Page One

Death of Fine Arts Cinema Ends a Legendary Tradition

Friday July 02, 2004

The Fine Arts Cinema is officially dead, and Patrick Kennedy, the owner of the massive apartment and commercial complex rising on its former site, doesn’t hold out much hope for a new theater on the site—spelling the end of repertory cinema in the city t hat first raised it to an art form. 

“We’re advertising the space, and we’ll see what happens,” said Kennedy, “but there doesn’t seem to be much demand for single-screen theaters these days.” 

Kennedy said Keith Arnold, the theater’s last operator, had no tified him that he’s given up on reopening the Fine Arts Cinema in the building that bears its name. 

For serious cineastes—as the more erudite movie buffs often style themselves—a nondescript little theater at 2451 Shattuck Ave. was the Mother Church, th e creation of the founder of repertory cinema and the intended showplace of America’s premiere film critic. 

From the exterior, without the marquee, the Fine Arts Theater could have been anything: a discount outlet, an ice cream plant, a restaurant—some o f its various incarnations since the building first opened in 1923. 

But the building entered the realm of legend when Ed Landberg and his then-spouse Pauline Kael—considered by many cinematic aficionados to be the greatest critic in the history of Americ an film—saw its theatrical potential. 

In 1951, Landberg had opened the Cinema Guild and Studio in a small storefront at 2436 Telegraph Ave. Two years later he met and married fellow film fanatic Kael, then a single mother struggling to make her mark in c riticism. 

The Cinema Guild became America’s first repertory theater, showcasing foreign films with a much sharper edge than the cinematic treacle being dished out by American filmmakers caught in the paranoid grip of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his Red-b aiting goon squads. 

Their movie house, coupled with their incisive essays in program notes handed out at the theater and mailed to an eventual audience 50,000, sparked a revolution, elevating the tastes of American audiences and inspiring young directors to reach beyond the narrow confines of Hollywood commercialism. 

Repertory houses sprung up across the country, turning directors like Akiro Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman into icons for a new generation. 

Frustrated by the limited space and poor sight-line s at their Telegraph Avenue theater, Kael and Landberg first gave serious consideration to the Shattuck Avenue building in 1957, on the closing of Glady’s, the restaurant which had occupied the site for the previous six years. 

By Nov. 3, 1961, when the building opened after a radical renovation and conversion to theatrical space, Landberg and Kael had divorced, but the traditions forged at the Cinema Guild were transplanted intact into a new setting much friendlier to viewers and films. 

The interior of the new Cinema Theater—which later became the Fine Arts Cinema—was far more spectacular than the relatively nondescript exterior, an Art Deco extravaganza featuring walls of glass, wrap-around mosaic panels, cathedral ceilings, six massive oak chairs desi gned by renowned Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck, and a large bronze Tiffany chandelier in the lobby. 

According to the petition filed a year-and-a-half ago to landmark the building, the Cinema Theater was the first structure built in America expressly to showcase repertory films. 

In addition to Landberg’s usual revival repertory fare, the Cinema Theater also showed first-run films. 

Landberg’s most memorable offering at the Shattuck Avenue theater came in 1967, when for 41 straight weeks the screen g limmered with the haunting Japanese epic Chushingura, the longest art film run in the history of American cinema.  

That same year, Landberg’s lease ran out on the Telegraph theater, where he had continued to screen repertory fare. Abandoning that locati on, Landberg branched out to San Francisco, creating the Gateway Cinema in the Golden Gate Condominium Complex, which opened the next year. 

In 1970, Landberg’s cinematic empire-in-the-making collapsed in the wake of his second divorce, when he handed ove r the Cinema Theater lease to his ex, who—after failing to turn a profit—subleased the property four years later to the Mitchell brothers, San Francisco porn kings. 

The Mitchells offered hard core fare until 1978, when the building fell into disuse. 

Ala n Michaan of the Landmark Theater chain finally leased the structure, renaming it the Fine Arts Cinema and screening first-run art films for four years, until declining attendance led him to abandon the property. 

