The Oaks Theater on Solano Avenue has gone dark once again.
Nine months ago, five men from India formed a group to take over the theater and bring in first-run films and Bollywood extravaganzas and serve dinner and drinks. Few of those plans came to fruition and the group, Merriment Media, stopped showing films shortly before Christmas.
“We weren’t able to meet our monthly expenses,” said Rama Sagiraji, who managed the theater for the group based near San Jose.
John Gordon, the commercial property developer and realtor who owns the Oaks Theater, served notice to the group in early December that it was in default of its lease since it hadn’t paid rent in three months, he said. While running an independent movie theater is a tough business, the Oaks failed because Merriment Media did not follow through on any of its turnaround plans, according to Gordon.
“He (Rama Sagiraji) came in with promises,” said Gordon. “He was going to do one screen for foreign films, one screen for first-run films. He was going to serve food and get a beer and wine license. At the end of the day he did nothing. It was mismanaged and underfunded and I felt lied to in the whole process.”
After talking briefly with Berkeleyside, Sagiraji asked that any questions be sent to him via email. He had not responded by press time.
Gordon said he is committed to retaining the space as an entertainment center and will seek out a new group to run the theater. He hopes he can bring someone in to show movies, but if not, he will consider live theater or other possibilities.
“My goal is to find another movie theater operator who has business connections in the movie industry and who can bring (first-run) films here,” said Gordon.
The movie business is very competitive and large chains like United Artists and Landmark usually get the best films, said Gordon. They can tell Pixar, for example, that they will put Toy Story 3 on a number of screens in downtown Berkeley. It is hard for an independent theater like the Oaks to compete with that. That’s why connections in the movie business are so important, said Gordon.
The Oaks opened in 1925 and was designed by Reid Brothers, who also designed Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater, as well as Cliff House and the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. In 1973, the theater was divided into two screens. Renaissance Rialto Theaters ran the Oaks’ operations from 1994 until 2005, when Metropolitan Theaters Corporation of Los Angeles took over. That company declined to renew its lease in 2010, and Merriment Media took over in April.
The closure of the Oaks leaves the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on College Avenue as the only independent movie theater in Berkeley.
Interested in issues surrounding running a business in Berkeley? Be sure to attend Berkeleyside’s first Local Business Forum on Monday January 24, 7-9pm at the Freight & Salvage. Doors open at 6.30 and it’s free.