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Raising the Curtain on Alameda’s Art Deco Movie Palace



    When it opened in 1932, the Alameda Theater was a glamorous Art Deco movie palace, a destination in itself on par with Oakland’s Paramount Theatre and San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. But as times changed, so did the movie house, its grandeur fading over the decades and forcing the theater to endure several ignominious reincarnations—as a roller rink, a dance hall and a gymnastics center. It almost became a kids’ pizza parlor, and it narrowly avoided demolition.
    But the theater has managed to survive until now, when political will and resources finally have come together to resurrect the historic structure as an opulent movie theater. In March the curtain will rise on the next chapter of the Alameda Theater (originally known as the Alameda Theatre), with officials planning a three-day grand-opening celebration to unveil the $37.3 million project.
Whether the restored theater—the anchor cinema of a modern eight-theater cineplex, along with a multistoried parking garage—will relive its glory days remains to be seen, but what is clear is that the theater continues to hold great significance for Alamedans.

1932 Grand Opening

    Many Alamedans still remember the Alameda Theater’s beginning and its early years.
    Alan Ward, 79, who was almost 4 on Aug. 16, 1932, can recall the theater’s grand-opening night, saying, “It was a dramatic and colorful event. I remember the lobby’s glittery lights and the colorful costumes of the usherettes.”
    The theater indeed opened with much fanfare, and the guest of honor was California Gov. James Rolph Jr., who dedicated the theater while Alameda Mayor William Murray presided over the ceremony. Alameda’s 35,000 residents had plenty of theaters—the Strand, the Rio, the Vogue, the Park and the Neptune—but they didn’t have a true movie palace until the Alameda Theater: 33,400 square feet, 2,200 seats, one of the largest movie screens in the Bay Area, a beautiful Art Deco design and a vertical blade sign that soared 70 feet into the sky with “Alameda” in big capital letters. Built in 14 months at a cost of $500,000 by the Nasser Brothers, a company of seven brothers who owned a chain of Bay Area theaters, the Alameda Theater instantly became the dominant building in the Park Street Business District.
    The Nassers chose a family film for opening night’s feature, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, starring Marion Nixon and Ralph Bellamy. The bill also included The Chimp, with Laurel and Hardy; a Betty Boop cartoon; and a Fox Movietone Newsreel.
    The Alameda Times-Star’s edition of Aug. 17 recounted opening night, which was attended by 5,000 Alamedans. Two searchlights illuminated the night sky to announce the theater’s arrival as people flooded the sidewalk between Oak and Park streets. For the 2,200 people lucky enough to get inside, admission was 10 cents for children and 35 cents for adults. The balcony cost 40 cents and was for adults only.
    “Its exterior had promised a greater theater than Alameda has ever had, but the gorgeousness and luxurious comfort of the interior surprised even the most imaginative,” reported the Times-Star. “The first-nighters felt like the small boy who joyfully found what he thought was a quarter but on picking it up discovered it to be a five-dollar gold piece.”
    Both Gov. Rolph and Mayor Murray delivered platitude-filled speeches, praising the Nassers’ new theater, but their sentiment deserved more credence than usual: For what today would be approximately $7.5 million, the Nassers had built a grand movie theater in Alameda, at the height of the Great Depression when movies were the primary form of entertainment and proved a great escape from the grim realities of the times. It also proved to be the last great movie palace built in the Bay Area.
    Other Nasser brothers theaters included the Alhambra and the Castro, which were both designed by Timothy Pflueger, the architect of the Alameda Theater. Pflueger, who had designed the Paramount in Oakland, gave the Alameda Theater many of the same Art Deco features he had bestowed upon its older, bigger brother, which had opened the year before.
    The Alameda Theater was beautiful, both inside and out. The front featured eight pink columns, complete with intricate, intertwined embossed floral designs that ran the full height of the façade from above the marquee to the roof. The top of the façade was encircled with decorative waves, a recurring element inside.
    Just below the sign were a black marquee, a ticket booth and a terrazzo sidewalk. There were glass double doors, between them an elegant foyer, which opened into the lobby. Pflueger imbued the interior with artwork, stylized bas-relief panels, plaster gods and goddesses and a large gilt-framed mirror bracketed by twin 9-foot-tall gold-leaf lamps, or torchieres, at the rear of the lobby. The lobby stairs glowed with the bright, abstract pattern of a richly woven, luxuriously thick carpet, the design created in the art department of a Hollywood motion picture studio. The mohair seats and carpet blended splendidly with the teal, copper, terra cotta and dark mustard colors of the auditorium’s walls and ceiling.
    Alameda resident Jerry Justin, 89, remembers how central the theater was to her life. “I saw all my movies there. There were other theaters, too, such as the Strand and the Vogue, but this particular theater was so gorgeous and glamorous; everyone went there.”
    Alameda resident Dorothy de Maria, 90, one of four children raised by their single mother in a family that didn’t have much money, remembers how proud she was of her hometown’s new theater. “It was a very depressing time. There was no money, no fun. If you could get a dime, you could go to the theater,” she says.
    During the Great Depression, theater operators such as the Nassers offered promotions to attract people during the week. There was grocery night, dish night and bank night, which gave away groceries, dishes and cash, respectively.
    Trips to the theater had sentimental value, too, for people such as Alan Ward. “I remember numerous Sunday matinees with my father. It was the only day he had off,” he says. “There’s something about going out with your dad. Just the two of you. That made it special.”

