Parkway Theater Goes To Pot

by Gary Meyer

Pot Movie house.jpg

There have been a lot of ways old movie theaters have found new life as something else. The newest might be as a medical marijuana dispensary at the old Parkway Theater in Oakland.

Will they show nonstop screenings of REEFER MADNESS and Cheech and Chong’s UP IN SMOKE or the new buzz baker movie DOUGH?

Will the concession stand be renamed the Munchies Bar? They could hire Jeffthe420Chef to design the menu from his new cookbook The 420 Gourmet- The Elevated Art of Cannabis Cuisine.

Will public transportation be via a CannaBus?

(We are not changing our name to EatSmokeFilms.)

The original Parkway closed after a 13-year successful run operated by Speakeasy Theaters, a new company started by the Fischers- a professional chef, Catherine, and her husband, lawyer Kyle. Their enthusiasm, passion for the community and no previous movie business experience resulted in a unique venue as they broke some rules and created a home away from home atmosphere with food and drink to accompany the movies and special events. A variety of factors, including the physical state of the building requiring expensive upgrades that the landlord refused to contribute to, caused the doors to close for a final time in 2009.parkway.jpg

New parkway front.jpgMany groups tried to make a deal with the difficult and elusive landlord. One of them was J. Moses Ceaser who finally gave up after arriving at meetings where the owner did not appear, offering no explanation. This sent Ceaser off looking for alternative sites in Oakland and that resulted in The New Parkway, dedicated to creating the kinds of experiences the original offered with below-market admission prices, serving reasonably priced locally-sourced food, beer and wine to accompany a wide variety of films, community events and other activities. In a reversal from theaters being converted to other uses, this two-screen conversion is in a former glass warehouse and has become a popular destination in the city’s revived Uptown District.

new park inside

But people have not given up hope that the old Parkway would once again be a cinema.

The theater has quietly been on the market for $4,000,000 but nobody is likely to pay that and have to spend a few million more to replace the roof and other deferred maintenance.

It is understandable why there was excitement in the neighborhood when, on August 10 an email arrived from vlogger Zennie Abraham featuring one of his signature hand-held videos with this subject line: “Alamo Drafthouse SF Plans Oakland Expansion To Old Parkway Theater – Community Meeting Wednesday, August 10th 5:30 pm Woody’s Café.“ In the video he shows the Facebook page of a Tina Marie claiming that the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinema group (who recently re-opened the beautiful New Mission in San Francisco) was taking over the Parkway Theater. Additionally he noted that Tina Marie and Zennie were mutual friends with Will Viharo, who did programming at the old Parkway, leading Abraham to speculate that “Will the Thrill” would be involved.

The vlog also showed an email from Steve Ma of Woody’s Café and the Lake Merritt Business Association with a last-minute announcement about a meeting to discuss the new tenant that would be taking over the theater.

I sent a quick email to Alamo owner Tim League and got an immediate response that they were not looking at the Parkway. A note to Viharo had an answer in minutes explaining how well he is doing with his writing in Seattle and that he knew nothing about this new project and would not be interested in reviving that part of his career.

The next day’s email from Abraham was a selfie video entitled Marijuana Dispensary, Not Alamo Drafthouse, At Old Parkway in which he expressed astonishment that the Parkway would become a marijuana dispensary.

A Google search turned up nothing about this but there was some discussion on Next Door from people who did not understand that “medical dispensary” was a quiet way of referring to a marijuana facility. The LMBA posted this report on the meeting explaining that a developer, Sid Afshar, is hoping to be one of eight new dispensaries approved by the city of Oakland. Plans include “a restaurant with a well-known chef.”

What Else Can a Movie Theater Become?

The reimagining of theaters is not new. Since at least the 1940s many became churches. Since the 1960s many have become concert halls with a wide range of presentations.  Sadly many others become retail spaces where the historic details are covered with false ceilings as happened at Berkeley’s Rivoli when it became a drug store and then grocery store. Much of the theater’s former glory has been revealed now for all to see at the current 99-cent store. People are stunned on their first visit.Rivoli.jpgIn recent years there have been successful projects maintaining the theater spaces and décor. From bingo halls to dinner theaters and bowling alleys, many still function as a public assembly space. Some clothing retailers, bookstores and grocers allowed the ornate movie palace décor to help create an unique atmosphere. This is certainly better than having them deteriorating while sitting empty or serving as parking garages like the El Capitan in San Francisco or the once spectacular 4,038 seat Michigan Theatre in Detroit which, on a recent visit felt ghostly with automobiles and skateboarders sharing a small part of the cavernous building.

