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UC Theater closing imminent

By William Inman Daily Planet Staff
Thursday September 14, 2000


The reel may stop spinning for good at one of the last true homes of repertory theater and one of the most beloved movie houses in town. 

The Academy Award-winning “American Beauty” and “High Fidelity,” both scheduled for Sept. 30, may be the last films shown at the UC Theater at 2036 Shattuck Ave. 

Built in 1916 by acclaimed Berkeley architect James Plachek and operated by Landmark Theaters since 1976, the historic theater may be forced to draw the curtain at the end of the month, because the theater chain is unable to pay $300,000 for state-mandated retrofitting.  

The amount is half the total cost to retrofit the building and Landmark’s lease requires the payment, said Steve Indig, Landmark Theaters’ Bay Area Manager. 

“It’s not an amount that is feasible for us,” he said. “We’re trying to negotiate with the landlord to not pay for it, though it is in our lease agreement.” 

The owner of the building, Igal Sarfati, of Quality Bay Construction is out of the country and unavailable for comment, but Indig said that Landmark has been in touch with several of his associates. 

“Nothing will happen until we talk with him,” Indig said. “Hopefully what we’re saying is speculative, but there is a possibility.” 

Landmark Theaters’ parent company, the Dallas-based Silver Cinemas, filed bankruptcy in May of this year, but Indig said that’s not a factor. 

“Regardless of the bankruptcy, the figure is not a reasonable business decision,” he said. “What we’re saying is that there’s no other theater operator that could come in and pay $300,000 to move in. It’s just not a reasonable move. What we’re hoping is that the landlord will agree with us and let us stay. We’re hoping it’s not a done deal.” 

News of the possible closing of the theater with the biggest screen in town trickled into the community as, what many hope, to be a bad rumor. 

“Nobody really knows,” said Berkeley Downtown Coordinator Michael Caplan.  

“There’s hope that it’s a lot of talk. They may be negotiating for a lower rate.” 

Caplan explained that Sarfati is bringing the theater and the old Stark Hotel to the west of it up to the California Unified Building Code that requires the retrofitting. 

“We’re glad he’s upgrading,” he said.  

“The old hotel has been vacant and has been a nightmare from a code point-of-view.” 

Bringing the theater up to code offers no solace to avid independent movie-goers who flock to the screen for its trademark restored and classic films, foreign language cinema, documentaries and daring films. 

“It would be a terrible loss,” said Carl Somers, a UC Berkeley grad student in sociology, who was passing near the theater Wednesday. “The theater is a historical focal point of Berkeley community life. It’s the best rep theater in the East Bay.” 

“I’ve pretty much stopped going to the other screens in town,” said Tim Higbee, who was walking down University Avenue Wednesday. “This is one of the few places that’s offering a full range of challenging, historical, artistic and intelligent films. And they have the best popcorn in town.” 

According to Landmarks Commissioner Leslie Emmington-Jones, Sarfati has been trying to put the theater on the National Register of Historic places, but the application has not been approved. 

If it were to be placed on the National Register, Sarfati would be able to receive tax credits if he put money into enhancement or restoration of the theater, she said. 

“The Landmarks Commission would (then) be obliged to look at any alterations (to the theater),” Emmington-Jones said. 

Though the commission doesn’t have to approve the retrofit specified by the code, it would have to approve any other alterations Sarfati would be inclined to make if Landmark moves out. 

Indig said that if it weren’t for the cost, the theater would show indies forever. 

“The UC is an important part of Landmark, we have no reason to close it,” he said. 

Indig said that UC Theater isn’t making plans to relocate, nor are the owners seeking financial assistance. 

“We have hope that we’ll stay there,” he said.