Cerrito a Go

Neglected former movie house gets a new lease on life, Speakeasy style.

It’s been talked about for more than a year and a half, but the City of El Cerrito’s deal with Speakeasy Theaters to renovate and reopen the old Cerrito Theater on San Pablo Avenue looks like it’s really going to happen.

Last week the El Cerrito City Council voted to enter into a development agreement for the shuttered neighborhood cinema — now owned by the city — with Speakeasy, operators of the popular Parkway Theater in Oakland. Once a final renovation plan is approved and construction begins, Speakeasy hopes to have the theater up and running by December 2004. “Essentially we’re taking out a loan and paying it back through our rent,” says Speakeasy co-owner Kyle Fischer. “There will be $2.4 million set aside for the job, but I’d like to see us build this for $2 million.” El Cerrito officials are already studying ways to finance their portion — an estimated $500,000 — of the Art Deco building’s upgrade, including a new marquee and restoration of historic decorations, such as its original murals. Securing landmark status for at least part of the building is a key ingredient in the plan.

As for the operation of the new movie house, it will probably look a lot like the Parkway. “We want everything,” Fischer enthuses. “We’d like two 35mm projectors for changeover capability, at least two screens, plus the same video projection we have at the Parkway, plus we’re putting an interior back into the theater. This whole thing has a Crabapple Falls feel to it — let’s put on a show in the barn!” Will “The Thrill” Viharo, whose Thrillville cult movies are a Parkway Thursday-night staple, chimes in: “We’d like to show everything the Castro can show.”

The Speakeasy people are a logical fit for the Cerrito. Their picture-pub-pizza concept is a proven hit with audiences — the Parkway was rated the Bay Area’s “Most Appealing Spot” by Zagat Surveys in 2002 and 2003 — and even though Fischer admits the programming will have to be custom-tailored for El Cerrito, the basic formula will remain the same: second-run films, comfortable sofa-style seating, beer and wine with a strict 21-and-over admission policy, and substantial snacks like Greek salad, pizza, and chicken wings. The new Cerrito will also be home to Baby Brigade, the Parkway’s much-ballyhooed movie night for parents with babes in arms.

The Cerrito Theater project flies in the face of movie-biz strategy of the past fifteen years, in which major exhibitors multiplexed every market in the country. But sometimes it takes more than just stadium seating. The Speakeasy appeal — relaxed, upmarket ambience for grownups who want to ease back with a glass of wine while watching last month’s box office hits — is a specialized one, but liberal-minded El Cerrito seems a logical place for Speakeasy to branch out.

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