Parkway patrons plan to revive a theater in disrepair
on October 20, 2010
Grab some pizza and a pint—if J Moses Ceaser has his way, the Parkway Theater might be showing movies in Oakland again as early as next year.
Ceaser, a local photographer and entrepreneur, is the latest to try his hand at reincarnating the defunct Parkway Speakeasy Theater, which was an Oakland institution for over 12 years. Ceaser’s website, TheNewParkway.com, outlines his plan for a new movie theater taking the Parkway’s original formula—cheap pizza and beer in a theater furnished like a living room—and adding organic food and couch-side service. The only twist: The Parkway may not be able to return to its original location.
The beloved two-screen theater near the corner of Park Boulevard and 19th Street in Oakland closed in March 2009, after its operators encountered financial difficulties.
Today, the building is in need of repair. Ceaser estimates the costs of renovations to the roof, plumbing and electrical systems to be as high as $750,000—repairs Ceaser says the building’s landlords do not want to make. Ceaser has scouted locations on Broadway and on Shattuck Avenue in the Temescal area of Oakland if negotiations with the landlords do not pan out.
“They want the tenant to come in and make all the improvements,” said Ceaser of Yan and Judy Cheng, who have owned the building since 2002. “When it comes to the plumbing and the roof, those are traditionally landlord issues. We just don’t have the money.” According to Ceaser, he has held multiple discussions with the Chengs centered on a $10,000 per month lease for the building. But the cost and responsibility for building repairs remain sticking points between the two sides, he said. The Chengs could not be reached for comment on this story.
Ceaser says he saw over 50 movies at the original Parkway Theater and was immediately interested in taking over the business when the original owners, Kyle and Catherine Fischer, shut it down.
“I knew there was interest, I wanted it to be open again,” said Ceaser who would sometimes dry his laundry at a nearby laundromat while seeing a movie. “After nothing happened, I said, ‘You know what, it’s time for someone to step in.’”
Since the theater closed its doors, a handful of Oakland business leaders and politicians have labored to breathe life back into the location. Rick Mitchell, the owner of Luka’s Taproom and Lounge, says he contacted the Chengs about the property soon after the theater shut down. Mitchell lined up a translator to communicate with the Chengs, who speak little English, but was unable to work out a deal.
“I got the impression that they didn’t want to have a tenant in there, that they were just going through the motions,” Mitchell said. “If someone can make a deal with the Chengs, you’re going to be successful in that spot. There is a huge demand in the neighborhood.”
Neighborhood organizers have worked hard to revive the theater, seen as a cornerstone of the struggling area just east of Lake Merritt. In September, 2009, neighbors strongly opposed a plan to convert the vacant theater into a massage parlor. The bid to rent the second floor was withdrawn after a flood of emails to city officials.
Peter Prato, the co-founder of ILikeTheParkway.com, a website for citizens interested in the theater’s fate, wants to keep the Parkway in its original building but supports Ceaser’s plan, even if it takes the theater across town.
“Moses has been very transparent in terms of his goals,” Prato said. “He’s been honest about the fact that he might not be able to do it in the original space. If they do open a theater in the same vein elsewhere, I don’t think they should use the name ‘The Parkway.’”
Ceaser’s business plan details a budget of $400,000 in start-up expenses with a projected opening in mid-to-late 2011. He hopes to raise $300,000 through donations and investments by community members before the end of the year. So far, he says he has collected nearly $75,000 from about twenty investors. Initial investors would receive a combination of shares and free lifetime movie passes for every contribution of $5,000, he said. Ceaser is also offering incentives for small-time investors through the website Kickstarter.com, an online pledge-gathering site.
On a recent chilly day in Oakland, nearby residents said they would love to see the Parkway return, but only if it kept the same format. “It would be a letdown if they reopened it and movies were $10 and there was no beer,” said Dan Fracas, seated outside of Rooz Café, just one block away from the old Parkway. “I don’t want it to be in the Temescal. If they did it anywhere but here I probably wouldn’t go.”
At the Parkway Lounge adjacent to the empty theater, the fate of the Parkway sparked a twenty-minute conversation. Patrick McCullough, whose wife owns the bar, says people still call to ask what movies are playing next door. He has heard many rumors about a new life for the theater.
“We’ve heard so many investor stories, we start to become desensitized,” said McCullough over the ding of a pinball machine in the corner. “Who’s real and who isn’t? We’d all be excited for that type of venue to open up here. It’s a major uphill battle—a lot of obstacles in the way.”
According to Ceaser, he is in contact with the Fischers, reviewed their old accounting documents and earned their blessing to move on with the project.
“For them, this was a labor of love for a long time,” said Ceaser. “I asked them if things could be resolved with a new owner or new lease, would you come back and do this? They said, ‘No, we’re done.’” The Fischers did not return calls asking for comment before press time.
Oakland Councilmember Pat Kernighan, the representative for the Parkway’s surrounding district, has discussed city funding and low-interest loans with the Chengs, and hopes to convince them to invest in the theater’s repairs. Kernighan says there is a 50-50 chance of reviving theater operations at the original location, but if negotiations succeed, the theater would thrive.
“The neighbors love that theater, everyone really wants it to come back,” said Kernighan. “There would be no shortage of customers, that’s for sure.”
Ceaser and members of ILikeTheParkway.com will hold informational meetings Thursday, October 21 at 7 p.m. at the Rooz Café on Park Avenue, and Sunday, October 31 at 5:30 p.m. at The Mixing Bowl on Telegraph Avenue in Temescal. Both meetings are open to the public.
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