When I moved to Alameda four years ago I was struck by the beauty of the local movie palace. It was clearly from a different time, built before VCRs and DVDs, when going to the movies was a social activity, an occasion which you would dress up, put on something special.
Since closing its doors in 1979, the Alameda Theatre has been a roller skating rink, a disco, and most recently, a gymnastics studio. There was quite a bit of debate over how to revive the building which had, over the years, become infested with rats, water damage, and an alarming amount of pigeon shit.
Alameda is an anomaly in the Bay Area, debates rage over improvements. There is a decades old measure in place that prevents any multi-story condos or apartment buildings and the debate over how to sustainably develop the long-abandoned naval base on the West End of the island is regularly featured in the opinion pages of the local papers (we have two). The final agreement with the developer of the theatre included construction of a 300+ car garage and several mini-screens in a newly constructed addition. The thinking was that a single screen would never be able to draw the audience necessary to make the $9 million investment pay off. Debates raged with the traditionalists opposed to what they called “cineplex” – eventually the developer won over the city council and development went forward.
Unfortunately, one casualty of this theater has been that our local pocket theater which I’ve written about before. Apparently there’s a strange arrangement that’s been made between the Alameda Theatre and the big studios that only allows first run films within a certain geographic radius. This little theater, with donated couches for seating, was within that area so they could no longer feature the films that they felt brought people to their doors. Several people suggested that they could feature “art house” films but the owner confessed that artsy types don’t really go for the soda & popcorn which made up his margins. Izumi had the idea that he could still stay in business if he ran classic kids films (the Disney classics, Little Rascals, Lassie, etc) but the decision has been made and he’s showing his last filming today. In my mind it’s unfortunate but the additional exposure for Alameda via the refurbished Alameda Theatre and the new business (and tax revenues) it’ll generate is worth this small sacrifice.
On opening weekend, the renovated Alameda Theatre opened it’s doors to the community with free screenings of classic movies from the theater’s golden age. I caught the Wizard of Oz with the family which was a real treat to see on the big screen. It was easy to imagine how incredible it must have been, at the height of the Depression, for folks to come into what can only be described as a movie palace and see color moving images for the first time. Experiencing the film in the theatre, Oz’s themes of faithfully following the yellow brick road but that no wizard can grant you what you need, you ultimately need to find it in yourself rang true in context like they never did before.
After the film, we joined all the townspeople and toured this new structure and could not believe that such a small town as ours could play host to such an amazing piece of architecture. It was as if Radio City Music hall opened up on Main Street. Kids were riding up and down the escalators as if they’d never seen one before. Everyone was smiles.
So far so good, everyone in town I’ve spoken to has seen several films since opening and we all just went to see the new Pixar movie, Wall-E and when the previews started to roll, people in the crowd yelled out “Focus!” and there was a brief intermission as they threaded the second reel halfway through. One of our neighbors across the street serves popcorn. They’re still working out the kinks but I kind of like it. The theatre has a real community feel despite its grandeur.
New businesses are opening on either side of the theatre (a wine bar and a gourmet hamburger place) and, from what I hear, business is up and the line at the local ice cream shop is always long. I was skeptical that this project would ever get off the ground but, now that it’s open, I’m glad and hope it leads to a revival of Alameda’s Park Street district.