July 17, 2002




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California dreaming

YOU COULD HEAR the marching band from as far as lower Bancroft Way, several blocks from where the crashing of cymbals and jaunty brass renditions of epic movie scores were entertaining a line of moviegoers snaking around a city block corner. What sounded like the theme to Ben-Hur ended to a smattering of applause as a confused passer-by scratched his head. "So they actually re-opened the California?" he asked.

His confusion wasn't totally unfounded, nor were the cheers greeting the grand re-opening of Berkeley's California Theatre, the city's oldest operating house of shadows and light. The theater originally opened its doors in 1912 as a vaudeville house, and converted to a first-run movie palace in 1932. In 1979, it went from a single-screen house to converting the main room's balcony area into two smaller theaters devoted to artier, edgier fare while keeping the big-budget bonanzas unspooling on its big screen.

Nestled between the academic retrospect think-tank of the PFA and the run-of-the-mill cineplexia of the Shattuck, the "Cal," as it's known colloquially, occupies a sentimental soft spot in Berkeley's moviegoing heart. Students and locals got the chance to sample everything from Fassbinder to Fincher there, and its offbeat style was the perfect complement to a night spent watching midnight screenings of Naked Lunch while ingesting recreational hallucinogens (the author can neither confirm nor deny first-hand knowledge of that last statement). Landmark Theatres bought the California in 1994, and plans for retrofitting and renovation had been in the house's cards since the acquisition. When the company announced they were shutting down the Cal, East Bay residents who were still smarting from losing the crown jewel of the UC Theatre feared the days of popcorn and roses had finally reached its zenith.

After nine months of facelifts and foundation work, however, the Cal was ready for public consumption again and threw itself a welcome-back bash. An exhibit in the lobby featured video footage of the renovation and several antique candy wrappers and artifacts unearthed during the reconstruction. A found ceramic medallion from the 20s now adorns the lobby's ceiling; its migraine-inducing brown upholstery was exchanged for a lush green carpet. The main house now sports retro-deco flourishes. Patrons were treated to an irreverent "spinning wheel of fortune" raffle (prizes included gift certificates, a Homer Simpson Rubik's cube and a "big book"), a ribbon-cutting dedication from Berkeley's mayor (declaring July "Cal Theatre month"), and a free screening of the crowd-friendly art film Lovely and Amazing. "I hope people like the new Cal," I overheard one of the theater's managers ask before the lights went down and hissing greeted the preview of soon-to-be summer event spectacle I Spy. You couldn't have asked for a better christening than that. (David Fear)