It’s Wednesday night and a party is underway in Uptown Oakland. Inside a blue building decorated with graffiti, over 200 people are celebrating the return of Oakland’s beloved Parkway movie theater, which will open its doors to the public before the end of the year.
Managed by New Parkway Entertainment LLC, a group of 56 investors, the new theater will carry the same concept that made the original Parkway so popular in the community: It will offer cheaper tickets, feature second-run movies and serve food and beer to patrons who can dine while seated on couches. The original Parkway closed in 2009 after a string of disputes with the theater’s landlord and a failed expansion that led the Parkway’s initial owners to briefly open a second theater in El Cerrito.
“I’m very thrilled with the new theater,” said Oakland resident and Parkway patron Denise Mewborne as she gazed at the theater’s decoration. “This even feels like the old place.”
The grand opening party featured short movies produced by local filmmakers and music by Bay Area jazz band Hobo Paradise and Latin beats from Carne Cruda. Living up the Parkway’s tradition, food and drinks were served to guests, who were lounging on comfortable love seats.
“I just love these couches,” said Farah Walder, an Oakland resident and frequent customer at the old Parkway. “Who doesn’t want to sit on the couch and watch a movie?”
“A lot will be the same,” said J. Moses Ceaser, the principal manager of the New Parkway. “We are going to be a theater that is going to have a community focus. We are going to be showing Hollywood blockbusters, but we can also be doing a lot of stuff that promotes local filmmakers, a lot of things to benefit local nonprofits—all those things that made the Parkway really lovable.”
While many elements will remain the same in the new Parkway, the bustling Uptown area may provide a different kind of ambiance to the movie theater, which was previously located in a quiet residential neighborhood east of Lake Merritt. “Here we have easy access to bus lines, BART and the freeway. But parking is not going to be great, so I’m hoping a lot of people are going to come on foot, come on their bike,” Ceaser said, adding that people who ride their bicycle to the theater will get a $1 discount toward their movie ticket.
The relocation to Uptown will not make the Parkway lose its “originality,” said Ceaser, who had the support of community members as he worked to reopen the theater. “We actually did a poll about that. We asked people what was more important to them. Was the location more important, or was the concept more important?” he said, noting that “obviously” people wanted the concept combined with the old location. “But ten to one people voted that the concept was most important,” he said.
For twelve years, the original Parkway Speakeasy Theater was a community mainstay. Managed by partners Kyle and Catherine Fischer, the space combined everything from second-run movies to community-based programs. Pizza and beer were served in a comfortable, home-like environment. When it shut down in 2009, Ceaser took on the challenge of reviving the theater.
“I became interested in the Parkway as a patron, like just about everyone else that went to the theater,” said Ceaser, a frequent Parkway visitor. “When it closed, I think that many other people were really sad, so I said, ‘I want to see this theater reopen again.’”
Knowing that the original building on Park Boulevard was critical to the Parkway’s success because of its “homey, 1920’s style” and its residential surroundings, Ceaser originally hoped to reopen the theater at the same site. However, he said he encountered numerous obstacles during his negotiations with the building’s landlords. “There were certain times that we shook our hands and thought we had something,” said Ceaser, who ultimately couldn’t reach a deal with them. “Maybe it was the money, maybe personality. So at that point we started to look for other locations.”
In December, 2011, Ceaser found a new home for the Parkway in an old glass-sheet factory in Uptown Oakland. Six months later, he began the renovation work to transform the space into the New Parkway.
The new theater is nearly 8,000 square feet, has two floors and features two screening rooms with a seating capacity of 145 and 125 people each. The theater will have a full commercial kitchen and a café from which people will be able to order pizza, burgers, fries, salads, soups and appetizers, as well as vegetarian and vegan options. Limited table service within the theater will allow guests to order from their seats once the movie has begun. From the bar menu, customers will be able to order wine and beer on tap.
A laundry room, installed within the building, will guarantee “the cleanness of the couches,” said Ceaser, noting that the lack of cleanliness in some areas was one of the elements the old Parkway’s patrons complained about.
The New Parkway will present some of the old movie choice formulas that made the previous Parkway famous: The theater will feature “2 for 1 nights,” a return of the “Baby Brigade’” with special nights for parents and babies, and viewing parties for events such as the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl.
The Parkway Classics (screenings of 1980s and 1990s favorites) and Thrillville Theater (1950s/60s/70s horror, sci-fi, film noir and kung fu) will be run by Will Viharo, a former programmer for the original Parkway, who is now back as the New Parkway’s publicist. “My first Parkway Classic will be The Big Lebowski and my first Thrillville movie will be Forbidden Planet,” said Viharo.
But new programming will also play a role in the new version of the theater, which will host a documentary film series on Tuesday nights, a LGBTQ matinee series on Sundays and a monthly erotica series on first Fridays at midnight. For a younger crowd, the theater will present a quarterly “Sing a Song” multimedia event showcasing the best in children’s programming along with live musicians.
“The goal is to bring the best of the old Parkway with us, and hopefully make some additions to the overall appeal of the theater, particularly by continuing to include and engage the communities of Oakland,” said programming manager Randy Collins.
The New Parkway is located at 474 24th Street, right off of Telegraph Avenue. The theater’s management is currently putting on the finishing touches on their remodeling before opening the doors to the public by the end of December. For more information, visit http://thenewparkway.com