In April last year, after seven years of struggle and a number of last-minute hiccups, the UC Theatre finally reopened in downtown Berkeley as a 1,400-seat live music venue. One year on, after 54 concerts, the venue celebrates its first anniversary with a series of performances ranging from ska and reggae legends Toots and the Maytals and Balkan Beat Box to The Zombies (which founder and CEO David Mayeri says is “our Summer of Love foreplay concert”).
“The highlight was getting it open and just watching the audience and the artists who perform — how they’ve just come to embrace it and talked about how much they love the room,” Mayeri said, reflecting on the venue’s first year.
The venue is also celebrating its centennial this year, having been saved from dereliction by Mayeri’s years-long efforts. Former owner Landmark Theatres closed the UC Theatre in 2001, rather than invest in a needed seismic upgrade. The venue had been famous, among other things, for showing Rocky Horror Picture Show weekly for 22 consecutive years. It originally opened in June 1917 as a first-run theater, named after, but having no direct relation to the nearby UC Berkeley.
Mayeri raised the money for the $6.8 million transformation of the building, establishing the UC Theatre as a nonprofit, community-minded music venue. The group’s budget is two-thirds funded from ticket sales and one-third from donors, Mayeri said.
“This is a gem in our downtown,” said Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, presenting a city proclamation celebrating the first anniversary to Mayeri last Saturday. He made a particular point of noting Mayeri’s efforts. “He doggedly, and I really mean doggedly, pursued this vision.”
According to Mayeri, artists who have performed at the UC Theatre have been unanimous in their praise for its acoustic qualities. The venue has a Leopard system from Berkeley-based Meyer Sound, which Mayeri said is optimized for rock music. They are installing a Meyer Sound Constellation system as well — although the nonprofit has to raise a further $600,000 to fund that — which will improve the sound for acoustic music.
The UC Theatre has been an important element in the continuing efforts to add new vitality to Berkeley’s downtown, said John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association. The UC Theatre is the largest of the new music venues downtown. But the last year has also seen the opening of the intimate Back Room and the mid-sized Cornerstone.
“It’s expanded the demographic appeal of the arts district,” Caner said. “It’s a younger audience and it’s more towards rock ‘n’ roll and contemporary music. I think it’s also a linchpin for the revitalization of University Avenue, where we now have Tender Greens, Berkeley Social Club, and, soon, Stonefire.”
Mayeri said that between 30-40% of ticket buyers come from Berkeley and Oakland, which is higher than he anticipated.
“They love having this world-class music venue in town,” he said, adding that the experience of its first year positions the UC Theatre well going forward.
“Our show calendar is increasing,” he said. “We have to earn the reputation that this is a room that an agent and a manager will trust to have their band in. That process takes a little longer than we would have hoped. Our reputation is growing.”
The UC Theatre is also taking seriously its nonprofit role in the community, notably with its Concert Careers Pathways program to train young people aged 17-25 in the technical, creative and business aspects of concert and event promotion. The UC Theatre works with local groups like Berkeley Youth Alternatives, the Center for Independent Living and the Berkeley YMCA Teen Center to find candidates for the program. After completing the program, the youths enter into paid internships at the UC Theatre.