“Motion picture stars bowing to admiring throngs and stopping before microphones to extend greetings. Dazzling klieg lights, brighter than a torrid desert sun. Powerful searchlights piercing the darkness above with sudden flashes. Music and flowers.”
It would be, the Berkeley Daily Gazette said, “Hollywood transplanted here” and “the greatest theatrical event in the history of Berkeley.”
That was 75 years ago, Sept. 16, 1932, as Berkeley’s new United Artists theater opened on Shattuck Avenue, just south of the Berkeley Public Library.
The opening was big news in Depression-era Berkeley, which preened in the assurance that a national corporation was willing to invest in the community, despite economic hardship.
Then, as now, there were several movie theaters downtown, but the new building with its fluid sculptural facade, enormous marquee with hundreds of lights, and towering sign that proclaimed “United Artists” in neon up and down Shattuck Avenue, changed the commercial and physical landscape.
Berkeleyans flocked to the spectacle.
“Every one of the 1,800 luxurious seats in the theater was filled within five minutes after the doors opened,” reported the Berkeley Daily Gazette the next day. “Twice as many filled the foyers, waiting for an opportunity to obtain seats for the second show.”
“A solid mass of stargazers” outside ogled the celebrities who arrived in “a fleet of new sedans,” after dining at the Berkeley Country Club. Actors and actresses “mingled with their local admirers, laughing and
chatting and writing autographs on anything that would take ink or lead pencil.”
They included “beautiful blond Josephine Dunn” and “the vivacious Spanish dancer, Senorita Conchita Montenegro,” both splendid in evening gowns and “costly outer wraps.” Male stars included “broad-shouldered, swaggering George Bancroft,” “youthful Marty Kemp, suave Lou Cody” and “crooning, good looking, Bing Crosby,” who rushed over from a performance in Oakland to attend the opening.
“Outside as late as 10 o’clock several thousand persons stood in the street.” Police and firemen managed the crowds, not only on Shattuck but around the corner of Bancroft where a “great throng” waited to see movie stars emerge from the stage door.
Inside the theater, Bancroft recited a monologue and comic actor “Stuttering Roscoe” Ates paired with Kemp on “an impromptu dialogue which even had Master of Ceremonies Cody laughing.”
Berkeley Mayor Thomas Caldecott came forward to “extend the City’s greetings to the United Artists and the Fox West Coast Theaters corporations for giving Berkeley such a magnificent theater.”
Caldecott had earlier posed with two “pretty usherettes” to sign the “biggest proclamation in the world” which had noted “life in Berkeley and its surrounding communities takes on a new and bright aspect” with the opening of the theater.
“Practically every city official and civic leader of Berkeley and the East Bay district was in the audience, including the entire City Council.”
United Artists was founded by powerhouse stars Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith to make films and, as was typical of the time, show them in its own corporate theaters.
Berkeley’s UA Theater “was an early link in the United Artists chain,” and “fairly deluxe,” says Gary Parks, southwest director of the Theater Historical Society of America. Southern California had several similarly designed UA theaters.
Berkeley, though, has the only one where the allegorical figure of “Artistry” is on the left on the facade, “Unity” on the right. “Let’s hear it for Berkeley non-conformity,” Parks says.
“The Berkeley UA was the work of Clifford Balch, with Walker & Eisen,” he notes, while the interior painted decoration were done by the Heinsbergen Decorating Company of Los Angeles.
The Berkeley theater is perhaps the only one of its type still directly connected to United Artists, which merged with Regal Cinemas and Edwards Theaters to form Regal Entertainment Group, which runs 6,368 screens in 529 locations around the country and calls itself “the largest motion picture exhibitor in the world.”
When the $300,000 UA Berkeley opened, it had a single screen and the filmgoer was offered a spectacle extending from curb to commode.
“The brilliantly illumined marquee and the lobby give no idea of the beauty and space within,” the Gazette reported at the opening.
The theater originally had a tile-floored atrium open to the street, with a four-sided dome; it’s now enclosed and carpeted.
“Once through the outside doors patrons will be delighted with the artistic outer foyer with its high, richly toned ceilings, the great French plate glass mirrors on either side, the delicate warmth of color and the great black and gold illustrated panels, depicting above, on and below the earth,” the Gazette wrote.
There was no concession counter. “Theatres in the 1930s in some cases did experiment with things like candy machines, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that concessions became common,” says Parks.
