The UC Theatre: A Memory

I’ve seen a lot of movie theaters close. It always hurts. But none hurt as much as Berkeley’s UC Theatre. There were years when I went there three or four times a week. Even more than the Castro, the UC was my shrine to the art and joy of cinema.

It closed its doors for the last time more than ten years ago, in March of 2001.

I discovered the UC soon after it became a repertory house in 1976. For most of the time I knew it, it showed a different double bill every day.

Built in 1917, the UC was an amazing theater. Not as ornate as the palaces to follow, it nevertheless sat about 1,500 people. It had a very large proscenium, and a rising UC Theatercurtain in front of the wide, fixed-height screen. When a film was projected in scope, the image stretched from one side of the proscenium to the other, producing a truly immersive effect for those who chose to sit in front. Other aspect ratios were projected at the same height and lesser width, and were also quite large.

Gary Meyer disagrees with me on this, but I distinctly remember the screen having an ever-so-slight curve. It was barely noticeable for non-scope movies, but when the full width of the screen was in use, it was just enough to add a little depth to the experience. Since Meyer owned and ran the UC, I have to assume that his memory of it having a flat screen is correct. On the other hand, I distinctly remember the UC replacing its screen with much fanfare in the 90s, and my being disappointed to discover that the new screen was flat.

Thanks to the large screen and that possibly imaginary curve, the UC was a great place to see films intended for 70mm presentation—even though it lacked 70mm projectors. The stereo sound helped, of course.

The UC could play 4-track magnetic stereo—a format that was already dying when it switched to repertory. But magnetic prints were still available back then—and some of them were even new. Among the magnetic stereo films I saw there were Cleopatra, The Egyptian, Camelot, 2001, Nashville, How the West Was Won, Prince Valiant, The Concert for Bangladesh, The Grateful Dead Movie, and Woodstock. I saw that one there many times.

In the early 1980s, it added Dolby Stereo, as well. With that addition, it became the best place in the east bay to see new movies as well as old ones (at least if the new movie wasn’t playing in 70mm on this side of the bay). The screen was bigger, the sound was at least as good, the projection was better, the price was cheaper, and you got a second feature. The only downside was that you had to catch it that day.

That changed in the mid-90’s, when digital sound came in. The UC never did that upgrade.

I wasn’t there the night Werner Herzog ate his shoe. But I saw Matinee with screenwriter Charles S. Haas there to answer questions. I attended two bad-movie marathons inspired by books by the Medved Brothers. I saw a horribly-altered version of The General with a bad soundtrack, and twice saw a good print with Bob Vaughn at the organ. I saw Legong: Dance of the Virgins, followed by a live performance of Balinese dancing. It’s the only place where I got to sit through the entire original (and unaltered) Star Wars trilogy as a triple feature—and I saw it there twice. I also saw a quadruple feature of Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies. And let’s not forget the sing-a-long Singin’ in the Rain, where few people actually sang along, but the entire audience recited most of Lena Lamont’s dialog (“I can’t stand it!”).

How important was it to my film-going life? Let’s assume that the movies I own on Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray make up a reasonable cross-section of the films most important to me. Going through 173 titles in my collection (I didn’t include shorts, features in boxed sets that I wouldn’t have considered buying separately, or movies made after 1998), I found that I saw 115 of them—almost two thirds—at the UC. I saw 24 of those films theatrically only at the UC.

Here’s something more impressive than a statistic: I met my first wife there (at a screening of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet). That means that my son literally owes his existence to the UC Theatre.

The photo above, taken by Bob Ekman, is from Mad Max Fan Cars.

5 thoughts on “The UC Theatre: A Memory

  1. I’ll always remember kung fu double bill Thursdays with the most fondness. Back in the dark days of maybe being able to find a terrible Chinese laserdisc, but probably not, it was the only way to see a lot of classics subtitled or, in many cases, at all. Good times.

  2. My memories of the UC go back further than yours, so I have a story of my own. In the mid-1950’s, after the death of James Dean, the UC presented a revival bill (although they were not yet called that yet) of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause, which I attended. The theatre appeared to be just about full. Yes, as I recall, the screen WAS curved, at that time. 25 years later, on 4 December 1981, once again the UC offered the same double feature, once again I was in attendance, and once again the place seemed almost full. Talk about DEJA VU! You can’t top that!

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