Sometime between the historic Alameda Theater’s last picture show — a less-than-legendary screening of The Apple Dumpling Gang — and its early 80s rebirth as the Yankee Doodle Roller Rink, a pair of chandeliers vanished from the mezzanine. It’s the standard story for America’s grand old movie palaces, where the past is often pilfered away piece by piece, and the Alameda went the regular route from splendor to shutdown to nearly falling into the hands of Chuck E. Cheese. But Alameda has a serious nostalgic streak, and its chandelier thief had a civic purpose: to preserve the pendants in the hope that one day the Art Deco landmark would be restored.
“This person had come in and basically stolen them to protect them, because they had thought that the building was going to be torn down or that they weren’t going to be cared for,” said Jennifer Ott, Alameda’s development manager. “We knew that they had existed at one time, but it wasn’t until we started the actual restoration and were under contract with a construction firm that someone came back anonymously and returned them.” The chandeliers showed up carefully disassembled and packed in boxes, the mysterious preservationist saying only that they had been swiped for safekeeping.
Since 2006, when restoration efforts finally began after a long and sometimes contentious debate over the theater’s future, bits and pieces of the Alameda have been returning home. What couldn’t be recovered was painstakingly recreated, from the patterned carpets to the gilded walls and elaborately decorated coffered ceilings. And now that the theater is ready to reopen with a black-tie gala on May 21, the city is looking forward to attracting attention and visitors from across the East Bay.
It may even attract national notice. Alameda’s project to revitalize the old is representative of something wholly new, a model for restoring historic picture palaces that is very possibly unlike anything else in the country. “No one, to my knowledge, has done what we’ve done,” said Ott, pointing to the partnership the city has undertaken with developer Kyle Conner to revamp the theater as the anchor and focal point of a retro-styled, modern movie complex consisting of eight screens in all.
The $38 million project — with $30.5 million in total public cost, including the $3.4 million to buy the theater property and a HUD loan to fund construction of a parking garage — was conceived, Ott said, to allow a full restoration of the opulent movie house using redevelopment bonds rather than creating a drain on the city’s general fund. “We just didn’t feel that we had the general fund revenues to subsidize on an ongoing basis the operation of the theater,” she said. “Almost all performing arts facilities are subsidized operationally; they just don’t pay for themselves. And it was important to the city to not put ourselves in that position.” According to the city’s economic analysis, this meant that a single-screen venue was out of the picture. Not even a three-screen complex was feasible in the context of today’s movie business.
“On a number of occasions we looked at the Park Theater in Lafayette and the Orinda Theater in Orinda, and these were theaters that just couldn’t sustain themselves,” Ott explained. “They’re old historic theaters, single-screen or three-screen theaters that just couldn’t stay open. Park Theater closed; Orinda was on the brink of closing. And all of that really happened when Walnut Creek opened their big theater downtown, because everyone was drawn to the new, modern movie theater.”
In order to create a similar draw while keeping the gilt-edged grace of architect Timothy L. Pflueger’s vision intact, Conner worked with the city on a design that will usher all visitors through the historic theater’s lobby whether they’re catching a show on the rehabbed main screen or in one of the smaller theaters that make up the adjacent new complex. “It’s one of a kind,” said Conner, whose Alameda Entertainment Associates is leasing the land, the historic theater, and retail space from the city. “I doubt that there’s another one like this in the world, just because of the historical value of the building and the new cineplex that’s state-of-the-art.”
But what will open to the public this week isn’t necessarily what all Alamedans wanted. To the residents behind Citizens for a Megaplex-Free Alameda — and the 3,000 people who signed their 2005 petition to stop the project from going forward — the double-decker cineplex and adjacent multistory parking garage were excessive, expensive, and out of character with the theater and the downtown Park Street district. Mark Haskett of tiny Central Cinema, a cozy, couch-stuffed former mortuary that until this week was the only commercial movie house in town, took issue with the public-private partnership and says he will have to close his current location on June 30 due to distribution troubles brought on by the new theaters. Resident Irene Dieter argued against the parking garage plans in the Alameda Journal, demanding that the taxpayers get “much more for our money.” Councilmember Doug deHaan even called the structure “butt ugly,” an assessment the city ultimately copped to when it brought in a new architect to Art Deco-fy the exteriors and refine the appearance of the garage.
DeHaan, who in 2006 challenged Alameda mayor and multiplex advocate Beverly Johnson on a slow-growth slate, says today that the “massive” garage and two-level movie house are still a concern for a number of people. Although nearly everyone wanted to see a rehabilitation project, he explained, the undertaking “got a little bigger than life on the way to the movies.” But now that it’s opening, the theater has to work — and deHaan is impressed by the beauty and depth of the renovation.
“As a kid back in the 50s and 60s, I used to go down there, and this is better than it was then,” he said. “It was on the downside of its lifecycle — if you went into the balcony there’d probably be four or five couples, making out. Basically it just ran its course.”
Kate Pryor, a second-generation Alamedan and owner of Tucker’s Ice Cream, agrees. “When I was going to the theater in the early 70s, it was an incredible building, but it was dirty. Grimy. They’ve done such a beautiful job restoring it; it looks nothing like it did in my memory.”
Conner and the city based their feasibility studies on local patrons alone, predicting that business from Alameda residents would be enough to keep the endeavor afloat. “We hired our own economic consultant, and what they found was basically you could support this movie theater with just capturing about 60 percent of the demand for movie theaters on the island,” said Ott, “which I think might even be low given Alameda residents’ propensity to stay on the island.” That’s a good thing for Alameda that may not be nice news for neighboring Oakland, which will likely lose much of the patronage of the islanders who’ve been catching shows at the Grand Lake and Jack London Square. Conversely, Oakland residents already spend $1 billion a year shopping outside the city, and Alameda expects the new theater to attract more business from across the estuary than ever. Members of the Park Street Business Association have been the cineplex project’s biggest supporters, said Ott. DeHaan expects to see restaurants and stores staying open later to accommodate visitors looking for things to do after the evening screenings.
Kate Pryor is eager to see new faces on Park Street. “There are a certain number of people who have a false perception of Alameda, that Alameda is for Alamedans,” she said. “My experience as a business owner is that at least a third of my business comes from outside of Alameda now, and I look forward to having a draw like this theater to bring people who may not know what a great shopping district Park Street is — what a great town Alameda is generally.”