OAKLAND, Calif. — The Grand Lake Theatre, a landmark here since 1926, is one of the last American movie palaces with its original proscenium still operating and in one piece.
With its illuminated dome, Corinthian columns, arches, murals and cove lighting, the Grand Lake is more than just a well-preserved relic of the past glory of America's movie palaces. In 1985, owner Allen Michaan added a new wing with two lavishly decorated viewing rooms that may mark the beginning of a renaissance in movie theater architecture.
"Most of my competitors feel that what we do here is excessive in terms of the degree of architecture and the degree of ornamentation," Michaan, 35, said.
Michaan, owner of the Renaissance Rialto Theaters chain that mostly specializes in repertory or art films--he operates more than a dozen Bay Area movie houses--plans to build more mini-palaces for first run movies.
In a few months, Michaan said, workmen will descend on a building in downtown Berkeley that formerly housed a department store to construct eight new viewing rooms: two 300-seat rooms in the style of the Egyptian courtyard, two 200-seat Moroccan palaces, and four less lavish 100-seat rooms for specialty and art films.
The price tag for the Berkeley project is expected to be $2 million, and Michaan says that the theater's multiple screens and proximity to the University of California campus should make it even more profitable than the Grand Lake.
Artist-cum-materials-cum tooling shop owner Dusty Dillion, who built the Grand Lake's interior decorations for Michaan, is gearing up his Berkeley facility to produce the ornamentation for the new theater. Panels, reliefs, columns and arches must all be redesigned to fit the specifications of the new building.
According to Dillion, he has had to "re-invent" the process of building movie palaces because most of those who built the palaces of the '20s and '30s are gone and the requirements for materials have changed so much.
Ten or 15 years ago it would not have been possible to support a lavishly decorated theater, according to Michaan. Stagnant ticket sales, rising film costs and the trend toward suburban shopping mall multiplex theaters was putting the squeeze on the industry.
Theaters with six, eight or even a dozen screens allowed operators to hold down costs and increased the probability that the house would be showing a hit at any given time. Many of the original movie palaces from the '20s were either demolished or divided into multiplexes.
The Grand Lake, originally built for West Coast Fox Theaters in 1926, changed hands several times over the years. Declining income in the late 1960s and '70s led to deterioration of the building. The Grand Lake even did a brief stint as a pornographic theater until neighborhood protest persuaded the owners to show less prurient selections.
When Michaan purchased the lease in 1980, the building was facing the wrecking ball and the landmark 65-foot illuminated sign on top of the structure had been darkened for fifteen years.
In 1981, when Michaan was forced by the economics of the movie exhibition business to add a second screen, he vowed that the Grand Lake would not become a multiplex with shoe-boxed shaped viewing rooms. Instead of splitting the 1,000-seat main auditorium down the middle, Michaan spent $300,000 to build a soundproof wall and convert the long-unused upstairs balcony into an auditorium.
Michaan puts the cost of building the two new 200-seat mini-movie palaces at $1 million.
The new wing's mini-lobby, as Michaan calls it, includes among its accouterments a $35,000 Tiffany window dating from the turn of the century. The doorway to theater number three takes the viewer even further back to a courtyard in ancient Egypt. The lower walls are hieroglyphic reliefs. Columns rise above the hieroglyphics to frame murals depicting a desert landscape filled with pyramids, palm trees and Sphinxes.
Giant scarab beetles grace the balcony, while presiding over the screen is a relief of "the soul of Tutankhamen rising into the heavens on gilded wings," according to Dillion.
As the lights fade to black, they simulate a desert sunset, complete with a lingering red glow at the base of the curtain where the horizon would be. At the moment of darkness, just before the curtains part, "stars" come twinkling forth from the ceiling.
Although both Michaan and Dillion stand to profit handsomely if their experiment catches on, they say that money isn't why they put in the long hours necessary to build 1920s-style movie palaces in the 1980s.
"It's the same reason people volunteer to work in a hospice," Dillion said. "They want to ease the pain of the dying, and we want to ease the pain of the living."