Neighborhood Theater Survival Stories

Parkway Speakeasy Theater, Oakland, CA

After operating as a troubled nightclub for many years, Kyle and Catherine Fischer re-opened Oakland’s historic Parkway Theater as the Parkway Speakeasy Theater in 1998. Following a successful model of mixing popular films with beer, wine and an extensive food menu, the Parkway has become one the Bay Area’s most endearing entertainment venues. The Parkway crowd varies from hip-post college kids to baby toting thirty-somethings and the Fischer’s are sure to book films that match the interests of the theater’s diverse audience. Beer, wine and food sales help the bottom line and Parkway crowds are a boon the Parkway’s lakeside neighborhood.

Balboa Theatre, San Francisco, CA

Landmark Theatres co-founder Gary Meyer runs the twin-screened Balboa which features double bills of both critically acclaimed studio and independent films. The Balboa is one of the family of neighborhood theatres that was built by local theatre magnate Bud Levin and it is still owned by the Levin family. Today, the theatre offers the best movie bargains in town and attracts a loyal audience to a very friendly stretch of Balboa Street in the Outer Richmond. Gary Meyer is planning gradual improvements to theatre as audiences grow.

Elmwood Theatre, Berkeley, CA

The Elmwood Theatre in Berkeley was gutted by a major fire and left for dead by its owner and operator, United Artists Theaters who attempted to sell the property to a developer. Neighborhood merchants and residents, however, rallied to save the theater and convinced the City of Berkeley to grant them a low interest loan to help them acquire the theater. Local angel investors also stepped in with substantial contributions and the Elmwood Theater Foundation was established to rebuild the theater. Today, the non-profit Foundation owns the theater and leases the venue to a for-profit operator who screens second run popular and independent film.

Cerrito Theatre, El Cerrito, CA

After a local group organized a 600 member strong organization to support the preservation of a long-abandoned theater, the El Cerrito City Council voted to purchase the theater from its owner for approximately $500,000. Meanwhile, Friends of the Cerrito Theater is organizing to raise funds to complete a major theater restoration (the building has been a furniture warehouse for decades). The City plans to distribute a request for proposals from operators to take over operation of the theater upon completion of its restoration.

Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline (Boston), MA

An showcase venue for art and independent films for many years, the Coolidge Corner Theatre fell on hard times in the 1980s. The theatre was almost demolished and replaced by a mall, but the Brookline community rallied to save the theatre.

Today, the theater is operated by the Coolidge Comer Theatre Foundation which runs a diverse program of art films, popular films, independent films, first-runs, local filmmaker showcases, children's matinees, and films of appeal to the communities of Brookline and greater Boston.

The Theater Foundation, a 501 (c)(3), is sustained by admissions, memberships and private contributions and grants.

Rafael Theater, San Rafael, CA

An Art Deco movie palace that was shuttered in the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the Rafael was revived by the Film Institute of Northern California and is now a highly successful not-for-profit theater. The Rafael Theater restoration and renovation was a joint project of the San Rafael Redevelopment Agency and the Film Institute. The Film Institute initiated a major capital campaign for the project and now operates the theater. The Rafael Film Center is now one of the Bay Area’s premiere film venues and is a vital outlet for independent film.

Baghdad Theater, Portland, OR

The McMenamin brothers have established an entertainment and hospitality empire in the Pacific Northwest by turning tired old properties into creative and dynamic new dining, drinking, hotel, entertainment and special event spaces. The Baghdad Theater in Portland is the best known theater pub on the West Coast and is probably the McMenamin’s best known venue. The McMenamin’s transformed a one-dimensional theater into a dining and entertainment showcase by removing every other row of seats and installing tables in the newly created space. The McMenamins also added food, beer and wine to traditional theater concession offerings and reduced the ticket price to encourage patrons to come and spend on food and drink. Expanding on the success of the Baghdad, the McMenamins now operate 5 theater pubs in the Pacific Northwest.

Bridge Theater, San Francisco, CA

The continued success of small neighborhood theaters like the Bridge and Clay Theatres in San Francisco demonstrate that well-run neighborhood theaters can continue to thrive. Landmark Theaters augments traditional first-run independent programming at the Bridge with special midnight features on the weekends. The mix of popular first-run independent films and occasional creative programming appears to keep the Bridge solidly in the black.

Grand Lake Theater, Oakland

Despite frequent reports of its precarious financial state, the Grand Lake Theater continues to attract large crowds. At the Grand Lake, Alan Michaan has added three small, but elegant auditoriums to the main two-screen auditorium to create a more competitive 5-screen complex. Despite the multi-screen setting, however, every auditorium in the complex offers a first-rate neighborhood theater experience. Michaan has developed a number of similar mulit-screen neighborhood venues throughout the East Bay that have some of the operational advantages of a multi-screen project without losing the neighborhood location and classic theater atmosphere . Other examples are the Orinda Theatre and Oaks Theatre (Berkeley). Michaan was also the original developer of the very tastefully crafted Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley (now operated by Landmark). Distribution issues can be a challenge for small theater circuits like Michaan’s Rennasaince Rialto Chain, but the distributors appear to have mellowed exclusivity policies over the last couple of years creating more equal opportunities for smaller operators.