The California Theatre, Berkeley’s only true movie palace, is in danger of disappearing. I suspect that the California will be gone within months.
Built in 1913, this is one of the last Art Deco movie theaters in the Bay Area. Inside and out, the California felt like you were entering a glorious adventure. Like other theaters, the California closed as COVID changed everything. But Landmark Theatres, which owns the theater, didn’t open the California as they did with the Shattuck, Albany Twin, and Piedmont. According to Berkeleyside’s Nico Savidge, a Landmark spokeswoman said that “The landlord didn’t want to renew our lease, so we are vacating the theater.”
These other theaters are all open, but none of them has the feel of the California’s sweeping main auditorium. This was always the choice in Berkeley for a big movie.
True, the Regal UA, only a couple of blocks from the California, was once a great palace, bigger than the California. You can see that when you enter the lobby. But the auditoriums were cut up so small, and with so little care, that even the bigger auditoriums feel like holes.
I first experienced the California around 1980, soon after I moved to the East Bay, when Milos Forman’s Hair played there. I was astonished by the magnificence of the theater. Among the movies I’ve seen in that big auditorium include The Big Chill, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terms of Endearment, Fahrenheit 911, Sicko, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. The California’s main theater could screen 70mm film. I saw The Right Stuff, Brainstorm, The Cotton Club, and The Remains of the Day in that special, extra-large format. I saw Mad Max: Fury Road in 3D. The last film I saw there was Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. It screened in a beautiful 35mm print.
True, the California had its problems. The seats were uncomfortable, especially near the screen, and there were no cup holders. The balcony was cut into two small auditoriums with screens that weren’t parallel to the seats.
What can you do about losing this theater? Anna Sophie Loewenberg suggests writing a letter to:
Landmarks Preservation Commission
Fatema Crane, Secretary
Land Use Planning Division
2120 Milvia Street Berkeley, CA 94704
To be frank, I doubt that will help. Our best hope would be that a company with deep pockets, like Alamo Drafthouse, would get interested.