So after spending several sweltering hours in our dirty, heat-trapping, and bug-ridden garage reorganizing everything last Sunday, we decided to treat ourselves to a good ol’ fashioned summer blockbuster movie at a great ol’ fashioned movie palace… The Grand Lake Theater.
Tim knew which movie he wanted to see and when he went online to lookup the movie times, he went straight to the Grand Lake’s info… 7pm. That set our pace for the rest of our late afternoon project, because frankly, despite the fact that the movie was likely playing at other local theaters at other times, he knew there was no place else I’d rather go.
The Grand Lake Theater is my favorite movie theater in the East Bay for the following reasons:
- It’s gorgeous. An old movie palace dating back to the 1920’s, its main auditorium is huge (rare these days) and the decor is elaborate and beautiful, definitely from a bygone era.
- They never ever play commercials. And they never will according to an interview with owner Allen Michaan. This is practically unheard of and I really know of no other theater that doesn’t except for the Paramount, which only occasionally plays classic movies.
- They play first run movies. A great place to see the big blockbusters… especially on opening night. The energy is amazing!
- Great location. Plenty of options for dining and/drinks nearby for before or after, or a leisurely stroll around the lake… always lovely.
- Their incredible rooftop signage. Only now occasionally lit, due to the extreme expense of running and maintaining, this spectacular rooftop sign is one of the few remaining constructions of its kind, rising over 50 feet above the roofline, with letters as tall as 12 feet! It’s a real treat to catch it lit at night in all its glory, but it’s also a stunning Oakland landmark by day, everyday.
- Independently & locally owned and operated!
- The Mighty Wurlitzer played on Friday and Saturday nights. Taking you back to a simpler time, and often featuring a musical medley of classic soundtrack songs, this wholesome entertainment surprisingly sets an almost reverential tone for the big screen movie experience. Here’s a shot of the organ player on one of my weekend night visits…
The Grand Lake was opened in 1926 by West Coast Theaters (also responsible for Oakland’s Fox Theater) as a vaudeville show and silent movie house. The Mighty Wurlitzer was a common feature of theaters dating to this era – its purpose to provide accompaniment to the silent movies.
I didn’t feature this theater in my Art Deco series because the building has very little in the way of Art Deco design, other than the added Streamline styled marquee. I’m not sure what year it was added, but below you can see a historical photo from 1926 without the marquee.
And below is the marquee from late 2007, adorned with one of the owner’s frequent lefty political rants. People either love this blatant politicking or hate it, some even boycotting the theater in protest. Personally, I find it refreshing to hear a local individual’s voice speaking out in an effort to better our society (regardless of whether I agree with his stances). This is one of the benefits of being independently run… not to be confined to corporate-driven consumer messages.
As you can imagine, running an old movie house like this can be quite expensive. When Michaan (technically his company Renaissance Rialto, Inc.) bought the theater in 1980, he spent $3.5 million on renovation and expansion. The balcony was converted into a second theater, and the Grand Lake Theater saw its heyday of profits shortly thereafter with a multi-month run of E.T. (1982) in which lines wrapped around the block.
Later in 1985, two adjacent storefronts were converted into additional auxiliary theaters, both with classic period decor for similar era movie palaces (Egyptian Revival & Moorish). Since then, the expansion of multiplexes like those in Jack London Square and Emeryville has increased competition for movie goers, and profits have dwindled. Owner Michaan is fiercely dedicated to the theater’s preservation however.
“I would feel really, really bad if something happened to this building – if it wasn’t a theater,” Michaan says. “The Grand Lake is special. It’s one of the last of its kind. I sort of feel like I made a lot of money here over the years, and I owe it to the theater, even though it doesn’t make me any money any more.” (For Grand Lake Theater owner, movies must go on (by Peter Hartlaub, SFGate))
Anyone who’s been in the neighborhood recently has surely noticed the new paint job the exterior has received, huge scaffolding set up on all sides of the building. Improvements like this, plus the new roof and recently added 3D projection system (comparable to Pixar’s private screening auditorium) don’t come cheap. It’s all part of Michaan’s effort to woo the public back to the “classic golden age of Hollywood moviegoing experience.” I hope he succeeds.
This gem is one of my favorite things about living in Oakland.
And here’s a wonderful little film featuring interviews with the theater’s owner, the wurlitzer organ player, the general manager, and projectionist. It’s fascinating, featuring history, finances (did you know ticket sales cover only the costs for the studio films and the PG&E bill?), and a neat glimpse at that amazing sign on the roof and the mechanics behind it…