The Decline

    The movies, and the movie theaters they played in, changed forever in the early 1950s with the advent of television. Theater attendance dropped dramatically and movie operators struggled to survive and invented gimmicks, such as 3-D, to differentiate movies from television and to keep people coming.
    In the ’60s, the Alameda Theater struggled to make money, and rumors circulated that it might close. The Nassers continued to operate it until a family friend and native Alamedan, Robert Lippert, offered to buy it. Lippert had made movies his career. He had run the Lincoln and Rio theaters in Alameda in the 1930s and had gone on to be a theater builder, owner and movie producer in San Francisco and Hollywood. In 1965, he retired from Hollywood and built the Showcase Cinemas I & II at Southshore, one of the first multiplexes in California, which competed against the Alameda Theater.


The Lippert Years

    As a young man, Lippert had dreamed he would own the largest and best theater in his hometown. In 1973, he realized his life’s ambition when he bought the Alameda Theater from the Nasser Brothers. For the first time in 43 years, the Alameda Theater underwent a major aesthetic alteration as Lippert modernized it, repainting the inside green, swapping the original 2,200 seats for 1,500 modern ones, replacing most of the original carpet and putting a snack stand in the lobby.
    But Lippert wasn’t done.
    In 1975, to offer more films—and boost revenues—Lippert announced he would build two 175-seat minitheaters in the upper balcony. He built a large concrete wall to create the two theaters, but left the lower balcony intact. Lippert couldn’t make a go of it, though, even with the alterations. In 1976, Lippert died of a heart attack and his son, Robert Lippert Jr., took over the theater. At a celebration of the theater’s 45th anniversary, Lippert Jr. had the building dedicated as the Robert L. Lippert Memorial Theatre to honor his father. Mayor Chuck Corica presented Lippert’s widow with a city proclamation declaring the theater an Alameda Historical Monument based on its contributions to the history and cultural life of Alameda. The designation became vital to the theater’s survival since it meant the theater couldn’t be demolished without prior approval of the Historical Advisory Board.
    The theater continued to lose money. Lippert Jr. offered it to the Alameda
Unified School District for $1, but the district ultimately declined the offer. The time had come for the curtain to fall on the Alameda Theater after 47 years. The old palace’s final film was the forgettable movie The Apple Dumpling Gang. It went dark on July 31, 1979.
    People reacted to the theater’s closure with a mixture of apathy and disbelief. If Alamedans wanted to go to a movie theater in town, they only had the Showcase Cinemas I & II. Many continued to do what they’d been doing for years: going to the movies in Oakland and Berkeley.
    The same year it closed, Allen Michaan, a lover of old theaters who was refurbishing Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, tried to lease the Alameda Theater from Lippert Jr. But they had such a “heated argument” about it, according to Michaan, it led to Lippert Jr.’s imposition of a 15-year legal ban on the showing of first-run movies at the theater.
    In 1980, Lippert Jr. leased the theater to Larry Lockwood, who turned it into the Yankee Doodle Roller Rink; it closed after three years. In 1983, Michaan tried to buy the theater when Lippert Jr. announced he was going to sell it to the Chuck E. Cheese Pizza Time Theater chain, an option many citizens opposed.
    Michaan couldn’t raise the money to buy the theater, and Lippert Jr. didn’t want to sell it and have it compete against his Southshore cinemas, either. In the end, the city blocked the sale to the pizza chain, and Lippert Jr. leased it to the Alameda School of Gymnastics, which opened in August 1983. For the next 22 years, the theater remained primarily a gymnastics school,
but not without other issues arising about its survival.
    In 1985, seven years after he’d offered to sell the theater to the school district for $1, Lippert Jr. sold the theater for $500,000 to a local developer John Beery, who turned it into a dance hall.
    In 1987, a nine-member citizens’ committee identified the theater’s site as the best place to put a new main library. The city called the building’s structural integrity into question, and the city council considered condemning the theater. Citizens opposed its destruction, and a Committee to Save the Alameda Theater was formed. But an engineer’s report declared the building sound and the council voted to save the building.
    But talk never ceased about returning the theater to its original purpose: showing movies.
    In the early ’90s, the theater’s new owner, John Cocores, wanted to restore and reopen it, and Michaan again got involved, but they never found the money. Cocores kept a gymnastics school as his main tenant.
    In 1994, as the ban on the showing of first-run movies expired, the city hired the Architectural Resources Group to do a historic structure report, assessing the theater’s design and history and the viability of restoration. The report said the building—despite its alterations—retained its design integrity, which would make its restoration as a movie theater possible and economically viable with some alterations.

