Berkeley’s long-shuttered UC Theatre to get new life

A rendering of what Berkeley's UC Theater could look like if it reopens. Image courtesy Berkeley Music Group

A rendering of what Berkeley’s UC Theatre could look like if it reopens. Image courtesy Berkeley Music Group

For the last seven years David Mayeri has had a dream: to refurbish the old UC Theatre on University Avenue, which has been closed since 2001, and re-open it as a state-of-the art concert venue.

Mayeri, the former chief operating officer of BGP, the successful concert company started by Bill Graham, has come tantalizingly close over the years to pulling off the project. He got city approval to refurbish the 1,400-seat landmarked theater in 2009 and seed money from the now deceased millionaire music lover Warren Hellman.

David Mayeri has been working for years to reopen the UC Theater as a music venue Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

David Mayeri has been working for years to reopen the UC Theatre as a music venue. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

But the economic recession meant Mayeri never raised the funds he needed to redo the theater, located at 2036 University Ave., between Shattuck and Milvia. So he has shifted gears. Mayeri has now created a non-profit organization called the Berkeley Music Group to oversee the theater’s refurbishment, its concerts and youth-oriented educational programming. He is hoping the non-profit structure will attract a new group of supporters.

Mayeri has raised more than half of his $5 million goal, and he plans to start construction on the UC Theatre in the summer, according to Rina Neiman, his public relations consultant. When it is finished in the summer of 2015, Mayeri — and others — hope the new UC Theatre will be a major entertainment force in downtown Berkeley, drawing thousands of patrons on show nights.

“Turning on the lights of the new UC Theatre will broaden the music scene and appeal of the Downtown arts district for a more youthful audience, beautifully renovate a grand old lady of a theater, and revitalize a key stretch of University Avenue that serves as a gateway to Downtown and UC Berkeley,” said John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association.

Mayeri is not releasing many details yet about the Berkeley Music Group. He is saving that for a community kick-off  scheduled for 2 p.m. April 23 at the theater. In a media release, Mayeri said there will be a “major news announcement” about the UC Theatre. Mayor Bates is scheduled to attend.

But work has already started on a new marquee for the building.

The interior of the UC Theater Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The interior of the UC Theatre now. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

When Mayeri sought city approval for the project in 2009, he characterized the UC Theatre as Berkeley’s version of the Fillmore, the legendary San Francisco concert hall that hosted most of the top bands of the 1960s and 1970s, and continues to present vibrant music. When refurbished, the UC Theatre will seat 1,460 people, filling a niche between the 400-seat Freight & Salvage, Zellerbach Auditorium, which seats 1,978, and the Berkeley Community Theater on the Berkeley High School campus, which holds 3,491 people.

David Mayeri stands below the old UC Theater marquee, which is being replaced Photo; Frances Dinkelspiel

David Mayeri stands below the old UC Theatre marquee, which is being replaced Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

As it stands now, the interior of the UC Theatre is a mess, with graffiti, old seats and old lumber littering the space. Mayeri intends to build multi-tiered seating in the main hall so everyone will have a good view, according to Neiman.

The plan is for the venue to have at least 75 concerts a year — national and international headliners playing rock and roll and jazz. But Mayeri also hopes to also turn the venue into a community asset of sorts and bring in comedy acts, a lecture series, Americana roots music, zydeco, and more, said Neiman.

When the plan was initially conceived, Dawn Holliday, who books shows for Slim’s and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, as well as Hellman’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, was involved with the project. Mayeri still hopes that Holliday will play a role in booking acts, although there is no formal agreement at the moment, said Neiman.

The UC Theater in its glory days. Photo: Berkeley Music Group

The UC Theatre in its glory days. Photo: Berkeley Music Group

The UC Theatre was originally built in 1917 and was extensively remodeled after a 1940 fire. In the mid-1970s it was acquired by Gary Meyer and formed the backbone of his Landmark Theatres movie chain. Landmark ran first-run and art films (and popular midnight showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show) until 2001, when it shuttered the theater because it needed costly seismic upgrades.

Mayeri grew up on Shattuck Avenue about 12 blocks from the UC Theatre. He remembers seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 The Ten Commandments there.

In 2007, Michael Caplan, the head of Berkeley’s economic development department, brought Mayeri to see the theater. “I walked in the room remembering it as a kid but, now with 35 years experience with BGP running shows,” Mayeri said late last year, “I knew exactly what to do.”

