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New Concert Venue Planned for UC Theater

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday August 13, 2009 - 10:26:00 AM

B.B. King is coming to town—or might soon if Berkeley’s Zoning Adjustments Board approves a new concert venue at the abandoned historic UC Theater on 2036 University Ave. 

Business partners David M. Mayeri and Dawn Holliday, who run Slim’s in San Francisco, will request a use permit modification from the zoning board Thursday to convert Kimball’s, a previously approved but never established 900-seat restaurant, theater and jazz club, into a live music, bar and restaurant space. 

The proposed project would restore the dilapidated 21,000-square-foot UC Theater—designed in 1917 by noted local architect James Plachek—into an elegant three-tiered seating facility capable of holding 1,440 guests. 

The city’s oldest surviving single-screen movie theater and a Berkeley landmark, the 1,350-seat UC theater is part of a 31,200-square-foot mixed-use building, which also includes five retail storefronts and 20 residential units on the second floor. 

The theater has been standing empty since 2001, when owner Landmark Theaters decided to close it instead of paying for a hefty seismic retrofit. 

Today its walls are plastered with movie posters and graffiti, and homeless men sleep under its marquee. The building was seismically retrofitted in 2001. 

Rumors circulated last fall about the possibility of Slim’s opening a nightclub at the site, but nothing was confirmed by city officials at that time. 

In a recent letter to zoning commissioners, Mayeri and Holliday, who also operate San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and produce the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, said that they wanted to “renovate, repurpose and revitalize the UC Theater into a popular live entertainment music venue” to inject more life into Berkeley’s evolving Downtown Arts District, in keeping with the city’s goal to turn it into a major East Bay arts and culture destination. 

Most renovations will be limited to the theater’s interior, including a larger stage and bigger public restrooms. The vacant storefront near the theater’s entrance might become a kitchen for the new restaurant, opening into the main lobby and a small cafe. However, a lack of space may result in the developers working out an agreement with a nearby restaurant under which it would agree to cook food for the club’s patrons. 

The duo plans to hire a staff of 150 to help out with the restaurant, bar and concert areas and are hopeful that the club’s relaxed ambiance and eclectic mix of artists—from alternative to indie rock to world music—will attract a broad spectrum of fans. 

Once famous for showing countless screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show to Berkeley teenagers and as the place where filmmaker Werner Herzog reportedly ate his shoe during the premiere of Errol Morris’ first film Gates of Heaven, the former theater might soon host live performances by such big names in music as B.B. King, Elvis Costello, Sonic Youth, Emmylou Harris, The Decemberists and Boz Scaggs, who originally opened Slim’s in San Francisco. 

The proposed project will join Berkeley’s latest downtown music venue, the newly relocated Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, and others such as Anna’s Jazz Island, the Jazzschool, Berkeley Community Theater, and UC’s Zellerbach Auditorium and Greek Theater. 

Doors will open by 6 or 7 p.m. for 8 p.m. concerts and all shows will wrap up in time for patrons to take the last southbound BART train at 12:29 a.m. Mayeri and Holliday, however, have requested an extension until 1 a.m. or 1:30 a.m. up to 10 times annually. 

Tickets will be priced between $20 to $50. The space will also be rented out for corporate and community events. 

The club will have a zero-tolerance policy toward underage drinking, and similar to other concert venues, adults will need to provide a wrist band or a hand stamp to purchase alcohol. 

City of Berkeley’s Senior Planner Aaron Sage, who is handling the project, points out in his staff report that although large crowds outside the proposed venue before or after a concert would add to the downtown’s economic and cultural vibe, it was important for the organizers to watch out for unruly behavior. 

In the past, Berkeley police have been called to address several out-of-control teen parties at the Gaia Building a few blocks away, following which the city labeled the venue a public nuisance.