From the lobby, “straight ahead the artistic mezzanine looms up with its polished aluminum railings like glistening silver” the Gazette wrote. “Then further ahead is the inner foyer with its wonderful murals depicting the drama. To the right is the main lounging room, replete with comfortable and handsome furniture, a gigantic solid mahogany table on which is mounted a beautiful silver statuette. Here there are roomy Chesterfields in Spanish and modernistic design sufficient to seat comfortably nearly 100 persons.”
Within the theater one found, the Gazette said, “the massive stage, the artistic contours and decorations of the proscenium arch, the golden console and generously large orchestra pit which extends outward so far that it makes the front row of seats desirable ones at a distance sufficient from the silver screen.”
The stage, 25 feet deep, had a dozen adjacent dressing rooms, and was equipped “to present all kinds of stage attractions at any time there is demand to offer vaudeville here.”
Patrons could also luxuriate in non-theatrical amenities.
The “ladies’ parlors” included “overstuffed furniture, lounges and individual chairs, beautiful French plate glass mirrors” and “inviting” lighting. The main women’s lounge has “smoking stands” and a “cosmetic room” with dressing tables.
The men got their own smoking room with walls “stenciled with various sports—football, baseball, track, polo, hunting and fishing, tennis and basketball.”
Many of these features are now gone or covered up. In the 1970s the main auditorium and balcony were partitioned to provide four separate screens, although liniments of the original spaces can still be seen.
Further renovations in the early 1980s caused worries that the lobby would be compromised, and heartfelt appeals were made to the management. As a result, the original glass and wood entrance doors, set back from the street, were preserved, a matching new mural was added, and the lobby stayed intact.
“The high standards of the original design are something that future generations would appreciate as theaters of this type are becoming increasingly rare,” wrote architectural historian Michael Crowe to the president of United Artists in 1982.
“The glittering, labyrinthine Aladdin’s Cave of a lobby, belying the building’s small street facade, still conveys the feelings of surprise and splendor that were part of the great days of movie-going. This must not be lost now,” wrote the Berkeley Historical Society.
The theater now has now seven screens serving about 1,400 seats, according to Regal Entertainment representatives.
Outside, the original marquee is gone along with the neon tower. In the 1960s and ’70s, Parks says, civic and architectural distaste for neon brought about the demise of numerous theater signs, including Berkeley’s.
The facade retains its original flowing Art Deco character but has been painted. It’s one of the more prominent and important architectural compositions from its era in Berkeley, complementary to the Deco-style Berkeley Public Library, just up the block.
Some original furnishings are at the Oakland Paramount, while others are scattered among private collectors. The theater organ is now privately owned and may end up, Parks says, in a theater in Astoria, Ore.
On opening night in 1932 the organ was central to the entertainment, with four virtuosos offering solos as a prelude to “a typical theater opening program” on film.
A Will Rogers comedy, Down to Earth, was the feature film. “There was one of those almost tragically funny ‘Screen Souvenirs,’ a Magic Carpet Travel, a Mickey Mouse cartoon and the Metrotone news.”
Tickets cost 30 cents for general admission and 40 cents for loge seats at matinees, 45 cents and 69 cents on evenings, Sundays and holidays, and “children 10 cents any time.”
“Those who waited in the foyers were loud in their praise of the wonderful lounging rooms, the artistic decorations. Hundreds stopped to congratulate Manager Clarence L. Laws on the beauty of the theater and the wonderful service rendered by the house staff.”
Back then, elaborately uniformed staffers ushered patrons to their seats and even posed for publicity photos. Today’s staffers are practically invisible in comparison and there’s no such thing as an usher, only an employee who slips in silently after each showing to clean up.
In 1932 Councilmember Reese Clark said the theater “is one of the beauty spots of the downtown district.
“Berkeley at one time was known as a ‘show town’ and, if the theaters continue to express their confidence in Berkeley with such luxurious structures, it again will assume that role.”
Berkeley Police Chief Greening added “bright lights are a deterrent to crime—criminals fear them more than any other one thing. That is exactly what the new … theater has brought to the downtown business area—bright lights and plenty of them.”
“Berkeley citizens are entitled to the best that the show world has to
offer,” Greening concluded.
And that’s just what they enjoyed on that brilliant night, 75 years ago.
Photograph Courtesy Regal Entertainment
In late 1966 the theater still had its original marquee, below the neon sign tower that dominated the façade.