By the end of this month, the historic Oaks Theatre on upper Solano Avenue in Berkeley may be without an operator. Metropolitan Theatres Corporation has announced it will not renew its five-year lease when it expires on February 28. And currently, no plan is in place for a successor — although there are hopes that the operators of the Elmwood and Cerrito theaters will take it over.
The building is owned and managed by John Gordon of Berkeley-based Gordon Commercial Real Estate, which bought it three years ago. Gordon said he is actively looking for a new tenant, preferably another movie-theater operator. "That's why I bought the building, to keep it as a movie theater," he said.
Last week, the 16,000-square-foot Oaks Theater was listed on Gordon's web site as an available property. It was constructed in 1925 as a single-screen theater and converted to two screens in 1973. Its current seating capacity of 1,000 could be augmented by renovating the existing, unused balcony – or, Gordon suggested, by adding screens. This would make it more financially viable for most operators, including Landmark Theatres, which runs the Albany Twin at the other end of Solano. Gordon is asking a monthly lease price of $0.75 per square foot, or approximately $12,000.
Gordon said he has yet to receive any interest but thinks a local operator would be better suited to theater than the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan, which only had one location in Northern California. An increasingly prominent name in East Bay independent film is Rialto Cinemas, which started in Santa Rosa in 2000 and expanded to Berkeley's Elmwood in 2007. In June 2009, it took over El Cerrito's newly renovated Cerrito theater from Speakeasy Theaters, the defunct former operator of the Parkway in Oakland, and according to proprietor Ky Boyd has enjoyed a successful first year there.
Boyd would neither confirm nor deny rumors among community members and Oaks employees that Rialto Cinemas was interested in the theater. He was, however, aware of the lease's upcoming expiration. "We're always looking for other opportunities," he said, but declined to comment further.
The Oaks has experienced its share of difficulties. Metropolitan took over for previous operator Allan Michaan of Renaissance Rialto Cinemas, owner of the Grand Lake Theater. Michaan, who restored the art-deco theater in 1994 using period décor, cited ongoing problems with obtaining first-run art films as his reason for losing it in 2005. And Landmark Theatres' well-established presence in Berkeley, particularly the proximity of the Albany Twin, may continue to make it tough for a new theater operator to keep the Oaks alive.