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The Alameda Theater is abuzz as workers ready the new cineplex for the Gala opening May 23rd. Brand new seats line the ground floor of the main theater. (Laura A. Oda/The Oakland Tribune)

The magic begins while standing in front of the historic theater where overhead is the panel of stenciled colored lights and the bright neon "Alameda" marquee that was first turned on to greet moviegoers in 1932. Underfoot are the same tiles, including the outline for the original ticket booth. Just behind it is the modern one to accommodate today's needs.

"It's been a seven-year labor of love and there have been challenges at every turn," says Kyle Conner, managing general partner, Alameda Entertainment Associate, LP. "The absolute best part is to get it open."

Once you step through the frosted, deeply etched glass doors you've entered another time; a time when Dashiell Hammett's "Thin Man" comedy-mystery novel characters, Nick and Nora Charles, portrayed by William Powell and Myrna Loy came alive on the big screen; a time when Art Deco arrived in San Francisco and Alameda and was part of the movie going experience.

"My grandmother's sister worked in the Alameda Theatre in 1939," says Mayor Beverly Johnson. The sister, Leaoma Gilbert, was a senior at Alameda High at the time. When the 90-year-old visited the theater after the custom made carpet was laid, she said, "Oh my God, this brings back memories."


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Everyone, whether seeing a movie in the added seven-screen cineplex or on the single screen in the historic theater, must pass through the main entrance and under the original ornate chandeliers that disappeared when the projector stopped and the Alameda Theatre closed in 1979. The period light fixtures were returned anonymously during the restoration process.

"They just showed up one day," says redevelopment manager Jennifer Ott.

Just as fortuitous is the story of the glass entry door panels. For more than 25 years, Alamedans John Zanakis and Arthur van der Beek, Alameda antique dealers and owners of the House of Orange on San Jose Avenue, safeguarded the panels and then sold them back to the city at cost.

Zanakis said a couple stopped by the House of Orange during the hey days of antiquing when dealers lined the street along Solano Avenue in Berkeley. The House of Orange was located there at the time. The couple told him, "We have some glass, if you're interested."

"I immediately knew where it was from," Zanakis said, adding he told the couple, "We will take them."

Through the years he stored them, moving them from Berkeley to Alameda. He and van der Beek have had many steep dollar offers for the panels, but the House of Orange wouldn't sell. Had the couple stopped at one of the other dealers, "they (the panels) would have been bought and sold and broken up," Zanakis says.

"I wanted the theater to be restored," Zanakis said. "I've just been waiting for that day to happen."

He added, "It's only a few blocks from our house, we can always walk there and touch them."

The Alameda Theatre is one of 12 Art Deco theaters, and the last one, designed by the renowned San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger. The P is silent. Pflueger always in some manner left his signature on his work. In the Alameda Theatre, this can be seen on the walls on either side of what is now the concession area. His initials TP are etched in relief and gilded in Dutch metal leaf. Standing next to Pflueger's initials are the authentic torchiers that stood there 76 years ago.

Pflueger's Art Deco theaters included the Paramount in Oakland, El Rey, Alhambra, Castro and the New Fillmore in San Francisco. Only four remain open. Alameda will be number five. But with the long-awaited grand opening on Wednesday, Alameda can boast an extraordinary rehabilitation and restoration of an art treasure that also is expected to become an economic success for both the operator and the city.

"Park Street has already become a much more vibrant place," Johnson says. "It was pretty run down and shabby. Once the theater opens, we'll see the difference."

Additionally Johnson says the community will notice a difference in the residents' movie going habits. Instead of a couple of friends trekking to another city to see a first run film, they can see it in their own city, where they'll run into other friends.

"It'll help develop our community," Johnson says.

Wednesday's gala, which is sold out, will include a sneak preview of the theater complex, including the historic theater. Those attending will enter on a red carpet underneath searchlights scanning the night sky. There will be three classic movies playing during the evening, and a special 12:01 a.m. Thursday showing of the new "Indiana Jones" movie in the historic theater as part of the gala.

