One of the few great remaining movie palaces in the Bay Area–at least one of the few still showing first-run movies–the Grand Lake combines classic architecture with top-notch projection and audio. Although it has been converted from a single-screen palace to a four-screen multiplex, it retains it’s opulent design.
It does that two ways: By respecting the original lobby, and by keeping the main, downstairs portion of the original theater intact. With its high roof, giant proscenium, and sweeping design, that auditorium is not just a place to screen movies, but a temple of the cinema. There’s even a pipe organ, and we were treated to a concert before the movie.
How many movies have I seen on that screen? I don’t remember, but they include No Nukes, The Princess Bride, Jurassic Park (my first movie with digital sound), Schindler’s List, The Lion King, Shrek, The Mask of Zorro, the last Star Wars movie, and Peter Jackson’s King Kong. In 70mm, I saw ET, Ghostbusters, and a revival of the original Star Wars.
In 1981, the balcony was walled off and turned into a separate auditorium, also with a huge screen and 70mm capabilities. A few years later, two small theaters were carved out of neighboring stores, without hurting the existing theaters. Although they were given palace-like designs, and one of them even supports 70mm, their small screens make them less than idea when you want that big picture experience.
Appropriately, they’re currently screening The Master in the big, downstairs screen. The theater was nearly sold out Saturday night.
But I saw something that disappointed me when I stepped into the theater–the screen. The beautiful curtain from past visits was gone.
I also noticed, as I walked passed the projection booth, that it had two film projectors (yes, the Grand Lake can do changeover) but no digital projector.
Before the movie started, I was lucky enough to run into Allen Michaan, who has owned the theater since 1980. He told me that the theater is losing money. Despite the very big business that night, people just aren’t going there to see movies much.
This puts him in a bad spot about digital projection. He’s installed it in the two small theaters (one of them has two digital projectors for the best possible 3D). He doesn’t know how he’ll pay for it in the bigger theaters, or what will happen if he can’t. The Grand Lake may be one of those theaters killed by the digital conversion.
About the missing curtain: It’s still there, permanently open. They need to fix the rigging before they can lower it again. That will cost about $11,000 that they don’t have.
So now you have four reasons to patronize the Grand Lake. First, it’s a wonderful theater. Second, it’s the only place in the area screening The Master in 70mm. Third, they need the money. And finally, you may not have a choice before too long.
Photo copyright: Tom Paiva 1991