It may be difficult to grasp in this era of multiple platforms for screened entertainment, but not so long ago the only way to see a movie — any movie — was to tromp down to the neighborhood theater and take a seat in a roomful of strangers. That was then. Today, only a few reminders of those old, funky East Bay movie venues remain as phantom alternative might-have-beens to clean, modern multiplexes and that bijou in your pocket.
The noisome popcorn pits, with their dusk-to-dawn marathons and eccentric clientele, have disappeared — they’re now either nondescript storefronts or vacant lots. But curious cinema junkies with overactive imaginations can still visit the sites of those vanished fantasy factories, if only to dream of what once was.
There’s the UC Theatre (2036 University Ave., Berkeley), a legendary, cavernous (1,300 seats), classic daily-change calendar operation that showed everything in the world, operated by exhibitor extraordinaire Gary Meyer, who co-founded the Landmark Theatres circuit there. Notable events: Director Werner Herzog eating his shoe onstage, on a bet with fellow filmmaker Errol Morris; “Hong Kong Thursdays” in the Eighties; live appearances by John Waters and Divine, Russ Meyer, David Lynch, the Pixar animators, and in the audience, young Tom Hanks, who credits the UC with awakening his interest in film. Today, it’s repurposed and restored as a glowing general entertainment center, including concerts and films.
The Parkway Speakeasy Theater (1843 Park Blvd., Oakland) was the “Picture-Pub-Pizza” concept’s biggest local success: newish movies, plus inspired late-night screenings of cheesy drive-in-style flicks and spook shows, all fueled by beer, wine, and munchies served to patrons relaxing on sofas. The antics of horror hosts Will “The Thrill” Viharo, Monica the Tiki Goddess, and their frequent guest, filmmaker Ray Dennis Steckler — maker of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? — are still fondly remembered.
And the Berkeley Cinema Guild and Studio (2436 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley). Two screens famously booked by critic-to-be Pauline Kael with her husband Edward Landberg, playing foreign and “art” films. Kael’s detailed program notes, actually full-fledged critiques of that evening’s pics, were available for patrons — the forerunners of what would become her influential reviews in The New Yorker. This no-frills temple of cinematic high art is often credited with being the first repertory cinema in the country.
Martial arts, splatter, and horror triple bills for a rowdy crowd that interacted vociferously with the mayhem onscreen all went down at Lux Theatre (1220 Broadway, Oakland). Former Express film critic Michael Covino recalls watching an Italian giallo shocker there, in which a copulating couple gets a stake driven through both their bodies with one blow, leaving the point of the stake protruding through the mattress below: “Gangbangers, guys with big floppy white pimp hats, and scores of truants suddenly jumped up, shaking their heads in disbelief while trying not to gag, and raced for the doors. In four or five years of going to the Lux, I had never seen such a mass exodus due to content. It was too much even for this hardcore audience.” A grindhouse supreme.
The Rialto 4 Cinemas (841 Gilman St., Berkeley) was four screens in a converted Quonset hut with massive sound bleed, run by Allen Michaan, who went on to start the Renaissance Rialto chain, which includes the Grand Lake. According to one regular of this hangout in Berkeley’s industrial flatlands, so much dope was being smoked there that the whole place seemed to be levitating.
The Fine Arts Cinema (2451 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley) screened second-run and foreign movies in a homey setting, operated by Keith Arnold (now manager of San Francisco’s Castro Theatre). Site of the first and only East Bay Express Film Festival in the late Nineties. Before the Fine Arts the building housed the Mitchell Bros porno theater.
Northside Theatre (1828 Euclid Ave., Berkeley): This hole-in-the-wall north campus student favorite had a big hit with Michael Mak’s Hong Kong-produced Sex and Zen in 1992. Otherwise, it showed second-run and indie pics, the weirder the better. Enter theater from the courtyard of LaVal’s Pizza.
As if to capitalize on the collegiate audience’s fascination with all things cinematic in those bygone days, the converted laundromat that was Telegraph Repertory Theatre (2519 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley) booked a full rep schedule under the direction of Zoetrope movie producer and future Telluride Film Festival co-founder Tom Luddy. As legend has it, the rep house later moved upstairs into an apartment living room for a different owner — the very definition of a movie fanatic’s haven.
And Roxie Theatre (517 17th St., Oakland), a downtown-Oakland second-run house specializing in double features of action and “blaxploitation” fare, had success with such flicks as Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold starring Tamara Dobson.