The landmark UC Theatre on University Avenue in Berkeley could soon be the home of a jazz club, but just when remains a question.
If Gloria Mendoza and her spouse Michael Govan, who operated Kimball’s East in Emeryville until it closed earlier this year, win all the necessary approvals, the long-vacant movie theater will be transformed into a supper club offering live music four nights a week. An adjoining restaurant will also open in the storefront immediately to the west currently occupied by Universi ty Nails.
According to their application filed with the City of Berkeley, Mendoza and Govan plan to reconfigure the theater, replacing the row seats with fixed U-shaped booths seating 596. Additional movable tables and chairs along the sides and by the b ar in the rear of the showroom could bring the total up to 900.
Because the theater has no columns or structural supports to block views, each seat will offer an unrestricted sightline to the stage.
“This puts the UC Theatre back into play as a major entertainment forum,” said John Gordon, the commercial real estate agent who is negotiating the lease. “It will be a big shot in the arm for University Avenue.”
The 15,215-square-foot building, which also includes some second-floor office space, ended its 84-year run as movie palace four years ago when its operators were unable to pay for an extensive earthquake retrofit.
“The retrofit is now complete, and there will be very little construction involved” with the changes necessary for its new incarnation as a jazz club, Gordon said.
While Gordon said the new club would be called Kimball’s Berkeley, there’s still some question if that will prove to be the case.
The Kimball’s name comes from Kimball Allen, now 86, who has been operating musi c clubs in the Bay Area with his spouse, Jane Allen, for decades.
At one point in the 1990s, the couple operated jazz clubs under the Kimball’s name in San Francisco, Emeryville and at Jack London Square in Oakland.
The original Kimball’s was located be hind the San Francisco Opera House, while Kimball’s East was one of two clubs the Allens operated in the Emery Bay Public Market in Emeryville. Downstairs was the less formal Carnival, which specialized in salsa, and Kimball’s East, a more traditional jaz z showroom, was located upstairs.
Kimball’s East opened in 1989 and Jane Allen said they sold Kimball’s East to Gloria Mendoza in 1999, a year and a half after they moved Carnival to 522 Second St. in Oakland’s Jack London Square area, offering salsa and pool. They recently acquired an adjacent space that will be run as a sports bar featuring three projection screens and 18 pool tables, she said.
Allen said that when they sold their Emeryville club, the deal included the use of the Kimball’s name only a t that location. The club continued under their name until it closed in July.
Told that their name would be attached to the new Berkeley operation, Allen said, “I have no knowledge of that at all. You took me by surprise. That’s something we’ll have to d iscuss.”
Despite repeated requests by Gordon and calls from a reporter, the Mendozas and Govan declined to be interviewed for this article.
“I don’t know why,” Gordon said. He called them “the most unusual clients I’ve ever worked w ith. He’s [Eric] the only guy who’s ever called me ‘Babe.’”
Gordon said the site’s proximity to the downtown BART station and the accessibility of other forms of public transportation played a key role in picking the site. “They were also excited about t he hotels now in play for downtown,” he said.
Gordon also said that when major acts played the club in Emeryville, many fans would book rooms for the weekend in local hotels. The Mendozas were delighted at the pending transformation of the Shattuck Hotel into the Berkeley Westin and UC Berkeley’s plans to build a new hotel nearby, he said.
Jane Allen, who knows the Mendozaa and Govan, said “they’re wonderful people, really, and I wish them all the best.”
Designed by venerable Berkeley a rchitect James W. Plachek and opened in 1917, the move palace once seated up to 2,200 patrons during the golden age of silent film and witnessed the birth of color films and talkies.
The lobby features unique terrazzo floors and tile work in the blue and gold colors of the university and the walls of the showroom are adorned with distinctive architectural flourishes.
Though the building was designated a Berkeley landmark on May 6, 2002 by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the renovations now under consideration probably won’t probably won’t require any formal review by the LPC because no changes to the exterior are planned, Sage said.
“We may provide a copy of the completed application to the commission as a courtesy so that they can review it,” Sage said Thursday.
Daniella Thompson, an outspoken member of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association (BAHA)—the city’s most active preservationist group—said she welcomes a new jazz club to Berkeley.
