It's been eight years since popcorn popped and reels rolled at the UC Theater. The 1917 Berkeley landmark sits quiet and unassuming at 2036 University Avenue, its marquee neglected and its boarded-up facade given over to advertising. Inside, the theater's once-grand decor is dulled by dust, debris, and vandalism. But this time next year, if all goes as planned, the UC Theater will become the East Bay's newest concert venue.
Spearheaded by the same group that runs Slim's and the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, the project overcame its biggest hurdle yet by winning the resounding approval of the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board at an August 13 meeting. Now it's full-steam ahead to restore the run-down facility to a state-of-the-art 1,300-seat venue by fall 2010.
"We're honored to be able to work in the space, to refresh it and bring back some of the lost beauty and glory," said Slim's group co-owner Dawn Holliday. With Berkeley firm Remiker Architects at the helm, the renovation process will address many of the theater's historical design features including molding, columns, and frescoes. In a nod to nearby UC Berkeley, which has no formal association, even the bold blue and gold carpeting will stay.
Yet what enthralls Holliday and her colleagues even more than the past is the theater's impending second act. According to managing partner David Mayeri, the venue will fill a critical gap between smaller Berkeley clubs such as the new 440-capacity Freight & Salvage and larger venues such as Zellerbach Auditorium, which seats 2,000. The UC Theater's closest kin in the Bay Area — and a model for the sort of artists it will host — is San Francisco's Fillmore Auditorium, which seats 1,200. (The new Fox Theater can hold up to nearly 3,000.)
"This niche, this size venue is something that doesn't really exist right now in the East Bay," Mayeri said. A veteran of the Bay Area concert business, he got his start in the business at age sixteen by working security at the 3,000-seat Berkeley Community Theater. He stayed with Bill Graham Presents until 2004, some 34 years later, when he departed as chief operating officer and head of LiveNation's western region. In the meantime, he gained experience by helping to reopen the Fillmore in 1994 following its closure by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Mayeri says his latest move is more than just another business prospect. He grew up in Berkeley and used to catch movies at the UC Theater as a child. The UC served as an incubator for Landmark Theatres from 1976 until 2001. That was when, after 84 years of mostly continuous business, the UC Theater went dark.
An attempt was made in subsequent years by the owners of Kimball's Carnival in Oakland to reopen the theater as a jazz club. The building's owners paid for seismic upgrades and installed a fire sprinkler system, but no work was completed on the theater's interior.
When Kimball's withdrew from the deal a year and a half ago, Berkeley economic development manager Michael Kaplan reached out to Mayeri — with whom he'd previously worked on a still-unfinished green housing project — to gauge his interest in the building. Mayeri took a tour, fell in love, and invited former BGP colleague Dawn Holliday to join him.
"We're excited as hell about it," said Kaplan. "It has a lot of ingredients for success. ... Everyone wants this project to succeed." While the project dovetails nicely with Berkeley's recent efforts to expand its downtown Arts and Commerce District, Kaplan says Mayeri and Holliday received no loans or other financial incentives from the city. However, he said, the city did provide procedural assistance in obtaining permits and coordinating with various departments. "From the very beginning we've been involved with the project," he said.
Just like Mayeri and Holliday, the project's principal investors bring a breadth of Bay Area music experience to the new venue. These include musicians Boz Skaggs, Roger McNamee of the Flying Other Brothers and Moonalice, and Warren Hellman, who also finances the annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. According to Mayeri, the investor group is as committed to community-building as it is to live music. Programming is slated to consist of twelve to fourteen community events every year in addition to as many as 120 live concerts.
Once completed, the venue will feature a three-tiered ground-floor design similar to the one at San Francisco's Warfield Theater. Each level will allow for flexibility among sitting and standing arrangements. Including restrooms, a walk-up bar, and fully ADA-compliant pathways, the main floor of the building totals around 18,000 square feet.
Work on the interior, including a custom Meyer sound system and the first concert lighting rig the building has seen, should eat up most of the next year. Then there's the matter of finalizing a somewhat tenuous budget. With the zoning adjustment approval out of the way, said Mayeri, "the obstacle in front of us becomes whether or not we can afford to do what needs to be done to the building."
Holliday, who moved to the Bay Area for the concert business in 1971 and first worked in Berkeley, remains unflinchingly optimistic. "I think it's gonna open a world of music to the East Bay," she said. "And more music helps everybody."