The new organization will also have an educational component. Mayeri got his start when he interned for BGP at 16. That job gave him a chance to see how concerts were put together. The Berkeley Music Group plans to offer those types of experiences to East Bay youth as well, said Neiman.

Connect with the group behind the theater project on Facebook and Twitter.

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  • Alan Saldich

    Awesome! That would be fantastic, I hope it works.

  • Paul Cunningham

    This is such good news! When I went to the UC Theater for the first time in the late 1970’s I remember people in the audience were speaking the dialog in sync with Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. I had never experience that before and I loved it. I went there regularly after that and was sorry to see it close. I miss seeing movies there but I’m so happy that the theatre will continue on as a venue for live music and educational programs.

  • Bill N

    This is about the best news Univ Ave and Berkeley could have.

  • M.E. Lawrence

    Every time I walk past the U.C. I miss its glory days; I must have seen hundreds of movies there. Perhaps the new U.C. could also run a classic film night, like the Paramount in Oakland does.

  • chip

    I assume it should be BGP, and not BPG.

  • Chris

    This could be the Fox Theater of Berkeley, IF, they do it right…

  • You assume correctly! Fixed now. Thanks.

  • A Toast!

  • Completely_Serious

    Three memories of the UC: Planet of the Apes festival, Apocalypse Now and a 12 hour Three Stooges festival. Drinks at Spats before or after.

    Of the three, the Stooges festival was the best. Query: Who brings their girlfriend to a Three Stooges festival?

  • Jesse Townley

    I look forward to a venue that attracts us younger people to the downtown arts district. Nothing against the Freight & Salvage or the Jazz School, but a mid-sized venue that can accommodate louder and more current music genres would be an excellent addition to Berkeley.

  • EBGuy

    Anyone want to handicap this one versus a revival at the Oaks? At this point I’d have to say
    University Avenue: 1
    Solano Avenue: 0

  • Elise

    Great news!

  • JKN

    It would be nice if they could also show movies. The new UC could join the ranks of the other Landmark Theaters, showing more art house films. I’m glad it’s getting a new lease on life, but having grown up in Berkeley and spent many hours with friends in the UC Theater, I would be sad if this were exclusively a concert venue.

  • Joe Scanlon

    This is great news, especially considering that someone with David Mayeri’s pedigree is behind the project. These soulless corporations that run all the major Bay Area venues nowadays have no understanding about the kind of connection musicians and their audiences used to enjoy in the Bay Area. Bill Graham very much DID understand that, and indeed was a major factor in creating that vibe. His shows were almost always special as a result. (I wonder if Mr. Mayeri also intends to add the apple barrel at the exit to the new UC Theater?) Your article didn’t say, but are there also going to be movies there?

  • Bryan Garcia

    This could fill an important, growing niche in Berkeley: live music for non-Boomers. Nothing against my grey-haired fellow Berkeleyans, but as of right now most of the live music venues in town seem to cater almost exclusively to very old tastes. If us younger folks want to see a current act live, it usually means seeing them in Oakland or San Francisco. The main exception being the Summer concerts at the Greek Theatre, but there’s two problems with that: one, it’s outdoors and only suitable for concerts during the Summer or early Fall and two, not every current act can fill a venue that large. The UC Theatre could be a great venue for mid-sized acts for the younger crowd.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    AWESOME NEWS!

  • fooley46

    and people will park…..?

  • Robbin Noir

    I loved the UC Theater and often went three times a week in the late 70’s & 80’s. My band also performed there once for the kick-off of the Ramones “Rock n Roll High School” movie. I’ve very much been looking forward to the UC opening as a serious music venue! So close to public transportation & would be a boon to other local businesses, particularly restaurants & cafes.

  • Robbin Noir

    Thanks for saying this, Joe! So true!

  • Ryan Baker

    Interesting that he’s hoping to have Dawn Holliday book the venue instead of his old colleagues at Another Planet Entertainment (formerly BGP).

  • Standupagainsteverything

    What’s it going to do to parking in the area? Just another profit seeking developer looking to get rich off the City of Berkeley. Someone should do something. I’m outraged. We should have designated the “for lease” sign a historical landmark when we had the chance.

  • guest

    Passing a Sit/Lie law would have been just as good.

  • NICK НΛRT

    yayyy

  • Paul Wescott

    It is 2 blocks from the Berkeley BART station.

  • Paul Wescott

    David,
    I am glad to see progress!. Thank you for pursuing it. Let me know how I can help. Berkeley needs a venue like this.

