Big Screen Berkeley: A trip down memory lane

uc theaterWith Pacific Film Archive closed over the holidays, I thought this the perfect time to take a trip down memory lane and ruminate upon the ghosts of Berkeley cinemas past, starting with the biggest and best of them all, the UC Theatre on University Avenue.

After moving to the East Bay in 1981, I promptly began taking the 51 bus from North Oakland to downtown Berkeley two or three nights a week in order to soak up as much cinema as I could (one year we won an annual pass to the UC — I think as a premium offered during a KALX fundraiser — and spent even more time there).

Though I’d grown up watching Ingmar Bergman and Satyajit Ray films on PBS, the UC was where I truly began to appreciate the breadth and depth of world cinema and where I was exposed to everything from Pasolini to Bunuel to John Waters, all prefaced by the theater’s ubiquitous ‘no smoking’ public service announcement, which featured the aforementioned Waters blowing smoke rings to the delight and disdain of the audience.

The UC seated well in excess of a thousand punters and shows during the ‘80s frequently sold out, but the last time I was there — sometime in the late ‘90s, at a concert appearance by Maryland rock group Half Japanese — there were probably no more than a hundred in attendance. It was a pretty good show, but no way for this World War I-era movie-palace to end its days.

Shuttered since 2001, the UC is reportedly due to be converted into a music venue by the folks who currently operate Slims and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Here’s hoping those plans come to fruition, and a time will come when we’ll once again be enjoying a night on the town in Berkeley — and taking the 51 bus to get there, of course.


John Seal is a regular Berkeleyside contributor. He writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movie’s Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

[Photo: Seth Gaines, Flickr Creative Commons.]