Save The Regal UA Berkeley Theater objective: landmarking the theater's exterior will raise awareness about its historical and architectural value says Allen Michaan
Berkeley (Special to ZennieReport.com) – Lovers of historic architecture are alarmed at the looming destruction of the Regal UA Berkeley Theater in downtown Berkeley, an art deco jewel on the California Register of Historical Resources and deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The United Artists theater company was conceived through a partnership of four Hollywood giants: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and director D.W. Griffith. When the Berkeley theater opened in 1932, it boasted a spectacular ornamental interior, a stage, 1,800 seats and movie stars in attendance.
The Regal UA Berkeley Theater closed last February after operating continuously for 91 years, leaving Berkeley with only one commercial movie theater in the Elmwood District. Even though the theater was converted into a multiplex in the '70s and '80s, it retains much of its original art deco splendor.
Thanks to pressure from local preservationists and city officials, the grand lobby, hallways and staircases are largely intact and in good shape. More importantly, officials also insisted that the theater owner preserve the original auditorium behind the retrofit's false walls and ceilings. While damaged, that historic structure and decor still exist to this day. The foresight of those city officials and preservationists 50 years ago means this architectural treasure can be restored to its former glory.
But now a real estate developer owns the Regal UA Berkeley Theater and is seeking the city's approval to demolish most of the structure, including the palatial auditorium, and replace it with a high-rise residential tower. A state law that fast-tracks the approval of housing proposals, SB 330, is essentially paving the way to the theater's ruin.
While creating new housing is no doubt vitally important, it must be balanced by preserving our irreplaceable architectural heritage. To destroy this National Register-eligible structure without a proper study of preservation and restoration would be a cultural theft to the citizens of Berkeley and the greater Bay Area.
All over our nation, communities have worked to raise funds to save, restore and reopen surviving examples of Hollywood's golden era of movie palaces. None of those cities has regretted their choice to pursue preservation over destruction. Sixty years ago, short-sighted community leaders in San Francisco allowed the spectacular Fox Theater to be demolished. That loss is lamented to this day. Berkeley's elected officials must not be allowed to make that same mistake.
I'm a member of Save the UA Berkeley, which has filed an application with the city to make the theater building a local landmark. This will not save the theater from being leveled for apartments, but it could help. The Landmarks Preservation Commission is set to hear the issue at its meeting on Feb. 1. Concerned citizens should attend this meeting and contact Berkeley's City Council members.
Save the UA Berkeley hopes that landmarking the exterior of the theater structure, as allowed by local law if the commissioners approve, will raise awareness about the building's rich historical and architectural value and potential to be restored for future generations. We hope to start a conversation — among citizens, city officials, and the arts and business communities — about how to come together to preserve this invaluable piece of Berkeley's history.
The theater could be brought back to life for current citizens and future generations. It could become a multi-use performing arts center, a cultural and economic beacon of downtown, or even a municipally-owned auditorium like Oakland's gorgeous Paramount Theatre. There are many possibilities to consider, but only if the theater is shielded from ruin first.
To learn more, visit www.savetheuaberkeley.org. Raise your voice to ensure the UA's rebirth as an entertainment destination for today's Bay Area audiences and for future generations.
Once lost, magnificent theaters like this can never be replaced.
Allen Michaan has been in the business of operating movie theaters throughout the Bay Area since 1972. His company has been involved with over two dozen locations and continues to operate the Grand Lake Theatre at 3200 Lake Park Ave in Oakland today. As a volunteer consultant, he has advised on restoring several movie palaces around the country.