For Whom the Bell Tolls

Antioch turns to private sector to rehab an old movie theater.

Typically, when a Bay Area community rallies to save a former movie house, merchants and neighborhood orgs want to restore it as a fully operational cinema. Not Antioch. “That’s the very least of our plan,” says Nordyn Anderson, president of El Campanil Theatre Preservation Foundation, when asked about her group’s aspirations for the charming, single-screen El Campanil, a 1928 Spanish Mission-style palace — complete with bell tower — on Second Street in the heart of Antioch’s Rivertown district downtown. “To convert it to a movie theater would mean dividing it up, and we don’t want that.” Classic movies and film festivals are certainly a part of El Campanil’s future, but live theater, dance, kids’ programs, opera, and music concerts are also in the mix.

Only three years after beginning its efforts to purchase, restore, and operate the vintage theater, Anderson’s foundation is now within sight of the goal line. With the support of mayor Don Freitas, it began a campaign to sell the concept as part of Antioch’s “Rivertown Renaissance” project, and things began to happen. Calpine Energy, the local power plant, is reportedly giving the group $500,000 to buy the building — currently being used for church functions — from the Stamm family, its original owners. “We’re pretty far along because it’s being done in the private sector,” Anderson explains. “We’re in escrow, and as soon as the money is in our hands, escrow could close by July 16.”

Relying on corporate generosity, especially from the energy industry, is a new and surprising wrinkle in the East Bay’s continuing wave of movie theater rehabs. The Elmwood on Berkeley’s College Avenue was supported by a bond issue in the ’80s. And the recent Cerrito Theater deal in El Cerrito happened because the city was convinced to buy the building. But then those theaters are devoted to movies only — El Campanil aspires to be more of a community cultural center. And a cute one at that. Anderson insists, though, that the ’20s Spanish grandeur isn’t the main reason to rescue El Campanil. “It’s going to be the cornerstone of Rivertown,” she says. “It will be a center for the performing arts.”

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