A Save United Artists Theater Berkeley group stands in front of the United Artists Theater in Berkeley, Calif., Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024. The group is trying to save the historic theater from demolition for a housing development. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
In the golden age of California movie palaces, these sprawling theaters—with their lavish art deco interiors, towering facades, and glittering marquees—were designed to make guests feel like royalty.
Thousands dressed up to go to the movies during the 1930s, often several times a week, lining up around the block to see the latest pictures. Theaters were temples, designed to feel timeless – proof that the cinema was and always would be the pinnacle of entertainment.
But, of course, it wasn’t. Over 100 years, many of the Bay Area’s most historically significant theaters have undergone dramatic transformations. The San Francisco Fox Theater was closed, then demolished. The Alameda Theater was turned into a restaurant, then a club, before reemerging as a movie theater. Other theaters adapted to multiplexes, trying to meet the demands of the modern entertainment environment.
Now, as the Bay Area grapples with its homelessness and housing crisis, some of the remaining historic theaters have emerged as prime candidates for another transformation — transit-oriented downtown housing. Housing advocates say the measure is necessary to address the severe shortage.
But cinephiles and preservationists argue that without the Bay’s historic theaters, a cultural touchstone in the region will be lost.
“We’ve seen buildings like this saved in cities all over the country, and they’re all happy to save them,” said Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland. “That’s because they are an important part of civic life.”
In recent years, this argument has played out across the Bay Area, perhaps no more publicly than the campaign to preserve the United Artists Theater in Berkeley.
The building, also known as the UA, opened in 1932 as an 1,800-seat, single-screen theater. It is built in the classic art-deco style, a highly stylized design defined by strong color contrasts and bold lines. Michaan himself remembers going to see “The Godfather” in the theater in 1972 and feeling complete awe.
But as 1,800-person shows became increasingly impossible, UA split the theater into four or five different auditoriums. Later, the original facade was replaced by a more modern one. Last year, the theater finally closed for good, and the building was purchased by a developer who plans to turn the entire space into condos.
Preservation advocates and the film community quickly rallied against the plan. Although they understood that the theater had undergone changes, they believed that behind the walls of the multiplex lay the bones of a unique art-deco architectural masterpiece.
“Everybody sees it as an ugly, dilapidated, third-rate theater with partitions,” said Rose Arpagian Ellis, the campaign’s founder. “99% of people who grew up in Berkeley or the Bay Area have no idea what’s behind these divisions.”
In response to the building’s pending demolition, Ellis and others started a Facebook group and began a campaign to pressure the city of Berkeley to landmark the theater. In their view, the UA is one of three historically significant theaters left in the East Bay, along with the Paramount and the Alameda.
Patrick Kennedy, the owner of the company that plans to develop the building, said the preservation campaign, which he called a “Facebook group,” was misguided and ill-informed. He said he believed the group’s landmark effort was nothing more than a “subtle NIMBY act.”
“Right now they’re trying to mark a beautiful 1992 place with a dilapidated plaster front that completely hides art deco relief plaster and it’s slowly crumbling,” Kennedy said.
The Kennedy’s current renovation plan includes restoring the theater’s original facade, preserving the existing murals, and incorporating art-deco design elements into the building. On February 1, the city of Berkeley’s landmark preservation commission voted to list the facade, but not the rest of the building.
For Ellis and Michaan’s group, these efforts are not enough. In their view, the entire building should remain – revived as a performing arts, cinema and events space. There are so few theaters in downtown Berkeley, they say, the city can’t afford to lose another.
“As sacred and important as new housing is, our cultural heritage is also worth saving,” Michaan said. “That would be cultural theft.”
Members of the UA preservation campaign are quick to say they are not against housing – they just believe there are other non-cultural buildings that can be developed. But housing advocates say that, given the state of the housing crisis, communities should take “good” over “perfect.”
“Our position is that free space is wasted space. We’re in a huge housing shortage, we need to take every opportunity we can to build housing in places like this,” said Ali Sapirman, an organizer with the Housing Action Coalition. “It is absurd that there is such a strong opposition.”
The controversy is not unique to Berkeley. The historic Burbank Theater in San Jose is slated to be included in a new residential development, much to the disgust of preservation advocates. The Capitola Theater in Santa Cruz County is currently being developed into a hotel, which faced similar opposition. And although Sapirman said these developments were welcome, none of these theaters fill a need in the same way that the UA housing project would.
The UA Theater is located in the city center, in an already dense area. It’s just minutes from UC Berkeley, less than a block from the nearest BART station, and in one of the most walkable parts of the East Bay. The need for housing in Berkeley is particularly high. Still, it’s exactly the type of location that housing advocates believe should be prioritized for development.
However, conservation advocates believe there must be a middle ground. Although the Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Committee chose not to protect the entire building, the group Save the UA says they haven’t given up hope and will consider other options.
“If a lot more people are going to live in downtown Berkeley, don’t you want to keep some of these very special buildings?” said Laura Linden, another member of the Save the UA group. “A strong argument can be made that it is the most architecturally valuable in all of Berkeley.”
If the group is indeed successful in their long-running bid to save the theater, it wouldn’t be the first time a historic movie theater has been brought back from the brink. The Paramount Theater was restored in partnership with the City of Oakland. The Orinda Theater was also restored with the help of public and private partnerships. For those invested in the future of these historic spaces, a myopic focus on housing can leave future generations with a dramatically reduced landscape, devoid of imagination, magic and history.
“Our built environment is drastically depleted, there’s very little to feed the soul,” said Gary Parks, a theater restorer and preservation advocate. “These buildings are special.”