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UC Theatre stays in the dark while apartments next door fill with light

By Judith Scherr Daily Planet staff
Thursday June 14, 2001

Plastered on the windows of the old and empty futon shop on University Avenue – next to the old and empty UC Theatre – are posters touting the draft plan of the Revolutionary Communist Party. 

Inside the UC Theatre, all’s dark and quiet. 

But in the old hotel next door, above the futon shop, there’s furious activity. Here, a revolution, of sorts, is in progress. The total transformation of the Stark Hotel, a single room occupancy residence vacant since 1987, is being sawed, sanded and riveted into high-end studio apartments, complete with hardwood floors, modern appliances and – having opened up the attic – spiral staircases mounting to sleeping lofts.  

The developers have shored up the brick walls, but haven’t covered them up. And there’s natural light that streams through skylights in each studio and along the hallways. 

Developers Igal Sarafaty and Yaval Bobrovitch are well on their way to completing the apartments, which they hope to have rented by next fall, when UC Berkeley students return to class. The futon shop and the former barbershop below are also getting a thorough facelift and retrofit. 

The second part of the project, however, remains illusive. The transformation of the UC Theatre is a dream in progress. 

“It’s a piece of Berkeley culture,” Bobrovitch said of the theater, whose doors closed at the end of March. 

Bobrovitch and Sarafaty have been talking to Gary Myers, who opened the UC Theatre in 1976 and left the operation four years ago, about how best to reuse the old 1,300-seat elephant. 

Some people – one who even posted an essay on the box office of the old theater – say the reason for the closure of the theater is that Myers had stopped programming the films. But Myers says the answer is far more complex.  

The audience has changed, he said. People are no longer willing to come out for the great range of films as they once did.  

“The audience is less adventurous,” Myers said. “We have to be very creative.” 

People who once went to the movies three or more times a week, now stay home and watch videos or surf the Net. And the film companies have not kept the old classics in good condition. People can get better copies for home viewing, Myers said. 

So a revitalized UC Theatre would have to embody a completely new concept. Myers envisions the structure broken up into three parts: one would be a large theater of 600 seats and the other two would be smaller, at 150 seats each.  

Films would be just part of the new operation. There would also be live performances – music and theater. There would be lectures. And, during the day, the space might be used as a conference center, with satellite conferencing facilities available.  

Myers envisions an operation that would be open every day of the year and says that the variety of events scheduled there would create a “cross fertilization,” with the movie-going crowd trying out live music, for example. 

“We want to explore how to make the UC Theatre viable again,” he said.  

And the City Council may lend a hand. 

As part of its 2001-2002 budget discussions, the council will be considering funding a $40,000 feasibility study Myers would carry out for re-using the old theater.  

Sarafaty and Bobrovitch have already done the massive job of retrofitting the theater for earthquake protection. The $600,000 project includes the installation of steel beams to shore up the 60-foot high theater walls. Other beams, at further expense, stretch between the apartments and the theater to stabilize the apartments and the shops below. 

If the transformation of the theater doesn’t work, the developers will investigate other uses for the gaping structure – it could be commercial space or more housing, they said. 

Until a re-use plan is in place, the dust will continue to settle on the windows that once displayed coming attractions and passersby will read the missives posted as good-byes to the theater.  

While today, they walk quickly by the theater and past the empty futon shop with promises of revolution plastered to the windows, the stores and apartments above will most certainly see their transformation well before a re-use plan is written for the old theater. 

“It’s very sad for me,” Myers said.