By Gill South
The Oaks Theatre on Solano Avenue may have a future after all, after five years of sitting vacant. Jim Whitty, a Berkeley local and his non-profit group, From Little Acorns Grow, is working with Gordon Commercial Real Estate Services to lease and re-open the theater in what will be a true community effort if it succeeds.
Speaking at the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association (TONA) meeting Thursday night at the Thousand Oaks Baptist Church Auditorim, Whitty, a veteran Oakland firefighter and Secretary Treasurer of the Oakland Firefighters’ Union for the past ten years, said he was well down the path of negotiations with John and Kevin Gordon who were being very supportive of the initiative.
“The rental negotiations are up in the air, but we are not too far apart,” said Whitty who said he was well used to negotiating as a union leader. He is at the “letter of intent” stage, he said.
“John Gordon is understanding now that he’s going to own this theater forever. It would be so beneficial if he would be partners with us,” said Whitty.
Little Acorns is looking to raise $1.2 million in a capital fundraising campaign beginning in July and is hoping Gordon will contribute around $1 million for improvements to the theater in readiness for the new scheme.
A similar project was put forward two years ago by Red Oak Realty partner and Berkeley councilman Laurie Capitelli but it just fizzled out, said Whitty. He has been using Capitelli’s plans as a template for the initiative and Capitelli is on his board of nine. Whitty is working with his daughter, Frankie Whitty, and Amanda Bowman, both employees at the Five Star Video store across the road, on the project.
Whitty is also bringing his friends, Alison Barakat and Michael Camp of Bakesale Betty into the scheme. Barakat would like to run a café in the theater, similar to her popular Temescal café, open from just 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays. A separate wine bar would also be included in the mix to be open during productions.
Whitty told the TONA audience he already had six community groups, including the Berkeley Ballet Theater, the Youth Musical Theater Company and West Edge Opera, interested in using the space for up to 20 weeks of the year. There would also be a weekly two- to three-day movie showing similar to the art movies shown at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. The space would be brought back to one main room and the seating would be cut from 1,200 to 450 new seats, for which Whitty will be seeking seat sponsorship.
The theater would be available for any overflow from the UC Berkeley Speaker Series, for book readings and for simulcast opera and Broadway productions, as well as for school groups, said Whitty. He is planning to commission a digital screen similar to the one at the Alameda Theater.
“Everyone who lives here wants this. Everything is ready to go with the capital campaign,” he said.
Speaking on Friday, Kevin Gordon of Gordon Commercial, said he was highly encouraged by Whitty’s interest, efforts and vision. “The ball is in his court to bring a convincing plan to us,” he said, adding: “It looks promising. He may be able to pull it off.”
In the run-up to the capital campaign starting in July, Whitty said he was approaching Pixar, Andy Samberg’s charity, The Lonely Island, and a number of banks for financial help. The website, www.fromlittleacornsgrow.org, will launch in the next few weeks.
When asked about parking, Whitty said he had talked to Andronico’s about options and didn’t think it would be a problem in the surrounding streets.
It will be a local community effort, stressed the Berkeley native, who grew up on Monterey Avenue and now lives on Walnut Street.
“It’s a huge undertaking – and it’s going to take all of us to make this happen.”
Whitty has talked to Kevin Gordon about a kick-off party to be held at the theater in July where locals can go on tours of the space and be shown examples of what it could be.
Whitty said he was pleasantly surprised by the response at last night’s meeting.
“It’s going to take everybody pulling in the one direction,” he said.
One TONA member said: “You will be a hero to this community if you pull this off.”
Long shuttered UC Theater to get new marquee, new life (4.14.14)
Berkeley’s Oaks Theater efforts stall in negotiations (1.17.14)
Last chance: Oaks Theatre survey; sketches revealed (10.23.13)
The Oaks Theatre may be reborn as performance space (09.16.13)
Oaks Theatre on Solano closes, future uncertain (01.03.11)
International flavor on the cards for Oaks Theatre (04.29.10)
Thousand Oaks Theatre to reopen with new focus (04.01.10)