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…

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    You assume correctly! Fixed now. Thanks.

  • http://berkeleyhomes.com/ serkes

    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.

  • http://turbulencex.org Nicholas Littlejohn

    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…