“Better here than in Emeryville,” she said.
While the landmark status offers protection for the exterior of the building, she said she hopes the new operators will preserve the unique character of the interior.
“The interior is pretty much intact,” said Anthony Bruce, who works for BAHA.
Gordon said “the kitchen will be the project’s one major piece of new construction, and may be built after the club opens,” Gordon said. It will serve both the showroom and the adjoining restaurant.
In addition, new dressing rooms complete with showers a nd bathrooms will be built for performers at both ends of the stage and what is now the theater’s lobby area will become the full-service bar.
In addition to the requisite city approvals, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (AB C) must also approve the transfer of the liquor license from Emeryville to the Berkeley location—and that may pose additional problems.
The license is currently held by Ego Entertainment, a limited liability corporation with Gloria Mendoza and her son Er ic as the managing partners.
Andrew Gomez, the Oakland-based district administrator for the ABC, said that the owners were required to surrender their license within 15 days after the Emeryville club closed. The operators have a year in which they can ei ther reopen at the same location or apply to transfer the license to a new location which would have to open within a year of the surrender. The proposed opening of the Berkeley club next fall could require the owners to start the full licensing procedure over from scratch, leading to further delays before the club could serve alcohol—a financial mainstay of the supper club business.
Approval of the transfer requires permission of the City of Berkeley, as well as a separate vetting process by the ABC, wi th notices to resident who live within 100 feet of the new location as well as to schools and community and civic organizations within 600 feet, as well as public notices that must be posted for 30 consecutive days.
If there are no delays, the transfer could be approved as soon as 60 to 90 days after city approval.
Should any individual or designated group within the noticed area raise objections, the process can take considerably longer—as happened with Anna De Leon’s Jazz Island on Allston Way in the Gaia Building.
“Because one resident (of the Gaia Building) raised concerns that music from the club might affect him, it took four months to reach a settlement,” De Leon said. “The issue wasn’t even liquor.”
Mayor Tom Bates and City Man ager Phil Kamlarz have expressed support for the project and named Dave Fogarty, a city economic development specialist, as the city’s representative working with Gordon and club operators Gloria Mendoza, her husband Michael Govan and her son Eric S. Mend oza.
Fogarty said the jazz club is a perfect fit for the location and for downtown Berkeley’s Arts District.
“Upper University Avenue hasn’t really benefited yet from much revitalization,” Fogarty said. “There isn’t much foot traffic now, and that’s wha t Kimball’s will do. It will bring a nighttime anchor, and I think it will make a huge difference.”
Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association, said the proposal is “very exciting, a great addition to the Arts District. And b ecause it’s a bigger venue, it will be able to draw the top name acts.”
Even Anna De Leon, the owner of Berkeley’s newest and largest existing jazz club, Anna’s Jazz Island, said she’s thrilled with the project.
“I think it’s terrific. I welcome anythin g that brings more people into downtown Berkeley at night,” she said.
Both Badhia and De Leon said that such a strong jazz presence in downtown Berkeley could help create a critical mass that could earn the city a national reputation as a major jazz cent er.
Anna’s Jazz Island is one of four venues in downtown Berkeley that offer live jazz, the others being the Jazz School at 2087 Addison St., Jupiter at 2181 Shattuck Ave., and Downtown at 2102 Shattuck Ave.
If all goes well, said Gordon, the club could hold its grand opening next fall, just as the Berkeley Repertory and Aurora Theaters open their new seasons.
“The club will be a real bonus for the Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival,” added Gordon. “This year they played at 12 or 14 different venues. Jus t imagine how it will be when they open.”
Badhia said she was concerned that the project doesn’t include parking, nor did the building’s prior cinematic incarnation
“It’s not reasonable to expect them [the new operators] to supply it,” she said, “and we’re relying on the municipality to provide the infrastructure to support the growing Arts District.”
Aaron Sage, the senior planner assigned to the project, said Thursday that the project is currently “in the earliest possible stage, with many questions remaining to be answered.” But he added that he’ll examine the parking issue in the staff report he’s preparing for submission to the Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB), which plays the central role in authorizing project permits.
ZAB must also issue formal approval before the club will be allowed to serve alcohol, a process that involves notification of property owners and residents in the area.n