Berkeley’s Two Campus Theaters

Daniella Thompson

The Campus Theater, originally the Majestic, at 2510 Durant Avenue. The film screened was the 1916 comedy “Green Stockings.” (The Moving Picture World, 5 August 1916)

4 June 2013

In a university town, the existence of a cinema called Campus Theater is natural enough, but Berkeley went one further in having two such establishments succeed one another in close order. Both are long gone, although their buildings still stand.

The earlier of the two was built in 1914 for John Arthur Elston and George Clark, law partners who had purchased Louis Titus’s estate on the southeast corner of Telegraph and Durant avenues. The partners replaced the Titus mansion that stood at 2500 Durant Avenue with the five-story Cambridge Apartments, designed by Walter H. Ratcliff, Jr. The Titus garage on the eastern portion of the estate gave way to a cinema, also designed by Ratcliff.

The building permit of 18 August 1914 specified a two-story “motion picture theatre,” to be built at a cost of $10,000. The lessee was the Iris Motion Picture Company, which ran the cinema as the Majestic Theatre.

While no interior photos of the Majestic are at hand, we get a fair idea of what it looked like from a detailed description in The Moving Picture World of 5 August 1916:

The theater was erected about two years ago and is of tile construction, being practically fireproof. It covers a lot 40 by 130 feet in size and has a seating capacity of five hundred. If the chairs were arranged as they are in many other houses at least six hundred persons could be accommodated but comfort has been considered above all things and no crowding has been permitted. Twenty-two inch chairs are used and an unusually wide space has been left between the rows. […]

One of the most interesting features of the theater is the lobby, which faces the university grounds. This is about 15 by 35 feet in size, with a red tile floor, and has been fitted up in an unusually attractive manner. Here are tables, old hickory furniture, potted plants and hanging baskets, affording a splendid setting for the posters which are hung in neat frames from the walls and shown on attractive easels. In its general appearance the lobby reminds one of a broad home veranda and is not much different from the entrances to some of the fine sorority houses in the neighborhood.

Above the lobby, reached by a stairway from the inside, is a beautiful parlor, furnished with wicker furniture, rest rooms for patrons, an office, sign and storage room and the operating room. In the latter are installed two Power’s Cameragraphs No. 6A and a General Electric Compensarc. The picture projected is a little larger than is usually found in a house of this size, being 14 by 19 feet. A gold fiber screen is used with good success. Music is furnished by a Fotoplayer installed at a cost of $5,000 and this is becoming a feature of the theater, the musician being an expert performer. The price of admission at all times is ten cents for adults and five cents for children.

1915 Berkeley directory

1916 Berkeley directory

The Majestic operated for less than a year. There may have been several reasons for its early demise, but one of them was spelled out in the Moving Picture World article:

When the house was first opened under a different management there was no heating plant and the cement floor was a source of great discomfort, but the new proprietors have installed a heating system and the place is now comfortable at all times.

The new proprietors were the Campus Motion Picture Company, under the management of R.M. Gilman. On 21 August 1915, The Moving Picture World reported that “[t]he Campus theater, Berkeley, Calif., formerly known as the Majestic, opened during the summer school at the University.”

Under the new management, the program changed daily. Paramount movies were screened four days a week, V-L-S-E films on two days, and Metro or Path productions on the remaining day. A regular monthly program calendar was mailed to patrons.

An ongoing challenge in running the Campus Theater was the fact that it drew 60% of its patronage from the student body and faculty, which reduced attendance drastically during the summer vacation. “…it is likely that the theater will always be closed during this period, as is the case this year,” reported The Moving Picture World in August 1916.

The Majestic-Campus Theater building today (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2013)

The theater succumbed shortly thereafter (it wasn’t listed in the 1917 and 1918 directories) and was turned into a store. Its reincarnation began on 24 February 1925, when the theatrical impresario Frank Atkins, then living at 724 Spruce Street, took out a building permit for a 50-foot-high theater building, to be constructed at 2440 Bancroft Way. James T. Narbett of Richmond was the theater’s architect, and F.W. Maurice of Oakland, its builder.

Largely forgotten now, the British-born Narbett (1874-1936) was in his day one of the busiest architects in Northern California. Brought up in Benicia and Crockett, Narbett attended the Vander Naillen School of Engineering in San Francisco before taking up contracting. In 1907, he began private architecture studies and obtained his state license. Living in Chico, he designed Masonic Temples for that town and Oroville, as well as buildings in Chico, Orland, Willows, Dunsmuir, and Sacramento. In 1911 he moved to Richmond, where he designed major commercial buildings, the Elks’ Lodge, Richmond City Hall, the fire stations, and all but two public schools. In addition, he designed many school buildings throughout Contra Costa County. During World War I, Narbett was in charge of the expansion of the Hercules Powder plant.

The newly completed Campus Theater, 2440 Bancroft Way (Berkeley Courier, 16 January 1926)

An almost plain box, the Campus Theater building escaped dullness through the judicious application of decorative details such as bas-reliefs, tile panels, and windows at the mezzanine level. The design was described as “reminiscent of the period of the Moorish invasion of Spain.” Flanking the marquee were two storefronts. Within, the luxurious cinema featured a large stage, frescoes, a “Mighty Wurlitzer” organ, and “deep opera chairs” for 1,400 patrons, arranged stadium-style.

