BERKELEY -- The movie theater business is not what it used to be. With electronic entertainment increasingly keeping film buffs at home, the Oaks Theater on Solano Avenue, shuttered since the end of 2010, has had a hard time attracting an entrepreneur to run the historic venue.
But that could be a blessing in disguise for the Youth Musical Theater Company and other small performing arts groups looking for permanent performance space.
"We're nomadic; we've been all over the place," said Jennifer Boesing, YMTC's Artistic Director. "We want a permanent home."
Boesing is working with City Councilman Laurie Capitelli; Denise Pinkston, a YMTC board member and parent of a young performer there; and others to explore renovating the theater to serve local performing arts groups.
They're in the process of creating a nonprofit corporation to support their quest and had a table at the Solano Stroll on Sept. 8 to enlist support.
In addition to staging performances, the YMTC instructs youth in performing. It recently found workshop space at the North Oakland Community Charter School. Since losing performing space at the Julia Morgan Theater -- now home to the Berkeley Playhouse -- the YMTC has performed at a variety of venues in Oakland and El Cerrito.
The company's staff spends a "horrendous amount of time" searching for performance space, Pinkston said. "That's time they would typically be doing the training of the kids."
The idea the group is pursuing is that YMTC and a couple of other performing arts organizations would become anchor tenants in the project, leasing the building from Realtor John Gordon, who owns the property. Other arts groups would lease space from them.
The theater would become a center for performing arts groups such as the West Edge Opera, the Berkeley City Ballet, the Young People's Symphony Orchestra that have "a lot of community support and an audience that would follow them, but don't have a home," Boesing said.
From his vantage point, Capitelli sees the project not only as an opportunity for the arts, but as a benefit to businesses on Solano Avenue. He has experience in this realm, having helped put together the Elmwood Theatre project some 20 years ago, in which Elmwood merchants, with the help of the city, saved the neighborhood movie house with the goal of invigorating the commercial area.
"As with the Elmwood, I think it's a key element in bringing more life to the street, particularly in the evenings and on the weekends," Capitelli said.
The theater, a fixture on Solano since 1925, would be remodeled from a 1,000-seat venue (now divided into two 500-seat movie theaters) to a 500-seat theater, with a large stage able to support live performances.
At this point, the project is in an exploratory stage. Other theater companies are involved in initial talks, but are not ready to talk publicly about participation, Capitelli said, adding that the city may get involved, but that it's too early to say how.
"It's conceivable that the city might do something with a loan similar to what they did in the Elmwood, if they thought it was a strong enough business plan and had relative certainty that the loan would be paid back," he said.
Capitelli is circulating a survey for the community in an attempt to gauge its support.
Pinkston said it's the right time for the project.
"It would just be such a gift to the community to take this beautiful building that can no longer function as just a movie theater and bring it back to life by injecting it with the energy of community arts groups that so desperately need what that building can offer, which is a space and a home," Pinkston said.
An online survey about possible future uses of the Oaks Theater is at www.surveymonkey.com/s/OaksLive.