The UC Theatre in 1942. (Photo courtesy of Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association )
For more than 80 years, the UC Theatre was a crown jewel in downtown Berkeley. People flocked to the theater -- which opened in 1917, boasting the largest screen west of the Mississippi -- to see everything from 10-cent silent films in the '20s to double features in the '70s. (One of those attendees? Tom Hanks, who later credited the theater as key to his film education).
But in 2001, upon discovering the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to complete a seismic retrofit, its landlords closed the theater's doors. It’s sat abandoned and dilapidated ever since -- until March 25, when it’ll reopen as an ambitious music venue after a $6 million renovation.
The theater’s revamp (now officially called the UC Theatre Taube Family Music Hall) is spearheaded by David Mayeri, who worked at Bill Graham Presents for 35 years and grew up in Berkeley -- he fondly recalls seeing The Ten Commandments at the theater as a child. Mayeri became intrigued by the space when the head of Berkeley’s economic development department approached him in 2007. “I walked into the room, one that I went to as a child," Mayeri says, "and immediately pictured what it could look like as a music venue."
Mayeri initially imagined the project as a for-profit venture aided by investors like Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman. But after Hellman's death in 2011, Mayeri decided to restructure the theater as a nonprofit. “Instead of having a responsibility to investors, we now feel we have one to the community,” he says.
Mayeri started unloading equipment at local Bay Area shows as a teen in the '70s for $10 a pop, and eventually became Chief Operating Officer of Bill Graham Presents by the ‘90s -- a somewhat unlikely career journey that he hopes to replicate for others. He's created a program where 17-25 year-olds can learn industry-relevant skills through workshops on everything from sound engineering to booking. Mayeri also plans to offer paid internships. The theater partners with groups in Richmond and Berkeley to diversify their applicant pool (five of the 10 people in the pilot program are from underserved communities), and Mayeri plans to regularly offer the space to nonprofits for fundraisers.
Such projects will be underwritten by the theater’s planned programming of 75-100 annual shows, with some of the booking in-house, some paired with concert giant Live Nation. In terms of their place along the Bay Area’s ladder of venues, Mayeri says people can expect “bands that you see at the Fillmore. Bands that have outgrown Slim’s, Great American Music Hall, the New Parish, we’re now in the East Bay for them to play. There is no venue of this size and type in the East Bay.”
He’s also incorporating what he calls “community programming” to broaden its audience to an older crowd maybe not as entranced by NOFX and Deerhunter (who both play the theater in April). They’ve already booked the Berkeley High Jazz band, and are hoping to secure classical, jazz and opera shows.
It’s a new direction for the theater, which had previously only served as a film venue. In addition to the historic parade of movies it showed -- its famous weekly showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show are considered by many to be the country’s longest running -- it served as the location for one of the film world’s most bizarre spectacles. Famous German director Werner Herzog had bet his friend, director Errol Morris, that he would eat his shoe if Morris ever finished his film Gates of Heaven. At the film’s premiere at the UC Theatre, Herzog admitted defeat and ate the shoe (which Alice Waters had spent the day helping him boil and season at Chez Panisse).
Mayeri says the theater will occasionally show movies, primarily as fundraising opportunities. The renovated space will hold 1,400 people, with flexible seating options for both general-admission standing and smaller table and chair shows. Unlike many theaters, which have to choose between acoustically equipping themselves for either rock music or classical shows, the theater will have sound systems for both -- a traditional rock and roll sound system, and a Meyer Constellation, an elaborate series of speakers and microphones controlled by an iPad that the New Yorker recently described as “the sonic equivalent of Photoshop.”
It’s a good time to be investing in downtown Berkeley. A few years ago, the city passed the Downtown Area Plan in 2012, paving the way for more and taller buildings downtown. As more San Franciscans move East, Berkeley appears eager to woo them with an increased amount of housing: there are plans to build thousands of new housing units in the city’s downtown area over the next few years to cater to the influx of non-student residents.
And much like the Fox Theater helped transform Oakland's uptown neighborhood from a ghost town into a New York Times-worthy tourist destination, Mayeri hopes that the theater will play a key role in downtown Berkeley’s revitalization, pointing to the potential thousands of concert attendees. “The first year will bring 120,000 plus new people into downtown Berkeley. We're 1,400 capacity, so a show brings 1,400 people to downtown Berkeley, which will help restaurants and local businesses.”
And now, after years of working to bring a new concert hall to his hometown, Mayeri has just one simple goal: for it to finally be done.
“I’m excited to have construction be done and behind us,” he says. “The excitement for me is watching the artist come off the stage and say ‘Wow, that was a great show’, and watching the customers leave with a smile on their faces, saying, ‘This was a great experience.'”
The UC Theatre's first slate of shows include They might Be Giants on March 25; Trombone Shorty on March 26; and the Dark Star Orchestra, NOFX, Deerhunter and Los Lobos scattered throughout April and May. For full details, see the theatre's site.
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