  • Guest

    Blatz reunion?

  • M.E. Lawrence

    Cal students living on/near campus can walk.

  • guest

    In any of the several City garages and parking lots within two blocks of the theater. Or they’ll BART. Or bike. Or walk. Or Uber. Or park on the street around Civic Center, which is nearly abandoned at night. It’s all good.

  • Alan Saldich

    in the same places they park then they go to Cal games, Greek theater, restaurants, Berkeley Rep, Freight & Salvage, etc…

  • Just Sayin

    This is true, but there should ALSO be venues for new/current/pop/dance/insert genre catchphrase here.

  • Andrea

    Right on David Mayeri!

  • Bruce s

    Those glory days. Was that when an entrepreneur could reasonably expect to spend more of his time operating their business the way he wanted than dealing with the garbage paperwork and regulations and fines and safety audits and… Imposed by an out of control state. And as a result of that freedom the consumer had more choices at a good value. I bet those were great.

  • raz Kennedy

    really though! let’s get gregg perloff involved. he understands the “live show” aesthetic. he got started promoting live shows back in the 70’s for cal while attending cal as a student. he, then, led bgp after bill’s death, then returned to the east bay with offices in west berkeley when he started another planet. he continues to bring quality music to the greek on the cal campus, and brought the beautiful fox theater in uptown oakland back to life after it had been boarded up for years. david & gregg, together, could
    “rock” & make this thing truly come off. i, too, have fond memories of attending uc theater back in the 70’s and can’t wait to see this potential rebirth take place.

  • Elvis Presley

    And we must have the entire building triple-shrink wrapped and hepa-ventilated using only the most onerous and cost-prohibitive methods. That dust could offend someone if it were disturbed!

  • Mbfarrel

    No development is the best development.

  • Ryan Baker

    Right – just seems like they’d be the ones to help launch this thing. Dawn does a good job with Slims/GAMH but honestly I think APE delivers acts that are more consistently strong and diverse.

  • Mbfarrel

    I remember what Donna Spring said in response to young people and students desire for dance and music venues that catered to them: “REAL Berkeleys prefer to go out for dinner and a play.”

  • Ugh

    It’d be even better if we could just go backwards!

  • berkeleyguy

    Sounds a bit scammy, to be honest. The whole nonprofit angle just seems like a way to get his foot in the door on something that is commercially inappropriate… but swaddle it in nonprofitude for a year or two, then announce that the nonprofit has “run out of funding” and open the business, well, that just might work!

    When the theater was open there were no residential apartments within earshot (only hotels). Since then the city has permitted at least four apartment buildings within 150 feet. Having made those permitting choices, a nightclub at this location is no longer an option without tens of millions of dollars worth of soundproofing (and probably even then still impossible).

    It could probably reopen as a movie theater (its original purpose) appropriate care installing the sound system. But guitars and drum sets? Disaster in the making.

  • berkeleyguy

    Same here. The UC theater is a great movie theater. Trying to turn it into a nightclub is skeevy.

  • berkeleyguy

    … which is totally irrelevant to late-night events since transbay BART cuts off before midnight.

  • berkeleyguy

    Are you aware that the city institutes special parking fines on game nights because of how bad the resulting parking problems have become?

  • guest

    Do you think it would be better to build a giant parking lot next to the stadium, paving over all the open space there, so people can have an easier time parking a dozen or two dozen days per year?

    Somehow, the world has survived the parking problems that you are so worried about.

    Whether the world will survive Americans’ overuse of the automobile (California’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions) is more doubtful.

  • It would be great to add modern bike parking and electric car chargers as well as encouraging transit and carpooling through a ticket discount perhaps.

  • Yoni Mayeri

    Actually, the organization renovating The UC Theatre is a 501(c)3 renovating the historic building. It will create 150+ jobs and provide many educational opportunities for youth. The building was designated a historic building years ago.

  • Yoni Mayeri

    David Mayeri, head of the Berkeley Music Group (the non profit leading the UC Theatre renovation and reopening) and Gregg Perloff worked together as key executives at BGP for 35+ years. David ran all the nightclubs and concerts, built several venues for BGP. Needless to say, they both know what they are doing! Three cheers to Bill Graham and his legacy!

  • Angela Walker

    I love that the venue is going to be put to use again but I’ve been missing a repertory cinema in Berkeley since the Loma Prieta quake killed off the UC.

    Any millionaires out there want to take on that challenge? How about refurbishing the Oaks over on Solano?

