Small theater a unique downtown Berkeley gem

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Friday September 07, 2001

The Fine Arts Cinema may soon find itself without a home when the building it occupies is razed to make way for a five-story, mixed-use building. 

But this doesn’t mean the big “fin” for the 275-seat art house theater, which has presented a mixed bag of foreign films, American classics and Independent films since it began threading film into its rare carbon arc Peerless Magnarc projectors in 1997. 

The developer of the proposed 85,000-square-foot Fine Arts Building, Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interests is currently in negotiations with the owners of FAC, Keith Arnold, Josephine Scherer and Emily Charles, for a new lease for theater space in the new building. The deal has not been finalized yet, but both sides said there is a meeting of the minds. 

Since the UC Theater closed its doors six months ago, the FAC has been one of the few places in Berkeley where moviegoers can find non-mainstream films. 

“We like to present films that represent the community,” said Arnold. “And we feel very lucky that Berkeley has a community that is very diverse in culture and interests and so many people come to the theater to engage their curiosities with films that don’t necessarily have glowing reviews.” 

Arnold said a good example of the theater’s commitment to the community is its presentation of “Mavericks,” a documentary about surfing on the northern California coast. A subject of the film, well-known surfer Jay Moriarity, recently died in a diving accident. 

Arnold said he called the filmmakers and offered to present the film as a tribute to Moriarity and as a benefit for his family.  

“Who would have known that there’s a rather large surfing community in Berkeley,” Arnold said pointing out that there are two surf shops in town. 

Arnold said the theater has an interesting and somewhat “colorful” history. The first theater was opened in the building by world-renowned film critic Pauline Kael, who was credited with changing the way movies were reviewed in the 1960s and 1970s. Kael opened the theater with her then-husband, Ed Landberg in the late 1950s. She died on Sept. 3 at the age of 82. 

Shortly after the couple opened the theater, they divorced and Landberg got control of theater. He later married and divorced another women, who won the theater in a divorce settlement. 

This woman then leased the theater to the Mitchell Brothers in 1977 and the theater ran pornographic films until 1983. Until the Fine Arts Cinema opened in 1997, the theater showed Indian productions. 

Arnold said while the new Fine Arts Building is under construction, the theater’s owners will continue to show films “on the road at a variety of theaters around the East Bay.”