March 26, 2009

Final Curtain for Oakland's Parkway Theater

By Justin DeFreitas

The Parkway Theater is dark once again. Oakland’s beloved neighborhood movie theater shut its doors Sunday, March 22, possibly for good.

The economic downturn and a dispute with the building’s owners have taken their toll on the theater, already operating on tight margins. With food vendors unable to cut prices and the landlords unable or unwilling to negotiate, proprietors Kyle and Catherine Fischer felt they had no choice but to close the doors.

“It’s the economy,” said Catherine. “It’s hard. Vendors are squeezed. There’s not a whole lot of wiggle room to negotiate anymore. They’re no longer in a position to be flexible.”

The Fischers took over the long-dormant theater in 1997, and it quickly developed a loyal clientele, helping to revitalize a neighborhood that had seen more than its share of hard times. Their goal was to establish an inexpensive, twice-a-week entertainment option for working families. They filled the theater’s two screening rooms with deep, comfortable couches and began serving pub food and alcohol in addition to the usual concession stand staples.

Over the years the Parkway gained a sizable following—from 20-something hipsters to working families and seniors—with a variety of unique programming decisions. The theater screened everything from classics to second-run films, Hollywood blockbusters to small independent fare, B movies and vintage schlock to high-minded art films and documentaries. Frequent midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show attracted a significant following, as did such family-friendly features as the Baby Brigade, a night set aside for families to bring small children along.

“What hurts most is [having to leave] the neighborhood,” Catherine told the Daily Planet. “All the businesses here—we came up together.”

In 2006, the Fischers’ company, Speakeasy Theaters, expanded by assuming operation of the newly restored Cerrito Theater, duplicating many of the Parkway’s most notable attributes in that city’s quieter, more residential environment.

Some have suggested that the Parkway suffered in part due to competition from its sister theater. Kyle Fischer, in a videotaped message that preceded each screening during the theater’s final days, seemed to confirm that theory. “We probably overextended ourselves a bit,” he said.

The Cerrito Theater will remain open and as many Parkway employees as possible will be transferred there.

“We’re keeping as many as we can,” Catherine said. “We can’t keep everybody, and that’s awful, but I don’t know what else to do.”

The Fischers had struggled with the Parkway for a couple of years, but the hard times suddenly hit harder, and over the past few months they found themselves struggling to stay afloat from week to week. A decision had to be made, and it had to be made quickly. Raising ticket prices wasn’t an option; the film studios take a percentage of total sales, so it would take a hefty increase to see a meaningful rise in revenue. Besides, such a price hike, Catherine said, would undermine the theater’s ethos.

“We didn’t want to become a $12-a-ticket movie theater,” Catherine said.

As to be expected, considering the theater’s devoted following, there has been an outpouring of sympathy and support.

“It’s been sad and wonderful,” Catherine said, but she isn’t counting on a final-reel rescue. “We’ve heard from people who say, ‘I’d be willing to pay more,’ but everybody is squeezed. We’re all squeezed ... But if it’s a question between going to a movie and feeding my kids, I’m going to feed my kids. And so should you.”

Within a day of the theater’s e-mail announcement of its impending closure, Oakland resident Tony Deweese had joined with three other theater patrons—Peter Prato, Darren Hawk and Evan Hamilton—in setting up a Facebook page to rally community support and start generating ideas to save or revive the Parkway. The group quickly racked up more than 3,000 members.

Prato, a 29-year-old New York transplant, had lived in the neighborhood for several years but felt he had yet to fully engage with the community. The demise of the Parkway was enough to stir him to action.

“We’re using a technology infrastructure to create a community infrastructure [that can] address concerns and help move the community forward positively,” Prato said.

Prato hopes “to see the community move ahead proactively” rather than take a wait-and-see approach. “I want a stronger, better neighborhood,” he said.

District 2 Oakland City Councilmember Pat Kernighan posted a response to the situation on a neighborhood listserv that was re-posted on the Facebook page.

“The closing of the Parkway Theater is a blow to the neighborhood and to the cultural fabric of the whole city,” Kernighan wrote. “I’ve heard from many concerned residents who want to understand what’s going on and whether the city can help. Without disclosing confidential information of local business owners, there has been a breakdown in the relationship between the owners of the theater business and the owners of the building. I spent many hours mediating between the parties during the past two years, but it was unsuccessful. The parties are now in litigation, and I believe their relationship is irreparable.”

The Facebook group facilitators staged a farewell celebration in front of the theater on closing day and passed around a petition to document community support for the theater. The Facebook group invites concerned community members to participate in a follow-up meeting at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29, at Rooz Cafe on Park Boulevard near the theater.

Final days

At 6:45 p.m. Friday, March 20, the line outside the theater wound around the corner and into the Kragen parking lot next door. Most were buying tickets for the 7 p.m. showing of Revolutionary Road, but others had shown up early to get tickets for later screenings of The Wrestler and Let the Right One In, certain that the lines would only grow longer. (And they did—by 9 p.m. there were nearly 100 people waiting outside to purchase tickets.) As patrons chattered about the theater’s imminent demise, a fire engine returning from a call turned from East 19th onto Park Boulevard. The firefighter at the wheel pumped his fist out the window, picked up the CB and boomed, “Save the Parkway! Save the Parkway!” to the cheering crowd.

Inside, the theater was as busy as ever, with long lines at the concession stand and harried wait staff rushing from kitchen to theater, delivering food and drinks to moviegoers.

“I’ve never seen it so full,” said one patron upon slipping into a back-row seat of the theater’s balcony screening room. “This is the first time I’ve sat in the nosebleed seats,” said another, “and the last.”

Once the lights dimmed the screen gave way to one of the theater’s trademark, low-fi video introductions, with the Fischers and their two children sitting before the camera to offer their customers an explanation.

After briefly recapping their history with the theater, Kyle admitted that though the recession didn’t help, the theater has been suffering through tough times for a couple of years.

“It hasn’t just been a couple of months we’ve had to withstand,” said Catherine. “We’ve weathered a couple months here, a couple months there before—there’s been an ebb and flow. But this has been, as you all know, a lot more than a couple of months.”

Credit got tight, Kyle said. Vendors who would once extend two months’ worth of credit could now afford only two weeks.

“We tried to renegotiate with our landlords, and they were not interested in renegotiating,” he said. “We didn’t always have a great relationship with our landlords. Somebody purchased the building about six or seven years ago, and we never really got on well.”

“We’ll try the best we can to figure out some way to get the Parkway going again,” Kyle said. “We’re going to do the best that we can, if we can’t get back into the Parkway, to help our landlords find somebody who can. Because this community does not need a vacant Parkway Theater. We know what that was like.”

Speakeasy Theaters:

Facebook group:

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