By Eli Wolfe
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.
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.
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