Berkeley Landmarks :: UC Theater


UC Theater

2036 University Avenue, Berkeley, CA

Susan Cerny

UC Theater in its palmy days (photo: BAHA archives)

18 May 2002

A rare example of an early 20th-century movie theater

In 1896, the first motion picture in the United States was presented to the public in a New York City music hall, and for the next decade most films were shown as fillers in travelling vaudeville shows. The films were short and the subjects—such as dancing girls and moving trains—were limited. Partially because of lawsuits over patent infringements, the U.S. film industry lagged behind France and England until there was a patent settlement in 1908.

In 1905 the first theater devoted exclusively to movie pictures opened in Philadelphia. It was called a nickelodeon because the entrance fee was a nickel. Theaters devoted exclusively to films were a sign of the industry’s growth, and by 1908 there were thousands of nickelodeons across the country.

Early movie theaters were commonly located in converted storefronts; Berkeley had approximately 12 of these theaters in the period between 1908 and 1911. As movies improved and the industry grew, the motion picture theater as a specific building type developed.

Between 1911 and 1917 theaters became larger, more elaborate, and built of fireproof materials such as brick and concrete. Eight movie theaters were constructed in Berkeley during this period and three are still standing: the Elmwood (1914), the California (1914) and the UC Theater (1917). (In 1995, Berkeley’s then-oldest surviving theater, the Berkeley Theater (1911), was demolished.)

Of the three oldest surviving theaters in Berkeley, the UC is the only one that has not undergone extensive remodeling and conversion into a multiplex. Although its original brick facade has been covered with stucco and painted, it retains its original decorative elements. On the interior, although redecorated from time to time, the configuration of the entrance foyer, inner foyer, and open auditorium is unchanged. The large auditorium once had seating for 2,200 patrons.

UC Theater auditorium, 1998 (photo: David Huang)

The UC Theater was designed by James W. Plachek, who was also the architect for the original section of Berkeley’s Main Library (1930) and the Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Building (1938). John English, historian and author of the landmark application for the UC theater, noted that the design of the UC Theater building is unusual. It is a U-shaped, mixed-use building consisting of the theater auditorium in the rear wing, with the theater entrance and storefronts, and offices on the second story, in the front wing facing the street. This way, the large auditorium space is discretely tucked into the middle of the block. The theater was recently designated a Berkeley landmark.

This article was originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet.


A plan to save UC Theater, nurture arts

Steven Finacom

UC Theater entrance, 2001 (photo: Johnny Hawkins/Daily Cal)

23 May 2002

No, a thousand times no, to the idea that the UC Theater should be demolished and replaced with a small theater space and housing.

How absurd is it that the City can invest literally millions of dollars in helping to build a new large theater space for one performing arts group (the Berkeley Repertory Theatre), then a few years later and literally next door, allow one of Berkeley’s pre-eminent and most historic large theaters to be demolished?

What does Berkeley need to do to avoid this type of tragedy? First, inventory all the current and potential performing arts facilities in the city, both public and private. There are magnificent spaces that have literally been sitting vacant for years, particularly as many of Berkeley’s older clubs and churches have shrunk in membership and activities. Those spaces should live again in new institutional and performing arts use.

Second, inventory all the facilities needs, current and projected, of performing arts groups in Berkeley.

UC Theater, 2004
(photo: Daniella Thompson)

Third, compare the two lists to identify opportunities where unused spaces like the UC can be put back into use by performing arts groups that are crying out for suitable venues. Coordinate all relevant city offices and policy-making—Zoning, Planning, Economic Development, etc.—to help make this happen.

Fourth, stop funding facilities construction for specific groups and, instead, fund the acquisition or construction of facilities. This would mean an end to direct loans or grants of public funds for construction of facilities like the Black Repertory Theatre and the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater, that become the property of a particular arts organization and are solely used and controlled by a single group.

Instead, the city would invest in performance spaces that could be shifted back and forth between user groups, depending on the need and demand in the arts community. This would ensure that spaces the city has helped create, like the Black Repertory Theatre building, don’t sit around underused.

Fifth, examine how the city and the local arts community can work together to create a non-profit organization charged with the sole purpose of acquiring, developing, maintaining, and managing local arts facilities.

Such an organization could be employed to purchase or lease underused buildings such as the UC Theater and match them up with, and re-lease them out to, arts groups like the Berkeley Symphony that have a clear need for space, but do not necessarily have the financial wherewithal, schedule, or organizational expertise to buy or manage a theater on their own.

Berkeley has a vibrant performing arts community, a small but dedicated civic arts program and staff, enthusiastic audiences, and many facilities that can work well for the arts.

It would be a terrible waste to let irreplaceable opportunities and historic spaces like the UC Theater disappear because of a lack of will, cooperation, and coordination of resources.

This op-ed piece was originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet.


The UC Theater was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 6 May 2002.



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Text © 2002–2016 Susan Cerny and Steven Finacom. All rights reserved.