The Theater Project

    In 2000, the city’s formal involvement in the restoration project began when the city council requested proposals for the restoration of the theater based on two city-commissioned plans: the Alameda Downtown Vision Plan and the Economic Development Strategic Plan. Both listed the restoration of the Alameda Theater and additional parking as top priorities to revitalize the Park Street Business District.
    As the city pursued the theater’s restoration, the project grew, as all potential developers’ bids included additional movie screens and a parking structure, items they said were necessary to make the project commercially viable—a claim the city’s economic consultants later confirmed.
    In 2004, the city secured the only non-Alameda money for the project, a $7 million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with the expectation that the new theater would create 350 jobs in the Park Street Business District. As the initial plans came to light for the project, some people balked at the proposed six-story garage; many also objected to turning the theater into an eight-screen movie house. They didn’t want such a big project in their quaint small town.
    Citizens who opposed the project organized as the Citizens for a Megaplex-free Alameda, attended council meetings and got more vociferous as time passed. In the summer of 2005, the CMFA collected more than 3,000 signatures against the cineplex and parking garage. They protested outside the theater and held signs that read, “Save Alameda, stop the megaplex.”
    They wanted a smaller cineplex, one that wouldn’t compromise the historical integrity of the Alameda Theater, arguing that the adjoining structure would be too large to uphold the character of Park Street; the group also wanted to keep the old theater as a community centerpiece. The Alameda Architectural Preservation Society also got involved, with members speaking at city planning board meetings to suggest changes to the project. As a compromise, the city’s architects added Art Deco elements to the exteriors of the cineplex and the garage and used design tricks to reduce the garage’s massive appearance.
    In the fall of 2005, CMFA filed a lawsuit against the project, demanding the city do an environmental impact report on the project. In June 2006, an Alameda county court ruled against CMFA, stating the city had adequately addressed the project’s potential environmental impact in its original study and its declaration that it would mitigate the negative impact on the surrounding area’s character and traffic as much as possible. In August 2006, a divided city council, which had considered smaller designs, ultimately decided on a 484-seat main theater, a 1,042-seat seven-screen cineplex and a 350-space parking garage, complete with the mitigating redesigns. One sticking point remained: The owner of the building, Cocores, refused to sell it for the city’s asking price. The city considered an eminent domain suit against Cocores, but both sides eventually agreed to a $3.2 million selling price.


