Page One

UC Theater is a rare example of an early 20th century movie theater

By Susan Cerny, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday May 18, 2002

In 1896 the first motion picture in the United States was presented to the public in a New York City music hall, and for the next decade most films were shown as fillers in travelling vaudeville shows. The films were short and the subjects — such as dancing girls and moving trains — were limited. Partially because of lawsuits over patent infringements, the U.S. film industry lagged behind France and England until there was a patent settlement in 1908. 

In 1905 the first theater devoted exclusively to movie pictures opened in Philadelphia. It was called a "nickelodeon" because the entrance fee was a nickel. Theaters devoted exclusively to films were a sign of the industry’s growth, and by 1908 there were thousands of nickelodeons across the country. 

Early movie theaters were commonly located in converted storefronts; Berkeley had approximately 12 of these theaters in the period between 1908-1911. As movies improved and the industry grew, the motion picture theater as a specific building type developed. 

Between 1911 to 1917 theaters became larger, more elaborate and were built of fireproof materials such as brick and concrete. Eight movie theaters were constructed in Berkeley during this period and three are still standing: the Elmwood (1914), the California (1914) and the UC Theater (1917). (In 1995 Berkeley’s then oldest surviving theater, the Berkeley Theater (1911), was demolished.) 

The UC Theater is the only one, of the three oldest surviving theaters in Berkeley, which has not undergone extensive remodeling and conversion into a multiplex. Although its original brick facade has been covered with stucco and painted, it retains its original decorative elements. On the interior, although redecorated from time to time, the configuration of the entrance foyer, inner foyer and open auditorium is unchanged. The large auditorium once had seating for 2,200. 

The UC Theater was designed by James W. Plachek, who was also the architect for the original section of Berkeley’s Main Library (1930) and the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Building (1938). John English, historian and author of the landmark application for the UC theater, noted that the design of the UC Theater building is unusual. It is a U-shaped, mixed-use building consisting of the theater auditorium in the rear wing, with the theater entrance and storefronts, with offices on the second story, in the front wing facing the street. In this way the large auditorium space is discretely tucked into the middle of the block. The theater was recently designated a Berkeley landmark. 

Although the theater closed in 2001, it will be open for the next several months as a temporary home to the Shotgun Players. 



Susan Cerny is author of Berkeley Landmarks and writes this in conjunction with the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.