The Elmwood movie theater’s marquee. File photo: Joey Brite

With the February closure of downtown’s UA Regal Cinemas, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood now bears the distinction of being the last remaining commercial movie house in Berkeley. Unlike the Regal, which is slated to be turned into 293 apartments, the Elmwood is not under the threat of development — it’s already survived a fire, damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake a year later and a plan to convert it to stores. Yet the 109-year-old city landmark is struggling nevertheless. 

Like many movie theaters, the Rialto has seen its attendance dwindle as movie-goers shifted to the convenience of streaming films in the comfort of their own homes, one of the main reasons 2,000 theaters across the country shuttered during the pandemic. As a result, the theater is down to 65% of its pre-pandemic capacity and operating at a loss, according to its current operator. 

Unlike the city’s larger commercial theaters that have recently gone dark, the Elmwood started as a community theater, and it was the Elmwood community that stopped it 30 years ago from being converted into shops. 

Now the theater is again turning to the community — and the city — for another lifeline. 

Rialto Cinemas has applied to the City Council for a beer-and-wine license for its concession stand, which it hopes will increase revenues and keep the lights on. The Berkeley City Council will consider the application at its May 11 meeting. 

“Suffice it to say, we’re doing everything we can to help the theater exist,” said David Salk, the longtime president of the Elmwood Theater Foundation, a nonprofit that has owned the building since 1991 and works closely with Rialto. The foundation is also exploring other initiatives to sustain the theater.  

Salk said he is lobbying Elmwood merchants and residents to support Rialto’s application, the latest attempt to drum up more community support for the theater. 

“We just want this theater to survive,” he said. 

A family-friendly, neighborhood place

An early image of the Strand Theatre, the precursor to the Elmwood, shortly after it opened in 1914. Courtesy: Gary Parks

Unlike the Regal, the Elmwood was never a palatial architectural treasure. When it opened as the Strand in 1914, it was a small neighborhood theater, one of the Elmwood’s first commercial structures. The California Theater on Kittredge Street opened during the same year.

“The Strand was different because it was supposed to be a family-type, community-supported theater,” said Burl Willes, a former Elmwood merchant who was instrumental in the fight to save the theater. He’s also the author of a book about the neighborhood, Tales from the Elmwood: A Community Memory, published by the Berkeley Historical Society in 2001. 

An invitational event at the theater in 1947. Courtesy: Berkeley Historical Society

The Strand’s owners, Beach & Krahn, “believed neighborhood theaters had a responsibility to the community, to provide clean quality family entertainments,” according to a report on historic structures prepared by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association in the 1970s. “Neighborhood theaters catered to the family, needed the goodwill of the inhabitants of the neighborhood and had to maintain a service of the highest sort.” 

To that end, Beach & Krahn promised that “every foot of film has had personal inspection & censorship before being shown.” 

The theater did not advertise in the daily newspapers, hoping to draw a more regional crowd, and instead used leaflets and its marquee to announce its offerings, Willes said. 

With about 423 seats, the Strand was about half the size of the downtown theaters. 

The Strand was designed in an architectural style that has simultaneously been described as Art Nouveau and Beaux Arts. Its architect, Albert W. Cornelius, also designed the California and the Alameda theaters. A BAHA report noted that both the Strand and the Alameda shared a heavy geometric cement detailing that “suggest a variation on the Viennese secessionist style that John Hudson Thomas was working in locally at the same time.” 

When the Strand opened, admission was 10 cents for adults, 5 cents for children. Beach & Krahn theaters were eventually absorbed by the Golden State theater chain, according to BAHA. 

A new moderne look

The Elmwood’s offerings in December 1947, a few months after opening. Courtesy: Berkeley Historical Society

During World War II the Strand went dark for almost six years. It reopened as the Elmwood in 1947, touting itself as “Berkeley’s first post-war motion picture house.” Opening night films were The Macomber Affair, starring UC Berkeley alumnus Gregory Peck and Blondie’s Big Moment, based on the Blondie comic strip. 

The theater’s reinvention also entailed a new marquee with neon lights and the “zig-zag moderne look” it retains today, according to BAHA. “Thus it weathered the coming of TV in the 50s, & helped set the present artistic tone of the Elmwood district.” 

At some point in its history, the name “Elmwood” was added to the marquee.

“The theater is the focal point in the Elmwood,” said Willes. From 1970 to 2000, Willes owned Trips Out Travel on College Avenue, a travel agency across the street from the theater, where he had a front-row seat to the theater’s struggles and incarnations. 

“We’d see lines of happy people lining up for the theater,” he said. “We saw how it stabilized the neighborhood. It was the most important thing going on for merchants.”

Because of its importance to the neighborhood and its architectural significance, the Elmwood became a Berkeley landmark in 1982. 

But such a designation could not protect the theater from neglect. In the 1980s, owner United Artists let the building languish and didn’t seem interested in offering varied programming, Salk said. The film The Gods Must Be Crazy ran for about nine months in 1984. 

“The goal was to find an operator who would bring in films more often than United Artists did,” said Willes. 

A fiery setback

A story in the Feb. 24, 1989, Oakland Tribune. Courtesy:

A 1988 fire added urgency to the theater’s preservation. According to an article in the Oakland Tribune, the fire had been accidentally set in an adjacent alleyway. The fire marshal described the damage as extensive and “a major loss.”

