest theatrical event in the history of Berkeley.”
Klieg lights lit the sky as a red carpet welcomed Hollywood stars like Josephine Dunn, George Bancroft and Bing Crosby. Uniformed ushers and “usherettes” escorted the 1,800 attendees into velvet seats. Twice as many people filled the foyers and the lobby, which boasted 22-foot ceilings, murals and dazzling art deco chandeliers, hoping to secure tickets to the second show. Before the curtain rose for the feature presentation, Down to Earth, starring Will Rogers, Berkeley Mayor Thomas Caldecott thanked United Artists and its partner, Fox West Coast Theaters, for giving Berkeley “such a magnificent theater.”
In contrast, the closing of the theater — the last in downtown Berkeley and an art deco movie palace — took place with little fanfare and no advance warning around Feb. 3, about two weeks before Regal’s parent company, Cineworld, had planned to close 39 theaters around the country as part of its bankruptcy proceedings. The closure came so unexpectedly that showtimes continued to appear online a week later until the Google listing finally listed the theater as “Permanently Closed.”
“There was no mention of when they’d actually close. No explanation,” said developer Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests, which owns the theater. Kennedy bought the property in August for $7 million and allowed the theater to remain rent free in an attempt to keep the theater open as long as possible.
He plans to tear down the theater to make way for a 17-story, 293-unit apartment complex, leaving most of its art deco facade — and some of its lobby — intact.
A hue and a cry
A Berkeleyside report on the theater’s closing on Jan. 19 elicited a hue and cry as some 835 readers took to Berkeleyside’s Facebook page to voice their sadness, fond memories and anger at the disappearance of yet another Berkeley theater in a rapidly changing downtown in the midst of a building boom. (The closure of the Regal will leave the city with one commercial theater, Rialto Cinemas, in Elmwood, plus the Pacific Film Archive, which leans more toward arthouse fare, in downtown.)
“So sad,” wrote one movie patron on Berkeleyside’s Facebook page. “I saw all my childhood classics there, like Batman with Michael Keaton and The Karate Kid and Mighty Ducks.”
“What a beautiful old art deco theater,” wrote another movie-goer. “[I] had seen many movies there over the last four decades.”
Another commenter reminisced about sneaking into the R-rated Saturday Night Fever with a friend and “getting kicked out by an overly attentive usher.”
“It was a really gorgeous and large theater,” Kathleen Garvin Osmond wrote in an email. She grew up in Berkeley in the 1950s. “The lobby was so overwhelming for a little girl!”
“Sad, but inevitable post VHS, DVD, streaming and COVID,” a reader commented on Berkeleyside’s Facebook page.
Zakiya Baker, who lives in Richmond, worked at the theater’s concession stand in the mid-1990s when she was a teenager.
“It was the theater that my friends and I commonly went to,” she said. “Downtown Berkeley was pretty popular in the ’90s.”
The last time she visited the theater was about four years ago, when she noticed a decline in the theater’s upkeep, attendance and staffing. Unlike the ’90s, an employee was not stationed at the concession stand.
“I’m sad to see it go,” she said.
Designed to dazzle
For an inventory for the State of California in 1979, former Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA) member Betty Marvin described the Regal UA theater as a “large and still splendid art deco movie palace behind a deceptively small and austere facade.”
When the movie house was built in 1932 for $300,000, it was considered Berkeley’s most luxurious theater, said Gary Parks, who’s written a book on the theaters of San Jose and co-authored a book on the theaters of the San Francisco Peninsula. “It was definitely meant to eclipse the other theaters at the time.”
United Artist theaters were part of the UA film studios, founded in 1919 by Hollywood stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, who sought better pay and more creative freedom.
“UA was building theaters to compete with the Fox theater chain and later worked out a deal with Fox where they’d share exhibition privileges,” Parks said.
The Berkeley theater was part of a large building project planned for the West Coast that petered out due to the depression, making Berkeley the only UA Theater in Northern California. About a half-dozen others are in Southern California, mostly in the Los Angeles vicinity. All were designed in a similar art deco style by architect Clifford Balch, assisted by the firm of Walker & Eisen.
Berkeley’s was the last of these deco structures to operate as a theater. Most of the surviving buildings have kept their facades but had their interiors converted to accommodate other uses.
Two murals painted by Anthony Heinsbergen, a renowned movie theater designer, may be moved and preserved. Courtesy: Gary Parks
In addition to chandeliers, colorful murals, brass railings and soaring ceilings, the new theater was known for its luxurious mens and womens lounges — beautiful lounges with furniture and statuary and murals,” said Anthony Bruce, BAHA’s executive director.
Originally, the ticket lobby was open to the street, according to Parks. Mahogany doors with etched glass still lead to the lobby proper and its 22-foot ceilings. The ticket lobby was closed off in 1989, when the facade was repaired and exterior improved.
The exterior contains a signature motif of the UA style: relief sculptures depicting Unity and Artistry in cast concrete. Berkeley’s original facade also boasted a neon vertical sign and brightly lit neon marquee.
In the 1960s, Lady Bird Johnson’s Beautify America Program morphed into the neon-hating Scrap Old Signs (S.O.S.) movement “aimed to make our cities less cluttered by signs,” Parks said. That was when “all the wonderful signs disappeared in Berkeley,” said Bruce, including the UA’s neon signage.
“The result was downtowns becoming dark and foreboding at night — right when those parts of cities were struggling against suburban shopping centers, and therefore losing business,” Parks said. “The glamor was gone, replaced by backlit plastic and at night, a sense of downtown fun replaced by blandness.”
