The marquee read "We Love You Oakland." Tickets were sold out, and a line of moviegoers wrapped well around the block. It was the Parkway Theater's busiest night in recent memory. But the mood was far from sunny. With only a few days' notice, the Parkway was closing, marking the loss of a community institution, the shuttering of a city landmark, the end of an era. Hundreds had gathered to pay their respects.
The theater at 1834 Park Boulevard fell dark the next evening, but its sister facility in El Cerrito remained aglow in blue neon. It had opened along a modest stretch of San Pablo Avenue in late 2006 as an extension of Kyle and Catherine Fischer's beloved Speakeasy Theaters brand. The couple had spent the previous five years working closely with the City of El Cerrito, which invested more than $4 million in restoring the art deco movie house and returning it to full operation in the Parkway's image. With the March 22 closure of the Oakland theater, attention turned to sparing the Cerrito from the same fate. It had been doing good business, consistently filling seats and making money month to month. Yet less than nine weeks later, it, too, shut down.
How it all happened soon became the subject of rumor and speculation. Was Speakeasy Theaters a victim of the recession? Of Netflix and multiplexes? Of a shoddy business plan? A malevolent landlord? Why had the Parkway closed so suddenly, and was the Cerrito's failure related? Each theory had its backers, but the truth wasn't so clear-cut. Behind the scenes, a more insidious game of finger-pointing was developing. While the Parkway sat empty and the Cerrito transitioned to its next stage, there emerged two very different accounts of what went wrong. Thinly veiled accusations of bureaucratic malfeasance and financial incompetence began to soil the once-productive relationship between Speakeasy Theaters and the City of El Cerrito.
While the city quickly turned its theater over to a new operator, Speakeasy CEO and former attorney Kyle Fischer began contemplating a multimillion-dollar lawsuit claiming ownership of the building's extensive improvements and equipment. The city has dismissed his claims and threatened a countersuit for millions in unpaid loan funds and future rent, which it had previously offered to forgive.
As the public eye moves on to the next act at both theaters, one thing looks certain: The birth of the Cerrito contributed to the death of the Parkway, and a protracted legal battle may be the only way out. Its outcome could have immense implications for the future of El Cerrito's newly restored theater and the legacy of Kyle and Catherine Fischer, Oakland homeowners and parents who spent thirteen years building a beloved East Bay business and a matter of months watching it crumble.
Kyle and Catherine Fischer first entered the 1920s-era Parkway Theater in August 1996. It had last shown movies in 1990 and, as a venue for raves and other parties, become a magnet for crime. It sported carpeted walls, decrepit plumbing and electrical systems, and a plywood floor with no seats.
But the then-unmarried business partners — Kyle, a passionate, emotional, shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy and Catherine a cooler, more diplomatic operator who fancies herself an eternal optimist — had big dreams for the space. They planned to turn it into California's first speakeasy theater, which would combine second-run films and adventurous, community-based programming with food and beverage service for a 21-and-over crowd. In January 1997, the Parkway opened with a showing of Fargo, which was already out on videotape, and the Speakeasy mold was cast.
"There's a group of people in the East Bay who aren't being satisfied in the multiplexes," Kyle Fischer told the Express at the time. "That's our crowd." And he was right. While the Parkway initially lost money, by the end of its first year it had begun to materialize as both a community linchpin and a destination for a certain class of moviegoer from throughout the Bay Area.
If nothing else, it offered patrons a unique night out. Comfy, stuffed chairs and couches with tables in lieu of typical theater seating; pitchers of beer and wine; and a kitchen turning out pizzas, sandwiches, and salads fostered an ambiance that mattered as much as what was playing onscreen. But the theater's bargain-price programming excelled in its own way: In addition to progressive indies, second-run Hollywood flicks, and old classics, the Parkway added B-movie horror and quirky theme nights through charismatic booker Will "the Thrill" Viharo, who often appeared onstage with fellow host and future wife Monica the Tiki Goddess. The Parkway's weekly Baby Brigade broke the mold even further by offering daytime shows where crying children wouldn't become outcasts. And that was just the beginning.
By early 2001, the Parkway Speakeasy was entrenched — and profitable. But a fortuitous occasion would forever alter its trajectory and that of its owners. Ten miles away, in the small suburb of El Cerrito, a man named Harry Kiefer decided to sell his building. He'd been using it to store furniture for 35 years, but it was no ordinary warehouse; it was the shell of an old movie palace, a fact few people around town seemed to know. It might've landed on the chopping block if not for the efforts of El Cerrito resident and historic-building buff Dave Weinstein. He alerted city officials to the building's hidden history — including the period details still intact inside — and sparked their interest in restoring the theater.
Small, independent movie theaters like the one that city administrators began to envision tend have a domino effect on the surrounding area. "The theater is a cornerstone of a shopping district," said Allen Michaan, owner of Grand Lake Theater operator Renaissance Rialto. "With it comes increased foot traffic that can revitalize an entire neighborhood." This was precisely what the City of El Cerrito had in mind for the building's nondescript block. All it needed was a knowledgeable developer and future operator to guide the process.