In stark contrast with its surroundings, the building at 2115 Kittredge St. has no windows, doors or any sign of life. Its paint has faded and chipped, and the alleys surrounding it are filled with garbage.
The only thing left to remind people of what it once was is a word on both sides of its marquee: “California.”
This is what remains of Berkeley’s legendary California Theatre, a previous landmark for movies and shows, before closing at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.
According to former California Theatre manager Dale Sophiea, the pandemic greatly contributed to the theater’s shutdown.
“COVID is the short answer,” Sophiea said. “We had to close in the beginning because, you know, you couldn’t go to the movies at that time. COVID hit and everybody got used to watching movies on TV.”
According to Sophiea, the California Theatre was doing well and getting good bookings before COVID-19 hit, despite what Sophiea describes as a “less than vibrant” movie theater industry.
Similar to many local businesses, however, the California Theatre was unable to deal with COVID-19 related shutdowns.
The landlords who own the California Theatre property will try and sell it to speculators, Sophiea said. He believes the theater will be replaced by housing, a trend in Downtown Berkeley, which Sophiea claims turns the neighborhood into a “ghost town” and a “bedroom community.”
“The City Council has a bent toward more housing for Berkeley,” Sophia said. “They have to meet certain deadlines, and the tax revenue from housing is huge. … Downtown Berkeley is becoming more residential, and there are less of these cultural meeting centers where people can do things and celebrate art.”
Despite the challenges facing the movie theater industry, Sophiea does not want to back away from fighting to preserve the theater. Armed with the backing of many local supporters, Sophiea has become part of an organization called Friends of the California Theatre.
This group, along with the Art Deco Society of California, helped present the preservation case to the Berkeley Landmark Commission on Thursday. Friends of the California Theatre also sent a letter to the Berkeley City Council to advocate for the preservation of the California Theatre as a historic landmark, and Sophiea noted the theater’s “big, beautiful history.”
Sophiea said the California Theatre has attracted some of the mid-20th century’s most famous performers. Actors such as Hoagy Carmichael, Jeannie Crane, Jeffrey Hunter, Barbara Rush, Lex Barker and Charles Coburn are among those who traveled from Hollywood to visit the theater for premieres and events.
In addition to this storied history, the California Theatre is one of just 12 art deco-style theaters left in the Bay Area, according to Sophiea.
Sophiea also highlighted ways in which the California Theatre was a place for important community gatherings.
“When I was at the Cal, we did many community events,” Sophiea said. “When we had Michael Moore’s ‘Sicko,’ we had the Nurses Association come in and set up a table. When ‘Juno’ played, we had Planned Parenthood come in and pass out condoms and leaflets and talk to people one on one.”
Sophiea noted the next Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission hearing May 5 could determine the theater’s landmark status. Until then, Sophiea encouraged local residents to rally behind saving the California Theatre, calling their involvement “critical.”