United Artists collected the insurance money, Salk said. UA then planned to sell the property to an Oakland developer who proposed converting the building into a retail complex of several small shops, what Willis described as a “mini mall.” Elmwood merchants and residents kicked into high gear. 

According to a Tribune article from March 8, 1990, “merchants and members of the Save the Elmwood committee have been scrambling to find an independent operator for the site.” Merchants complained of losing foot traffic generated by the theater before and after showings. 

“Willes really began to rally people around saving the Elmwood from being developed and keeping it as a theater,” Salk said. 

Many of the merchants and citizens who helped lobby the city for the theater’s landmarking became supporters of the Elmwood Theater Foundation, which was founded in 1991. In addition to Willes, other founding members were Salk, an optician who owns the nearby Focal Point Opticians; Laurie Capitelli, a real-estate agent whose wife owned Avenue Books, now Mrs. Dalloway’s; and Fred Harvey, an attorney who lived and worked in the neighborhood. 

Capitelli, the foundation’s treasurer, would go on to become a longtime city councilmember and 2016 mayoral candidate. Both he and Salk have remained with the organization ever since.

The foundation’s mission: to keep the Elmwood a theater. First, though, it had to buy and renovate the building and find a new operator. 

A city and grassroots effort

The foundation worked with then Mayor Loni Hancock and Dave Fogarty of the city’s Office of Economic Development to have the theater rezoned as a “protective use,” prohibiting other uses on the site, in 1991, which sank the developer’s plans. The theater’s $190,000 purchase price was funded by the creation of a Business Improvement District, which raised money from merchants and through metered parking. 

The foundation then raised the $425,000 for needed repairs, which came from interest-bearing loans made by Elmwood residents. Funds also trickled in on the grassroots level.

“Children and adults filled jars with change and checks during the Elmwood Street fairs,” Willes wrote in his book. 

The Elmwood Theater Foundation took ownership of the building in 1991. A year later, the foundation became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. 

“Netflix and Kanopy and all those other streaming services are convenient, but there’s something special about being in a theater with other people.” — David Salk, president, Elmwood Theater Foundation

When it reopened as a triplex on October 22, 1994, Elmwood’s new operator, San Carlos Cinemas, screened the Italian film Cinema Paradiso, which Salk found fitting. 

Cinema Paradiso is all about the love of film,” Salk said. “Netflix and Kanopy and all those other streaming services are convenient, but there’s something special about being in a theater with other people.”

The theater suffered a setback in 2004, when a sewer line broke and flooded the theater, closing it for about a year, requiring new seats, floors and carpets at a cost of under $1 million. The Berkeley Daily Planet reported that the flooding also damaged improvements made during a 1994 seismic retrofit. Because the theater never received a final inspection and the city tightened seismic regulations for masonry structures in 2000, the city loaned the foundation $90,000 for the seismic upgrades. 

Over the years, the Elmwood has been run by several operators. Rialto Cinemas, which operates theaters in El Cerrito and Sebastopol, took over in June 2007. 

Pandemic challenges

Like most theaters, the Rialto struggled through the pandemic. In September 2020, Ky Boyd, Rialto’s director, put out a Facebook request for donations. 

“Even while we are closed our monthly expenses are in excess of $20,000 per month,” he said of the El Cerrito and Elmwood theaters. “We have survived so far by getting a small PPP loan and an EIDL [Economic Injury Disaster Loan from the Small Business Administration], but we cannot survive without your assistance.” 

The post helped raise about $128,000 from the East Bay community. 

In December 2022, the Rialto introduced (in conjunction with the Elmwood Merchants Association) free holiday movies that proved so successful, Boyd decided to expand it into two year-round programs. Every month, the Rialto offers free weekend matinees for families and free Big Screen Classics with the hope of luring reluctant seniors back into the theater. Another enticement: Movie Lover Mondays with $9 admission.

“We love operating the theater [but] we have to get back to at least breaking even.” Ky Boyd, director, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood

The theater has also sought to distinguish itself by introducing new programming. In 2009, the Rialto Cinemas were among the first in the country to screen the first performances by the Royal National Theatre in London in a program called National Theatre Live. The theater continues to be the only East Bay location to show National Theatre Live performances. 

“We love operating the theater,” Boyd said. “It’s a great location but we need the community’s support if we’re going to survive. We have to get back to at least breaking even and hopefully a little bit of profit so we can keep going.”

The application before the City Council is for a beer and wine license and expanded food service. Boyd said the expanded offerings are crucial for the theater’s survival and a necessary amenity. In response to pandemic losses, many theaters across the country have started serving beer and wine, a trend that picked up steam last year. Rialto has already introduced such offerings in El Cerrito and Sebastopol.

“It certainly helps distinguish us from those exhibitors who do not serve beer and wine and has proven to be a factor in patrons deciding where to see films,” Boyd said. 

Looking ahead, Salk hopes that the greater Berkeley community will consider the Rialto when they’re thinking of a night out. 

“We’ve all observed the loss of big screens in Berkeley,” he said. “Keeping this theater open is going to require everyone’s support. So go to the Rialto and see a movie.” 

“Otherwise,” said Willes, “we’ll be down to no theaters in Berkeley.”

Joanne Furio

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...