  • Jesse Townley

    Twice in the 20-tens is enough, ha ha ha…

  • early morning roses

    It is a beautiful movie theater. There were film festivals being done there in the1980’s. Every week had a different featured work. People were serious film lovers and would form huge lines from the box office and wind either way down around Martin Luther King Jr. blvd., or the opposite direction to turn the corner right onto Shattuck avenue waiting to get in. They did such a good job in painting and replacing the seats, curtains, carpets and refinishing the wood doors and wood moulding. The UC theater was big and beautiful, I did have a last time to see a movie there in the 1990’s. I really appreciate that such a theater existed right up into the high tech times, and exclusive sky rents. People didn’t have pot anymore but everyone had cellular wear. High tech and low times has made it possible to qualify the theater as bulky, clunky, an interference with weather patterns, and a dire need for space to sell prized bling. Those were the days when the telephone stayed in the house. One went for a walk alone or with friends and or took the dog out, but the telephone stayed in the house connected to the wall, shoes had choices not telephones. Similarly, businesses had their phones sitting on furniture or attached to walls, and publicly there was the phone booth, where some were thoughtfully designed with a place to sit, an overhead light that turned on when the door was closed. Some even had fans which provided ventilation which also helped to keep sound from traveling any further than into the receiver. The overhead fan and light with the enclosed glass walls gave a feeling of privacy in conversation even if someone were using the booth next to you. Local calls use to be around .10 cent and later doubled to .20 cent. The sign of impending doom came when it was decided that operator assistance calls would no longer be free but taxed to a fee of .25 cents. It was the governments retaliation on all the hippies that use to terrify them with peace rallies and love-ins. You could get a ride on a thumb but not directory assistance. The government was going after free to show those hippies who’s boss, and not to scare their boss with their love talk. The heavy that is happening is the government, and it’s going with eavesdropping, not the lightweight J. Edgar, they’re dropping the big one for effect, the N.S.A. which will record and keep a copy of everything said. Literally every time a person talks into a telephone they are put on trial, because everything they say can and will be used against them in some court of law. That .25 cent levied tax added up and it was used to pave right through heaven and enough left over to throw some paint down the middle to keep everyone heading in the same wrong direction. They call their program urban control and transportation. I wonder if it someone like Thomas Edison who invented government and all this planning, because it sure seems like its taking about as many mistakes to get the damn thing lit up. I remember those days, people either talked to themselves out loud, or spoke to an invisible person, probably the wished for conversation with their parents telling them how they never listened to them as a kid. It was not possible to see too many people talking into their hands no matter how much dope they had done. It was a time when people were together versus being connected by microchips and cell towers. It is seemingly strange by today’s standards, what would people do with a functioning theater? If it doesn’t sit in your hand how do you handle it? When your world is just a flip or click of a mouse and every aspect of being is virtual and in 3 D, what imaginable purpose would a theater have in today’s world? It is amazing there could be any theater left in the world whether film or stage. Although film is relatively new in comparison with stage theater, which is ancient, it all seems to be obsolete. It would be bizarre to walk into a restaurant with dim lights and candles on the tables, the place would be empty. How does one not get tired eyes if they have to sit in a darkened room trying to read their email, collecting all their text messages and checking out all their important boxes? No one has time for a theater whose browser is too large and too limited, there are not enough options, and sitting instead of clicking is too dull. It would be a crisis, a revolt if the technology were to not function and all that was available was a switchboard and a rotary dial. That is what I would call the ‘great depression’. I confess, I did not have an installed phone and neither did my neighbors. We did manage to stay connected. Even in the restaurant, the phone rang little and tarried no one, we had no time. We were going all day on our feet with so many customers waiting to be seated to enjoy brunch out in the garden under the sun with family, friends, business associates, or that someone special – their lover. Love was the ‘it’, did not matter if you had wheels, or what your hourly wage was – love was important. It was too rare and too meaningful to be distracted by any telephones, televisions, newspapers, nuisances, or regrets. Love is an art, and a love for the arts was not in conflict with values but was an inspiration. There had to be teeming millions of people who longed to ignite great passions in themselves to be a great lover in this world and for their love to change it. Technology has been a short circuit and a flat line. I am grateful for that time. I was greatly effected by the intelligence and caring thoughts and feelings so alive in those human beings I met. Beautiful feelings and experiences unimagined, unknown were awakened, expressed and lived. Love is real and it felt good to live.