The Oaks Theatre may be reborn as performance space


A task force is hoping to re-open the Oaks Theatre, at 1875 Solano Ave. into a multi-use arts space. Photo: Jane Tierney

The Oaks Theatre on Solano Avenue may be getting another lease at life.

City Councilman Laurie Capitelli and the Youth Musical Theater Company are launching a task force to transform the theater on Solano into a multi-use venue. The task force has already started reaching out to the numerous Berkeley arts organizations operating without a permanent space in the hopes of attracting a group of anchor tenants.

“We’d like to see some activity going on at the theater every night,” Capitelli, who represents the Solano Avenue area on the council, said. “Bringing in a simulcast of a Paris opera, having special events like the Academy Awards or the Super Bowl. We’re thinking of children’s matinee films, a summer series for kids who are out of school. Also panels, discussions, symposiums, etc.”

The Oaks Theatre has long been an anchor site on Solano Avenue, but it has sat dark and vacant for the past two years. It was built as a single-screen theater in 1925 and upgraded to two screens in 1973. Renaissance Rialto Theaters operated the Oaks between 1994 and 2005, and then the Metropolitan Theaters Corporation ran it until 2010. Merriment Media used the theater to show Bollywood flicks for several months in 2010, but the company lost its lease after it failed to pay rent for three months.

“The Oaks Theatre doesn’t have a lot of interest from movie operators,” said John Gordon, a commercial real estate agent who owns the Oaks. “It’s kind of a dinosaur.”

Capitelli, who lives in the Solano Avenue area, said he has been interested in re-opening the Oaks for a while. He formed the task force with the musical theater group after several months of discussion about the lack of permanent spaces for many Berkeley arts organizations. This problem has become especially acute in recent years after Berkeley Playhouse took up permanent residency at Julia Morgan Center for the Arts on College Avenue, displacing other arts organizations that had sporadically rented the stage. Jennifer Boesing, the artistic director of the Youth Musical Theater Company, which had used that stage, said her group has had to travel to Oakland and El Cerrito since then to find performance venues.

Oaks Theater. Photo; Ira Serkes

The task force is working on acquiring financing, anchor tenants and city permits to re-open the Oaks. Photo: Ira Serkes

The group approached Gordon with the idea several months ago, and he agreed to finance a feasibility study on re-modeling the Oaks Theatre as a multipurpose performance space.

The study noted several major steps that must occur to realize the task force’s goal. This included creating a non-profit organization to run the venue, demolishing the wall that currently separates the two theaters, removing several hundred seats and building a main stage.

Capitelli, who was involved in the restoration of the Elmwood Theater on College Avenue, said the estimated cost for renovations is $150,000, which is less than he originally expected for this project. To make the building operational by September 2014, the task force will need to submit plans to the city by the end of the year, said Capitelli.

Gordon has agreed to a four-month option to not rent the building to other operators while the task force acquires financing, anchor tenants and city permits. Although he has not yet made a long-term contract with the group, Gordon said it makes sense to keep the venue for its original purpose as an auditorium rather than converting it into retail space.

“You have zoning that is allowed by right, a building that meets the standards for assembly for 1,100 to 1,200 people, allowed hours of operations — a lot of stuff you can’t replace in this marketplace,” Gordon said. “So I want to see it stay a venue like that rather than turn into a Walgreens.”

Members of the task force said the community response to the project has so far been overwhelmingly positive. The group collected signatures for the idea at the Solano Stroll. It also set up a survey on Survey Monkey last week that has so far had more than 1,000 participants, the vast majority of whom said they approve of re-opening the Oaks as an arts space. Capitelli said more than $30,000 has been pledged toward the project by community members.

Oaks Theatre on Solano closes, future uncertain (01.03.11)
Thousand Oaks Theatre to reopen with new focus (04.01.10)

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  • AlanTobey

    This great project would give us four medium-sized convenient non-profit-run performance venues that would not be direct competitors.

    The Freight & Salvage’s move downtown has made it an even better resource for (mostly) folk music but without a dance floor, while Ashkenaz serves up roots music and dancing. The UC Theater is rumored to be under actual reconstruction on a music-hall scheme to feature more popular music and a dance floor, targeting a young audience.

    That should leave plenty of market space for the Oaks to be a flexible venue that wouldn’t need a single dedicated theme to succeed. The combination of live performance and live/simulcast video could thrive on diversity and flexibility with perhaps a focus on a relatively older audience (though still younger than for example classical music depends on). Targeting the demographics of the 94707 (wealthier households) and 94706 (younger families) zipcodes rather than the college audience would create a good starting point.

  • akmonday

    What’s the hold up with the UC THeater? Slim’s/GAMH have had it listed as a ‘venue’ for the past year.

  • Perry

    My mother has many fond memories of seeing her first “grown-up” movies at the Oaks Theater in the late 1930s. The price of admission was a dime, and it included newsreels and cartoons. During the Depression, the theater often handed out gifts with your admission — things like silverware, cutlery, or china tea sets — presumably as incentives for people to treat themselves to a movie (a dime afterall was a lot of money in those days, and a trip to the movies was a rare luxury)…

    During the years of WWII, my mom recalls relying on those newsreels at the Oaks to stay informed about the progress of the wars overseas. This was before television and newsreels in movie houses were the only way people across the country could visually experience what was going on.

  • PorcelinaGrout

    I would LOVE to see this happen. Oaks Theater was always a fun place to see movies, and Youth Musical Theater Company is just a fantastic organization for local kids who are interested in theater. Its shows are top notch – I encourage everyone who likes musicals to go check them out — just as enjoyable, if not more so, than professional touring companies. And I say that as someone whose kids are not associated with YMTC! I hope the city will do everything it can to support this plan.

  • Paula

    I love the idea of opening a new theater for the stage and especially for youth. But do we always have to have MUSICALS??? Why not straight theater for youth?????

  • Iceland_1622

    There are probably 26 wrong ways to do this and maybe three correct ways. Here is just one example of a older film theater from the 1950s that was fully converted to a center for the performing arts in the university town of Burlington VT and is thriving.

  • Andrew

    Does anyone have any info on this? I’d assumed the recession had killed the project for good–would love to be wrong!

  • emraguso

    We’re working on it. :)

  • SarahSiddell

    The Youth Musical Theater Company is fantastic! We saw their production of Jesus Christ Superstar a couple of years ago and were totally blown away by the sheer talent of these young people. You can’t “get” just how good they are until you see them performing, something I and my friends highly recommend that you do.