One of the most stunning success stories is El Ateneo Grand Splendid Bookstore in Argentina. It is on my list of places to visit.

The 1927 Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto was converted to a Borders Books with the understanding that it must be done in such a way that it could be returned to a theater space. When Borders went bankrupt in 2011 the building sat empty with the threat of being torn down to build condos. In 2015 tech company SAP joined Blue Bottle Coffee to open the theater as Hanahaus, a café and innovative hub with events. You enter or hang out in the theater’s delightful courtyard with a fountain.hanahaus_courtyard.jpgAnother, even more pretty palace was the Alabama in Houston. At first it was a popular bookstore until the world changed and the owners could no longer compete with online sellers. In 2012 Trader Joe’s took over. Less elegant than the bookstore, they retained much of the décor and added a lot of humorous movie themed displays.

When you walked into these one-time-cinema-now-bookstores you knew you were in a theater building even though you were wandering among shelves of books. It could be a terrific atmosphere because the printed word and cinema have many connections. Too bad that those stores didn’t connect with nearby cinemas for frequent screenings, reading and events—they might have broadened their audiences.

Alhambra crunch.jpgSan Francisco’s beautiful Alhambra was co-designed by Timothy Pflueger (Castro, SF and Paramount, Oakland). For years it suffered from a terrible twinning job (“Hear two movies for the price of one” people joked) that was undone in 1988. Despite solid bookings the city went through changes in film release patterns and the Alhambra was rarely able to get exclusive engagements and the fate of a single screen venue forced closure in 1998. Crunch Fitness proposed a gym with the décor left to be enjoyed while exercising and watching movies on a screen. The results mean the space is still in use and to be enjoyed while a successful business adds to the neighborhood.

metro-exteriorIt was successful enough that the property owners of the nearby Metro Theatre on Union Street, after years of hoping they could tear it down, agreed to an Equinox gym use in 2014. Much of the Art Deco lobby décor and murals by Anthony Heinsbergen have been retained but what was one of The City’s favorite theaters may be a success as a gym but it is a different kind of gathering place now and other than the marquee there is little sense of the once grand cinema that entertained so many patrons. Home of the first San Francisco International Film Festival, many people have fond memories of both festival discoveries and multiple visits to see long-running movies like A MAN AND A WOMAN or THE GRADUATE at the Metro.


The Metro balcony after extensive renovation in 1998.

Metro murals and balls.jpg

With three stories of exercise space the murals are only partially visible—-but they are there.

Second actSan Francisco’s much loved and much missed Red Vic has not had much luck. The small neighborhood repertory cinema was renamed the Second Act to became a food marketplace but it has just been reported in the San Francisco Chronicle that they cannot keep tenants and will close, possibly offering the auditorium as an events space—Third Act? (update Dec. 2016: Booksmith recently celebrated its 40th year of being an innovative bookseller and has  taken on the Red Vic/Second Act space. To be called The Bindery it will feature exhibitions, special sales and events seating 50 people.  Read more here.)

Sun Sing Theater.jpgThe Sun Sing in Chinatown was built as an opera house in 1925 that made the transition to films in the 1930s when there would be lines up the street to see cartoons and a newsreel in English plus a feature in Cantonese—all for a dime. It’s exterior and interior were used for a scene in Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948). But it closed in 1986 and was converted to the retail shop, Sun Sing Center. Surprisingly much of the theater’s Décor is still visible.biliiard ext.jpg
The Rialto in the Outer Mission is the Billiard Palacade.

bridgebridge inside

The San Francisco Baseball Academy was the Bridge Theatre on Geary Street until Landmark Theatres gave up the long-running art house in 2012 because it is not economically viable to operate a single screen theater  — exclusive engagements of big new movies is a thing of the past. The Baseball Academy talked about showing baseball themed movies but it would involve hanging a screen and using folding chairs.

Hopefully each new generation that walks into a space that still offers some of the magic of old theaters, despite what its current function might be, will enjoy a sense of wonder and be inspired to visit one of the surviving palaces. The San Francisco bay area is blessed to have a number successfully presenting either movies or live performances.

A medical marijuana dispensary is certainly a new twist. I suppose they could use the auditorium for “educational screenings” showing some of the dozens of films that match the theme from the old scare educational shorts many of us saw in high school to studio hits from EASY RIDER to PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Here is a humorous list of movies to start them off.

The legalize marijuana movement posts corny “anti-Cannabis” commercials as well as pro-pot documentaries.

Or cooking shows (you can watch this by clicking on the “Watch on You Tube”)


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