Alameda resident Jeff Raz of Cirque de Soleil will be master of ceremonies, and live music will be provided throughout the evening.

The theater officially opens to the public on May 24, with a 10 a.m. ceremony to unveil a special commemorative plaque for the historic theater. The cineplex will be open for public tours until 1 p.m., and at 3 p.m. the theater officially opens for business, to begin a regular daily schedule of movies on all eight screens.

The original main stage, which includes a small orchestra pit in front, is just right for events, such as small stage productions, school graduations and award ceremonies. The operator will lease the main auditorium for such events. The city has the right to use it free 12 days out of the year.

The total cost of the three-part project is about $30.5 million, which includes $3.4 million to buy the theater property through eminent domain. It also includes $8.8 million for rehabilitation, restoration of the historic theater that seats 484 in the main auditorium and 254 in the mezzanine balcony.

"It is as it was in 1932, with modern comfort," says Conner, who has worked every aspect of the movie theater business since he was an usher at age 14.

The attention to the restoration details from the original drinking fountain — all black ceramic and much lower to the ground than today's high square refrigerator tins — to carefully matching the new carpet to the old is apparent everywhere. In the mezzanine there's a black strip of carpet delineating the new from the old; the difference is one is a little worn.

The opening night gala is a fundraiser to restore the mural on the wall in the mezzanine, which eventually will become an area for the over-21 crowd to purchase wine or beer to drink while watching a show. The money also will be used to purchase material to match and repair the bottom of one of the panels of the original hand-painted auditorium curtain damaged by water.

Art Deco was popular in the 1920s and '30s. It's more decorative than architectural and is said to be influenced by cubist and abstract painters as well as ancient Egyptian art. Throughout the theater are torchiers and gilding.

"All the gilded pieces were custom made by Timothy Pflueger," said Ott. She said the theater was in good shape and needed mostly delicate cleaning such as washing the glass by hand and touching up the gilding where it had flaked off. Metal gilding is everywhere — it's the real thing, not paint. Historians were consulted to assure authenticity and, when necessary, replicas of the original were ordered.

Inside the auditorium are myriad examples of the era, including a gilded hippocamus, or mythical Greek merhorse, on the wall and a chandelier with 180 glass panels, most of them there since 1932. Behind the panels are red, blue and yellow lighting to give the undulating feel of the ocean. As one looks around, it becomes apparent water was part of Pflueger's theme to symbolize Alameda, said Ott.

The cement walls have been repainted in the original color. But instead of plaster, they are covered in a material to accommodate the new state-of-the-art sound system. On the ceiling discreetly recessed and hardly noticeable are the mandatory sprinklers. Another part of the interior that is not original is the seating, says Ott. The new stadium seating is luxurious.

After 1979, the building was remodeled for a roller rink; then a nightclub, a gymnastic school, "a little bit of everything," says Ott. But nothing worked. "Everyone wanted a movie theater."

That's when the challenge began. The project was approved July 26, 2006, by a split vote of the council, following a bitter battle in the community and on the dais. Johnson, Councilman Frank Matarrese and Councilwoman Marie Gilmore voted yes. Councilmen Doug deHaan and Tony Daysog voted no.

"Most people in Alameda don't realize what a treasure we have there," Johnson says. "I think people will be proud of the restoration."

Without the Civic Center parking garage and cineplex, it wouldn't have been possible to restore the existing theater, said Ott. The garage has 341 spaces. Adjacent to it is first floor retail, which includes BurgerMeister, which chose Alameda as its first East Bay location.

"Take the Magic with You" is inscribed in gilded letters above the doors of the theater entrance. The words may be different from the original, says Ott, but the message is fitting for what the people who worked on the project hope those visiting the historic Alameda Theatre experience.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: Dedication ceremony, public tours
WHEN: May 24, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
WHERE: Alameda Theatre, 2317 Central Ave.
INFO: Movies on all eight screens starting at 3 p.m.
PHONE: More information and movie times, 769-3456