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UC Theater Approved as Concert Venue

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday August 20, 2009 - 11:19:00 AM

The UC Theater became Berkeley’s latest concert venue last week when the city’s Zoning Adjustments Board unanimously approved a use permit modification at a July 13 public meeting. 

David Mayeri, former chief operating officer of Bill Graham Presents, is partnering with Dawn Holliday of Slim’s San Francisco on the project. He told the Planet that the duo had decided not to change the name of the UC Theater. 

“It’s a great name for a building that has been in the community for a long time,” Mayeri said. “Many people in the East Bay like the name and we want to keep it. We may add a tagline after it.” 

East Bay music fans will surely be happy to see the weary looking marquee light up with names like Boz Scaggs, B.B. King, Dashboard Confessional and Calexico.  

Mayeri said he first became aware of the theater at 2036 University Ave. a year and a half ago, after Kimball’s announced that it had scrapped plans to open a 900-seat theater and jazz club in the space. 

UC Studios, the real estate firm which owns the theater, hired local broker John Gordon to lease the space. Gordon reached out to the City of Berkeley’s Economic Development Director Michael Caplan for help, who then contacted Mayeri. 

When Mayeri showed the space to Holliday, who also runs San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and co-produces the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, she liked it instantly. 

“When I first saw the building with the owners, I thought it was a very interesting space,” Mayeri said. “The first person I went to was Dawn, and she loved the building. Things just moved on after that.” 

Mayeri said he and Holliday were planning to start a new company in Berkeley, named Berkeley Music Group LLC, which would manage the UC Theater. 

“It’s a great place for the public to assemble—very conducive to live entertainment,” he said, when asked why the two had decided to open a concert hall in Berkeley. “I think there’s a big need for a concert venue of this size in Berkeley. We see the UC Theater filling a niche in the East Bay similar to the Fillmore in San Francisco. You can expect bands which play at the Fillmore or the Great American Music Hall. Of course nothing can replace the Fillmore in terms of history, but there’s a strong interest in seeing the same kind of concerts and hoping that you have a great time.” 

Mayeri said that although Berkeley had live entertainment venues of all sizes—ranging from the smaller Anna’s Jazz Island and Jazz Cafe to the new 440-seat Freight & Salvage to big ones such as the 2,000-capacity Zellerbach, the 3,600-capacity Berkeley Community Theater and the Greek Theater, which can hold 8,500 people, there was nothing to cater to the 1,000 to 1,500 range crowd. 

Christina Kellog, director of public relations and new media at Cal Performances, which manages both Zellerbach and the Greek Theater, welcomed the idea of another concert venue in Berkeley. 

“You can’t have too many performing arts in the city,” she said. “I don’t see it as competition. The more arts we have the better.” 

Several Bay Area music industry oldtimers spoke in support of the project at the zoning meeting, saying that the new venue would revitalize the University Avenue corridor and create new jobs in the city. Others said they had been craving an East Bay venue similar to Slim’s so they wouldn’t have to travel across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco or visit Oakland for their monthly music fix. 

“Arts is the new retail,” said Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Berkeley Downtown Association. “It’s the best thing we can hope for a huge space like this. It helps us to be more competitive with our neighboring cities, with new concert venues coming up everyday.” 

The project’s developers will not be changing the UC Theater’s landmarked exteriors, limiting most of the renovation work to constructing viewing platforms, dance floors, ramped aisles and performance space, which will be accessible by stairs and elevators. The old raked theater floor will be replaced by tiered seating similar to the Warfield in San Francisco, and new seats will be put in. A part of the basement will be used for dressing rooms. 

Built in 1917, parts of the theater as it stands today were rebuilt after a fire in 1940, Mayeri said. Landmark Theaters co-founder Gary Meyer opened the UC Theater in 1976 but left the company in 1997. Landmark closed the theater in 2001 when the repertory movie business started suffering and it was unable to fund a hefty seismic retrofit bill. 

“A lot of damage was done to the place toward the end,” Mayeri said. “A lot of vandalism. We’ll have to take care of that.” 

Robert Remiker of Remiker Architects, the Berkeley firm carrying out the renovation, said that most of the decorative elements inside the theater, including the beams, coffers and Fresco paintings, would be brought back to life. 

Care would be taken to make sure that a modern acoustic and light system suspended from the ceiling doesn’t become a visual distraction for the audience, he said. 

“The interior is actually quite modest—it’s not neo-classical like the Great American Music Hall,” Remikar said. “Given that we are in Berkeley, there will be a high level of sensitivity and accommodation for the disabled.” 

The renovated UC Theater, which will also serve alcohol and food, is expected to attract more than 120,000 people annually, based on an estimated 100 concerts and community and corporate events. 

“Our goal is to create a unique and compelling customer experience and further establish downtown Berkeley as the East Bay’s regional center for arts and culture,” Mayeri told the zoning board at the meeting. “The UC Theater will stimulate downtown businesses, restaurants and nightlife and will complement existing music institutions. As a kid growing up on Shattuck Avenue, I attended movies at the UC Theater and am excited at the prospect of seeing concerts at this grand old building—a building that will continue to inspire arts and entertainment in Berkeley.” 

Although a couple of zoning board members had questions about crowd control and security, Mayeri assured them that the theater operators would be prepared for any kind of rowdy behavior. 

Mayeri, who was in charge of crowd control when he first started at Bill Graham Presents, which later became Live Nation, said that a sold-out show would typically have 14 to 20 security officers inside the venue, and between two to four people on the streets. 

Plain-clothes security will also be keeping an eye out for underage drinkers and potential troublemakers. 

“We believe in being good neighbors, so we will ask the customers when they are leaving to please be quiet or remind them that they are in a neighborhood,” Mayeri said. “We will ask them to use their library voices. Ninety-nine percent of people are going to cooperate when they come to a show. For the remaining 1 percent who don’t, we will respond quickly. To say that we will not have problems will not be a factual statement. There will be problems. We have to anticipate problems, and we’ll have to scan them and act responsibly when they come up.” 

At one point boardmember Terry Doran interjected by saying, “I can’t believe anything will be wilder—more problematic—than a midnight Rocky Horror Show,” drawing laughs from everyone in the room. 

City of Berkeley’s principal planner Aaron Sage told the zoning board to make a finding to allow expansion of alcohol sales at the UC Theater on the basis that its operators did not have a history of negligence or violations pertaining to alcohol. 

Sage acknowledged that although Slim’s was currently involved in a dispute with the ABC over San Francisco’s strict sound ordinance rising from the complaint of one neighbor and its original use permit—which says that Slim’s should be run as a restaurant, not a nightclub—they were not obstacles for the Berkeley project. 

A date had not yet been set for construction to begin. Mayeri said he expected the theater to open in fall 2010.