For five years starting in 1990, the buil ding became the Bombay Cinema, offering Hindi films to Berkeley’s sizable Indian population. 

Abandoned for another three years, the theater was reopened in 1998 by Keith Arnold and Josephine Scherer, who turned the ailing property into a financial and cultural success. 

The beginning of the end came in 2001, when developer Patrick Kennedy bought the Fine Arts and two adjacent structures. 

The controversial developer unveiled plans to tear down the buildings and replace them with the Fine Arts Building, a massive Disneyesque pseudo-Art Deco structure which would incorporate housing, a restaurant, an art gallery, and a two-screen theater so that Arnold and Scherer could continue to screen their art and repertory fare. 

There was only one catch: The two op erators would have to pay for fitting out the theaters, with costs estimated at $800,000 or more. 

Landberg’s daughter Leslie, born the year the Shattuck Avenue theater opened, enlisted the support of cineastes both from the Bay Area—most notably Lawrence Ferlinghetti—and from across the country in a drive to save the Fine Arts. But their efforts came too late, and they filed for landmark status only after Kennedy had already obtained his demolition permit from the city. 

The final blow came on March 3, 2003, when the Landmarks Preservation Commission voted five-to-three against Landberg’s proposal. 

The way was clear for demolition, and the walls came tumbling down on March 30, marking the demise of a remarkable era in the history of the American cinema. 

Patrick Kennedy, the Berkeley developer whose phantasmagorical 100-unit apartment and retail complex stands near completion on the site of the Fine Arts Cinema, offers a before and after comparison on his Panoramic Interests website. 

At www.panoramicin, web surfers will find an architect’s rendering of Kennedy’s complex, poised directly above a photograph of the old theater. 

Of all the possible pictures of the building during its varied incarnations, Kennedy’s website offers only one—from the four years of the Mitchell Brothers’ tenure, featuring a marquee for a double feature: Captain Lust (the first XXX swashbuckler) and Hand Full of Diamonds. 

At the time the theater was demolished, Kennedy said the Fine Arts would be reborn in spacious quarters in his new building—but that plan has vanished because operator Keith Arnold couldn’t raise the $800,000 to $1.2 million it would have cost him to outfit the unfinished space Kennedy offered. 

“Anyone who crunched the numbe rs would’ve realized that it wouldn’t work. The theater simply can’t make that kind of money,” Landberg said. “It’s the same thing that happened with the Shotgun Players and the Gaia Building. Kennedy just uses these people for PR, then puts them over a b arrel to say ‘this is a done deal.’ But somehow it never is.” 

Landberg said she tried to talk to the Fine Arts operators before the demolition was approved, but Arnold only insisted she not try to prevent the demolition. 

“If I’d known about it six or ei ght months earlier, I think I could have stopped the demolition,” Landberg said. 

After the demolition Landberg said she thought of trying to run the theater herself. “The only way it could make it is if you ran it as a restaurant with a banquet room adap ted for showing films. I talked to exhibitors and figured I could make a go of it—but I’m a writer and visual artist, and I realized that it wouldn’t be healthy to take myself away form my art. [But] I’d love to see somebody else do it.”  

In San Francisc o, where most of the city’s venerable single screen theaters have already been closed and many demolished, voters may be offered a chance to spare eight of the survivors through funds from a mandated share of hotel room occupancy taxes, thanks to the efforts of Save Our Theaters, a group headed by media specialist Greg Stephens. 

Stephens has been gathering petitions for a November ballot measure, which would also give independent filmmakers a large return from the theaters in return for agreeing to film a third of their next feature in the city across the Bay. 

When Kennedy’s newest building opens—“We’re shooting for next month,” Kennedy said—the theater space will stand vacant like much of the other first floor cultural and retail space in the developer’s other downtown buildings—leaving Berkeley cineastes to mourn the loss of the city’s last repertory showcase. 

“It makes me angry,” said Elliot Cohen, a longtime habitue of the Fine Arts. “We lost an important cultural amenity.”P