Construction and Restoration

    The $37.3 million project has three parts: the $15.2 million restoration of the theater, the construction of the $11.3 million new parking garage and the $10.8 million new cineplex.
    The work of revamping the theater to its former splendor began in earnest in September 2006. Jennifer Ott, development manager for the city, is in charge of the theater restoration project, which aims to restore as much of the building’s original elements as possible while also modernizing them.
    On the exterior, the blade sign has been restored and repainted, as have the marquee ceiling/canopy, and the black-and-white-striped awnings have been put up to match the originals. Automated ticket booths on either side of the entrance will replace the old ticket booth.
    Most of the restoration work has been done to the lobby, the theater’s most opulent room and where all patrons will enter the main theater and cineplex. The lobby’s ceiling and plaster floral designs have been repainted in silver and gold leaf to match the original. The lobby’s coffered ceiling has been repainted, while the elegant chandelier’s 180 etched glass panels were taken down, cleaned, restored or replaced. Two of the lobby’s original chandeliers, stolen from the theater after it closed and anonymously returned once restoration began, will hang once again. The lobby’s twin torchieres have been restored. In the auditorium, new acoustical panels, which have been wrapped in fabric and painted in gold leaf to match the walls, are up. The original curtain has
been restored.
    None of the original 2,200 seats were located, so the theater will have mostly new stadium-style seats. The balcony will not be reopened initially, but the theater operator has the option of reopening it. The new cineplex will have seven movie screens ranging in size from 78 seats to 185 seats for a total of 1,042 seats.
    Kyle Connor and his company, Alameda Entertainment Associates, will operate the restored Alameda Theater and the adjacent two-story cineplex building. Both buildings will have retail spaces, too, including restaurants and a wine bar.
    Connor is an independent movie developer and operator who has made the movies his life’s work. He first worked in a movie theater as a 14-year-old in his native Salt Lake City and has spent the past 25 years in the business. Connor is no stranger to Alameda. In the mid-’90s, he managed Lippert Jr.’s Southshore cinemas when he worked for North American Cinemas of Santa Rosa. In 2001, he went into business for himself. He found out about the city’s plan to restore the old theater and had his initial meeting about it in the summer of 2001. “It’s a life-altering commitment for me. I’m very excited,” says the married father of three children who moved his family from Santa Rosa to Alameda. Conner plans to have a mix of first-run, independent, foreign and
old films.
    The city will own and operate the parking garage, the first parking garage in the history of Alameda. In addition to parking for 350 cars, there will be parking for 40 bikes. Alamedan Ken Dorrance, owner of The Video Station and a member of the city’s film commission, speaks enthusiastically about the cineplex and restored Alameda Theater. “The restoration is awesome. Most people want to come in and chop it up into little theaters. Instead, they’re putting the smaller theaters off to the side,” he says. But Dorrance also typifies the mixed feelings some Alamedans have about the old theater and new cineplex’s survival being linked to the new parking garage, which will inevitably bring more unwanted car traffic.
    Dorrance has great hopes for the future of the movies in Alameda. “We’d like to have movie premieres and an Alameda Film Festival that could rival the Mill Valley Film Festival,” he says. He’d also like to screen old films and invite their stars to come and talk.
    Dorrance sees the restored Alameda Theater as a cultural arts center since its 25-foot high screen will be movable, making the stage usable for concerts and other events. The city’s contract with Connor stipulates that it may use the theater without charge for community events 12 days a year. Anyone or any organization may rent the theater out from Connor for a fee, too.
    But will the $37 million investment to bring the movies back to Alameda pay off? No one knows for sure, but for Connor, the cineplex’s failure is a thought he doesn’t entertain. “I think about it about as much as I think about the sun not coming up in the morning,” he says.
    Jerry Justin plans to go to the reopened Alameda Theater, some 70 years after she first saw a movie there. “It’ll be fun to
go back to the Alameda. I hope they all get behind it and go so it doesn’t flop,” she says.

Don’t Miss This

    A three-day grand opening celebration—including a black-tie gala benefit on a Thursday night, movies in the theaters on Friday and a Saturday morning community event—is planned for March at the Alameda Theater and cineplex.
    The gala will be in the restored theater’s lobby, and the evening will be modeled after a movie premiere, complete with searchlights, valet parking, red carpet and movie trailers. The event will feature food, live music, special guests, speeches, tours and an appearance by clown and Cirque du Soleil performer Jeff Raz. Tickets will cost $100 each, with the money going toward restoration of an old mural on the mezzanine and the reanimation of the neon blade sign. The Saturday event will feature a “film cutting” by Mayor Beverly Johnson, vintage Hollywood music, raffles, kids’ events, vintage cars, Hollywood look a-likes roaming the crowd, and Central Avenue will be blocked off between Oak and Park Streets. The event is free.
    For more information on the festivities, or to order tickets for the gala, call (510) 749-5834. For more information about the project, go to: http://www.ci.alameda.ca.us/theater/.

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