MORAGA -- On Jan. 18, three of the four screens in Moraga's New Rheem Theatre complex will go dark indefinitely as the historic movie palace succumbs to modern-day Americans With Disabilities Act code issues.

An aging elevator, diagnosed by the McKinley Elevator and Hankin Specialty Elevators firms as "unrepairable," means access to the three upper-level theaters is no longer available to disabled patrons.

Theater owner and operator Derek Zemrak said, "Obviously, we want to comply with the ADA. We've worked on the elevator for 2¿1/2 years and put in more than $10,000 to keep it operating. Last month, it just broke down completely."

Letters and verbal complaints from area residents who claimed the malfunctioning lift was discriminatory to seniors, along with a recent fine from the Department of Justice, which oversees ADA compliance, clinched the deal, Zemrak said.

"Even though the theater is thriving, with increased attendance across the board, it's like dodging an eight-ball," he admitted.

The elevator, which rises along a curved path instead of vertically, will cost $30,000 to replace. The circuit boards are outdated, and parts to repair other deteriorating elements no longer exist, which means repair is not an option.

"Some of the same people who complained are now saying 'Oh, this is tragic,' so we all want to get over this hurdle and get it up to code," Zemrak said.


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Until the issue is resolved, the Rheem will be a one-screen theater.

Special programs scheduled for Jan. 18 and beyond will be canceled, and Zemrak said he and his staff are hoping for support from the community, local businesses and an Oscar night fundraiser.

Carlos Rangel, one of the owners of Shelby's Restaurant in Orinda, heard about the situation and within 24 hours offered to help. On Jan. 18, the day three of the Rheem's screens will shut down, 15 percent of Shelby's sales will be donated to the Rheem Elevator Fund.

"We've been in the same situation," Rangel said. "We once had rent issues. We wanted the support of other businesses. The chamber of commerce helped by advocating for us. The community wrote letters. Small businesses should stick together."

Rangel says his business is benefiting from increased attendance at the Orinda Theatre (managed by the same people as the New Rheem), and he doesn't want the economic boost to disappear.

"It's now my time to step up, and hopefully, other businesses will jump in to help. It's the only way we are going to survive."

It could take three months to order, manufacture and install a new elevator.

A red carpet Oscar Party at the theater, already in the plans for Feb. 24, could play a key role in re-opening the upper levels.

"Half of the (elevator) fund could be raised just in that one night," Zemrak said. "I'm optimistic it can all work out, but my main concern is that people were saying, 'This is the same thing that happened to the bowling alley.'"

The loss of the Rheem Valley Bowl, opened in 1960 and closed when the trust owners wanted to sell the property in 1999, still bothers local residents.

"This theater will be preserved," Zemrak insisted. "It's become an integral part of the community."