Inaugural ad (Berkeley Courier, 16 January 1926)

Inaugural ad (Berkeley Gazette, 20 January 1926)

Under the management of the Golden State Theatre Corporation, the Campus opened on 20 January 1926 as “Berkeley’s Showplace,” with a gala evening that included live music and dignitary speeches in addition to the feature film, “California Straight Ahead,” starring Reginald Denny. The gala was filmed, and the footage was screened as an added attraction of the program that opened on 3 February. The Campus’s newspaper ad for the film “The Teaser” included a teaser of its own:

Added Attraction Exraordinary
Motion pictures taken of the Gala Opening of the Campus Theater. Were you there? Then see yourself on the screen.

An “Added Attraction Extraordinary” was the screening of footage shot during the gala opening two weeks earlier. (Berkeley Gazette, 2 February 1926)

Golden State’s reign at the Campus was brief. Apparently, the theater’s programming was not on par with the facilities. Still billed as “Berkeley’s Showplace De Luxe,” it closed for a few days in late August 1927, reopening on 3 September as a Fox West Coast property. Fox renovated the theater, enlarging the stage to accommodate vaudeville numbers and outfitting the usherettes with snappy new uniforms. “It is my sincere ambition to make the Campus Theater Berkeley’s leading playhouse,” stated the manager, Clarence L. Laws, formerly of Fox’s California Theater. Bandleader Horace Heidt and his orchestra were a daily attraction at the reopened theater.

The Campus reopens as a Fox West Coast theater.
(Berkeley Gazette, 3 September 1927)

The Fox Campus Theater in December 1930 (Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)

The movie screened at the Campus Theater when the photo on the left was taken.

The Campus continued to falter under Fox West Coast management. In February 1931, it was advertised as “Berkeley’s Only De Luxe Theatre Offering Extended Engagements!,” yet film programs ran for only two days each, while the Fox California and the Fox U.C. ran films for a whole week and had more prominent ads. The Fox Campus was closed in December 1932 “because of a shortage of suitable product,” reopening in September 1933 under a new policy, “in view of the discriminating taste of its former audience.” First-run movie programs were to change three times a week (no different than before). This scheme, too, was short-lived.

By 1935, the Campus had ceased to offer a regular movie program and was rented to independent promoters for individual spectacles. In March of that year, journalist Anna Louise Strong lectured on “Dictatorship and Democracy in the Soviet Union.” In April, William E. Chamberlain presented a dance recital by Caroline Chew, “America’s only Chinese woman dancer.” In May, Dziga Vertov’s 1934 documentary film, “Three Songs about Lenin,” was screened, followed in June by G.W. Pabst’s film “Adventures of Don Quixote,” starring Feodor Chaliapin.

In October 1935, Chamberlain began presenting regularly scheduled foreign and revival films at the Campus, beginning with the 1934 Russian feature film “Chapaev,” followed by “The Scoundrel” (1935), starring Nol Coward; the 1931 German film “Mdchen in Uniform”; The 1935 British film “Sanders of the River,” starring Paul Robeson; and the 1933 musical comedy “Bitter Sweet,” adapted from Nol Coward’s operetta. In December 1935, the Campus Theater was the venue for a benefit performance by the celebrated tenor Tito Schipa.

William Edwin Chamberlain (1880–1966) was a classically trained baritone, voice teacher, and concert promoter. He acted as president of the Alameda County Music Teachers’ Association, officer of the Berkeley Music Association, and founded the California Music League. Chamberlain directed young people concerts at Berkeley High School and was a major force in the musical life of Berkeley. An Easterner, Chamberlain married Berkeleyan Eugenia Loy, the daughter of a printer and typographer who owned one of Berkeley’s most beautiful houses, designed by Ernest Coxhead, at 2431 Ellsworth Street. Chamberlain moved to Berkeley in 1907, raised a family and resided for the rest of his life in the Loy family house. In the rear yard, Chamberlain built a voice studio designed by Maybeck in 1923.

Chamberlain’s reign at the Campus may have been the only time when the theater enjoyed decent programming and a steady patronage. That reign approached its end when Fox announced in August 1941 that it was taking its theater back. In July 1942, Chamberlain was appointed manager of the Berkeley Theater, owned by the Blumenfeld chain.

Fox kept the Campus in operation through late 1950s, but the theater was relegated to a lowly status, screening reruns. Meanwhile, its former role as an art house had been assumed by the Cinema Guild, opened in 1952 in the Sequoia Building, 2436 Telegraph Avenue at Haste Street.

Conversion work begins (Berkeley Gazette, 20 November 1958)

In 1958, Frank Atkins’s widow, who still owned the Campus Theater building, sold it to the Camping Construction Company of Oakland. The latter announced a $500,000 conversion to a store-and-office building in November 1958 and gutted the cinema in January 1959.

The Campus Theater building today (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2013)

William Chamberlain lived to see the Campus Theater gutted. He died in 1966, aged 86. Within two years, the beautiful Loy-Chamberlain House was demolished after a desperate fight by preservationists who mounted the barricades in an effort to save it. The house was replaced by a large apartment building. Only Chamberlain’s Maybeck-designed studio was spared and moved to the Claremont district.

The Coxhead-designed Loy-Chamberlain House at 2431 Ellsworth Street was demolished in 1968. (photo: Josh Freiwald)


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