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California Theater reopens after renovations; Fine Arts Cinema closes its doors

By Peter Crimmins, Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday June 29, 2002

Both theaters to show special features to mark the events 


If someone poked his head into the California Theater in downtown Berkeley earlier this week to look at the building undergoing seismic renovation, that person would have had to pass through heavy machinery blocking Kitteridge Street traffic, step over torn-up concrete on the sidewalk and seen ripped carpeting and paint tarps strewn over everything. It did not look like a showcase theater due to open in four days. 

Theater manager Dale Sophiea sitting in his small cluttered office on the second floor did not seem concerned by the mess. His theater was going to open, as scheduled, on Friday and it was going to look grand. Even if it takes lots of late nights. Amid the hard-hatted contractors with power tools and welding equipment were Sophiea’s floor staff of ticket-takers and concessions sellers painting the trimming. 

Walking through the theaters, Sophiea explained the new green paint job is a vast improvement to the “awful” old brown coat (an improvement that might not be noticed by moviegoers seated in the dark). The new green-and-gold color scheme, he said, will be nicely complimented by the new green floral-patterned carpeting, carpeting which was yet to be laid down. 

The cosmetic overhaul is a subsequent improvement during the building’s structural retrofitting. Outside are the external I-beams holding the brick building in a seismically sound iron cage. The earthquake safety upgrade does not affect the size or shape of the auditorium inside, which at 650 seats will still be the largest movie house in Berkeley. 

Until last year, the California Theater was the second-largest house in Berkeley, behind the UC Theater on University Avenue. Both theaters, owned by Landmark Theater Corporation (who also own the nearby Shattuck and Act1&2 theaters) were in need of expensive seismic improvements. The California was upgraded and the UC abandoned. The reasons for the loss of the seminal repertory theater are manifold, involving feasibility and return-on-investment. The future of the UC Theater as a cinema and the structural integrity of its large, acoustically-designed auditorium are in dispute between community groups, the owners of the building, and the city of Berkeley, but the chance of it returning to its former glory – a large house screening a calendar of daily rotated movie programming which local buffs held in so high esteem – seem slim. 

The California opens this weekend with a new, longer version of “Cinema Paradiso,” the romantic, nostalgic Italian film about a director remembering the theater in the village of his boyhood where he learned to love movies. It was a monster hit in 1988 (it won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) and now has 51 more minutes of rural movie magic.  

Landmark wanted to open the California with “Men In Black II” but Sophiea said he pushed for “Cinema Paradiso” because “I wanted to open with something more poetic.” The film about space monsters with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones opens at the California next Wednesday, and it will be business as usual. 

At the same time the California re-opens, a small but essential part of Berkeley cinema life is going away. A few blocks down Shattuck Avenue from the California is the independently owned Fine Arts Cinema, which for last four years has been screening bold programming of classics, rarities, art films, documentaries, shorts, and revived popular fare. This Sunday will be the last screening before it goes dark in anticipation of the building being razed and replaced. 

When it opened in 1998, the Fine Arts created the third point in the Berkeley film lover’s triangle, with the UC Theater and the Pacific Film Archive in the Berkeley Art Museum (since moved to campus near Bowditch Street). The UC screened new film-festival picks and older classics and the PFA tended toward serious international scholarship. The Fine Arts, rounding out the triptych, offered overlooked gems trolled from the tireless festival travels of co-owner Keith Arnold and inspired double-bills of the difficult and the fluffy: a Wisconsin love-in pairing “Straight Story,” David Lynch’s dark-edged pastoral story of a man and his lawnmower, with “American Movie” and its failure-proned savant Mark Borshardt; or the recent double-feature with Humphrey Bogart’s Nazi subversion in the ageless favorite “Casablanca” with a hypothetical Nazi defeat of England in the rarely seen “It Happened Here.”  

As the UC Theater proved, running a single-screen art-house theater is not easy. For four years the owners and operators of the Fine Arts Cinema – Keith Arnold, Emily Charles, and Josephine Scherer – worked their labor of love as programmers, projectionists, ticket sellers, janitors, popcorn-poppers and candy-bar stockers. Ticket sales were often so meager they would not cover the overhead.  

Even so, they are not giving up even as their theater is torn down. The landlord of the building to be built on the site, Patrick Kennedy (also owner of the new Gaia building downtown), has entered an agreement with the Fine Arts Cinema to include a 7,000 square foot theater in the new building, along with museum space for the Cinema Preservation Society, a non-profit organization tangentially associated with the Fine Arts Cinema. Like the financially troubled Roxie Theater in San Francisco, non-profit status may ease the difficulties of operating an independent art cinema. The new building is expected to be completed, and the theater re-opened, in 2004. In the meantime Arnold will be taking his movies on the road, screening at various pick-up locations in the Bay Area and abroad. 

For the next two years the East Bay’s discriminating moviegoers will have narrowed cinema options. Even as the Pacific Film Archive provides both challenging work (a series of Armenian documentaries this summer) and amusing classics (a month of Preston Sturges comedies in July) there will doubtless be a diaspora of die-hard film buffs toward the remaining rep-houses in San Francisco.  

For their final weekend, the Fine Arts Cinema is going out as they came in: with the beautifully animated 1926 silent film “The Adventures Of Prince Achmed” in which German filmmaker Lotte Reiniger uses wonderfully intricate paper cut-out silhouettes to tell a story of magic carpets and enchanted kingdoms. A new original score will be performed live by the Georges Lammam Ensemble. It’s the kind of cinema experience Berkeley has come to expect from the Fine Arts, and will be missed in their absence.