Big Screen Berkeley: More tales of cinemas past

Northside
Formerly the Northside theater.

Last week I shared fond memories of the legendary and much missed UC Theater, but Berkeley has lost many other movie houses over the last few decades (and many more before then, but that’s a story for another day).

Among the fallen was Center Street’s Act 1/Act 2, a drafty twinplex with exceptionally uncomfortable seats. The theater hosted many fine features over the years, but my enduring memory of the Act 1/Act 2 was when it booked The Blair Witch Project in the late summer of 1999. Such was the fuss about this brilliantly marketed film that it generated what I can safely say is the longest line I’ve ever seen outside a cinema: the queue literally extended all the way to the corner of Center and Oxford.

The proceeds from Blair Witch only lasted so long, however: the Act 1/Act 2 succumbed in 2006 when the threat of an expensive seismic retrofit ended its long run as a downtown art-house. The property remains abandoned.

Another deceased Berkeley twin, the Northside, existed for many years on Euclid Avenue, less than a block from the Cal campus. The Northside specialized in foreign films — I can remember seeing both Truffaut’s Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies there. But, despite its excellent concessions stand, it was without doubt one of the worst places to watch a film.


Both screening rooms were long and very, very narrow — no more than six seats across on either side of the center aisle, if I recall correctly—and the walls dividing them were paper thin, ensuring that the soundtrack from next door’s movie was always intruding into your movie’s quietest and most contemplative moments. Closed during the 1990s, the space has since been under-utilized and the most recent occupant — a dollar store — gave up the ghost over a year ago.

200px-Mon_oncle_d'Amérique_movie

Even more decrepit was Allan Michaan’s multi-screen Rialto 4 on Gilman Street. The Rialto was hard to get to — at least, it was for those of us commuting by bus from Oakland — but it offered generous helpings of foreign and independent films that you couldn’t see elsewhere.

The Rialto was a decidedly patchwork affair, a converted warehouse with second-hand furniture purchased from Oakland’s Paramount Theatre and odds and ends rescued from other defunct cinemas. And it couldn’t survive the transition to the age of Dolby Digital, home theaters and reupholstered seats with sidearm cup holders. Regardless, a trip to this quaint and exotic location was always a special occasion. Closed in 1989, the space is now occupied by a factory outlet store.

There’s not much in the way of new releases this weekend — most theaters prefer to pack ‘em in at New Year’s with holdover Christmas blockbusters — but those in need of something a little different might want to take a trip to the Emery Bay 10, where the new Hindi film 3 Idiots is currently screening.

The Emery Bay has been overshadowed as a movie destination since the opening of the nearby AMC 16, but is making a play for the South Asian diaspora, which previously had to travel to Fremont to scope out the latest Bollywood offerings. I haven’t seen 3 Idiots, but it opened worldwide over the holidays and is already a huge box-office hit in India— perhaps not surprising considering it features stars of the magnitude of Aamir Khan (Lagaan, Ghajini) and Kareena Kapoor.


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 of the former Northside theater: Jake Essl.]