The same period also saw the loss of the building’s cavernous main room that became “twinned” during the late 1960s/early 1970s by creating one screening room downstairs and one in the balcony. The theater became a fourplex a decade later. Three more theaters were carved out in the 1980s, doing away with the stage and ladies lounge.
In the late 1970s, there were between 20 and 30 screens in Berkeley, according to Dale Sophiea, who worked at Regal UA as an usher and then a manager until 1984.
Not far from the Regal, on Kittridge Street, the California Theater shuttered in March 2020 and is slated to become a 15-story apartment building, but the developer must preserve its art deco facade and midcentury marquee under a Berkeley Landmarks Commission ruling that occurred after preservationists fought for its protection. On Telegraph Avenue, the film critic Pauline Kael and her husband Ed Landberg operated the Berkeley Cinema Guild, one of the first arthouse repertory theaters, beginning in the 1950s. It closed in 1968.
According to Jason Sanders, a film research specialist for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), Cinema Guild opened a second theater on Shattuck Avenue and Haste Street, the Fine Arts, around 1961. According to BAHA’s Bruce, that theater was also historic and of architectural significance. In the late ’90s/early aughts, the Fine Arts was resurrected as a rep-house theater under the ownership of Keith Arnold, but closed in 2002 to make way for the 100-unit, deco-inspired Fine Arts building, whose name is displayed on a marque. Kennedy plans a similar approach for the Regal apartment complex.
Preservationists not yet fighting for landmarking
The city’s Landmarks Commission does not have any purview over privately owned interiors, so all that landmarking would achieve would be the preservation of the Regal UA’s facade. So far, there’s been no organized effort to save the facade by submitting a formal application to the city’s Landmarks Commission, but a fledgling group — just formed this week — may take that on.
Daniel Ondrasek of San Jose, who started the Save Our Historic United Artists Theatre Facebook page and has been involved in regional preservation efforts since the 1980s, said that the group is “still analyzing what can be done.”
“We’re going to be loud and we’re going to grow,” he said. “We’ll be speaking very loudly at these meetings and taking to task whoever allowed this to happen.”
If it does choose to file for landmarking, the group is unlikely to get help from previous leaders of preservation battles.
The Art Deco Society of California, headquartered in Berkeley, which submitted a landmarking application to protect the facade of the California Theater, said in a statement that it’s concerned about the demolition but doesn’t have the volunteers or resources to apply for landmarking and doubts it would be successful given “the pro development climate in Berkeley.”
The Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association said they’re likewise understaffed to take on an official position.
And Sophiea, who helped organize the preservation campaign that lobbied the city to get the California Theater’s facade landmarked and preserved, said he doesn’t have it in him for another fight either.
BAHA’s Bruce offered his personal opinion about the theater as a lifelong Berkeley resident. “It really has superb art deco styling,” Bruce said, and is “almost as good” as Oakland’s Paramount Theater, an art deco concert hall on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Ideally, I’d love to see the entire auditorium remain intact,” Parks said. He said many period details remain behind the partitions as a result of previous preservation efforts. At the very least he hopes the developer will fulfill his promise and maintain the facade because “anything that would replace it would be comparatively boring.”
Also, Parks said, the theater lies between two Berkeley landmarks: the art deco Berkeley Public Library’s Main branch to the north from 1930, also on the National Register of Historic Places, and the 1906 Morse Block building to the south.
Plans for the facade
Even without a landmark designation that would require the protection of the facade, the developer has promised to rehabilitate its most significant parts.
“We plan to bring the facade back to somewhat of its former glory,” said Kennedy.
The architect for the building project is Trachtenberg Associates of Berkeley, but Kennedy has hired the Boston-based Bruce Rosenbaum of ModVic, which repurposes antiques for practical use. The Wall Street Journal called Rosenbaum the “steampunk guru.”
Rosenbaum’s rendering for the facade include the Unity and Artistry reliefs, now painted black, a new vertical sign and a marquee that says “Regal,” a metal marquee and neon sphere “in keeping with the 1932 feel,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said he also plans to use the existing lobby as part of the apartment complex that will rise behind the building on the so-called “flag lot,” which opens up into a larger rectangle after a narrow, street-side section. The building needed a grand entrance and Kennedy thought it made sense to take advantage of what’s already there. He hopes to save some “very cool” light fixtures, art deco pilasters and two or three murals from the back of the lobby he hopes to relocate to the front.
“In a perfect world I’d like to recreate a Berkeley version of a Viennese coffee house,” while also serving as a lobby for residents, he said.
One caveat: Kennedy said he has no idea if the lobby needs a seismic retrofit. “That will determine a lot of our plans.”
Kennedy and architect David Trachtenberg gave key members of BAHA, including Bruce, a tour in August after Kennedy took ownership of the building. Parks also recently toured the theater.
In its statement, the Art Deco Society said that the preserved lobby “would create a fantastic entrance for the proposed housing development.” The society would also like to see the developer preserve “as much of the Art Deco lobby — and any other details from the theater — as possible.”
If all goes as planned, the project will break ground in 2024.
Kennedy understands how the public would be upset by the tearing down of the old theater, but sees it more as a failure of an industry in long decline.
“The fate of the UA theater was pretty much determined before we even bought the property,” he said. “We’re going to put images of our plans in front to show people what’s coming, so they don’t get too despondent.”
To some, like Zakiya Baker, the former concessioner, the theater is still a landmark, even without an official edict.
“It’s always unfortunate when something that has been in existence for many decades kind of comes to its end,” she said.
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