Many Alamedans still remember the Alameda Theater’s beginning and its early years.
Alan Ward, 79, who was almost 4 on Aug. 16, 1932, can recall the theater’s grand-opening night, saying, “It was a dramatic and colorful event. I remember the lobby’s glittery lights and the colorful costumes of the usherettes.”
The theater indeed opened with much fanfare, and the guest of honor was California Gov. James Rolph Jr., who dedicated the theater while Alameda Mayor William Murray presided over the ceremony. Alameda’s 35,000 residents had plenty of theaters-the Strand, the Rio, the Vogue, the Park and the Neptune-but they didn’t have a true movie palace until the Alameda Theater: 33,400 square feet, 2,200 seats, one of the largest movie screens in the Bay Area, a beautiful Art Deco design and a vertical blade sign that soared 70 feet into the sky with “Alameda” in big capital letters. Built in 14 months at a cost of $500,000 by the Nasser Brothers, a company of seven brothers who owned a chain of Bay Area theaters, the Alameda Theater instantly became the dominant building in the Park Street Business District.
The Nassers chose a family film for opening night’s feature, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, starring Marion Nixon and Ralph Bellamy. The bill also included The Chimp, with Laurel and Hardy; a Betty Boop cartoon; and a Fox Movietone Newsreel.
The Alameda Times-Star’s edition of Aug. 17 recounted opening night, which was attended by 5,000 Alamedans. Two searchlights illuminated the night sky to announce the theater’s arrival as people flooded the sidewalk between Oak and Park streets. For the 2,200 people lucky enough to get inside, admission was 10 cents for children and 35 cents for adults. The balcony cost 40 cents and was for adults only.
“Its exterior had promised a greater theater than Alameda has ever had, but the gorgeousness and luxurious comfort of the interior surprised even the most imaginative,” reported the Times-Star. “The first-nighters felt like the small boy who joyfully found what he thought was a quarter but on picking it up discovered it to be a five-dollar gold piece.”
Both Gov. Rolph and Mayor Murray delivered platitude-filled speeches, praising the Nassers’ new theater, but their sentiment deserved more credence than usual: For what today would be approximately $7.5 million, the Nassers had built a grand movie theater in Alameda, at the height of the Great Depression when movies were the primary form of entertainment and proved a great escape from the grim realities of the times. It also proved to be the last great movie palace built in the Bay Area.
Other Nasser brothers theaters included the Alhambra and the Castro, which were both designed by Timothy Pflueger, the architect of the Alameda Theater. Pflueger, who had designed the Paramount in Oakland, gave the Alameda Theater many of the same Art Deco features he had bestowed upon its older, bigger brother, which had opened the year before.
The Alameda Theater was beautiful, both inside and out. The front featured eight pink columns, complete with intricate, intertwined embossed floral designs that ran the full height of the façade from above the marquee to the roof. The top of the façade was encircled with decorative waves, a recurring element inside.
Just below the sign were a black marquee, a ticket booth and a terrazzo sidewalk. There were glass double doors, between them an elegant foyer, which opened into the lobby. Pflueger imbued the interior with artwork, stylized bas-relief panels, plaster gods and goddesses and a large gilt-framed mirror bracketed by twin 9-foot-tall gold-leaf lamps, or torchieres, at the rear of the lobby. The lobby stairs glowed with the bright, abstract pattern of a richly woven, luxuriously thick carpet, the design created in the art department of a Hollywood motion picture studio. The mohair seats and carpet blended splendidly with the teal, copper, terra cotta and dark mustard colors of the auditorium’s walls and ceiling.
Alameda resident Jerry Justin, 89, remembers how central the theater was to her life. “I saw all my movies there. There were other theaters, too, such as the Strand and the Vogue, but this particular theater was so gorgeous and glamorous; everyone went there.”
Alameda resident Dorothy de Maria, 90, one of four children raised by their single mother in a family that didn’t have much money, remembers how proud she was of her hometown’s new theater. “It was a very depressing time. There was no money, no fun. If you could get a dime, you could go to the theater,” she says.
During the Great Depression, theater operators such as the Nassers offered promotions to attract people during the week. There was grocery night, dish night and bank night, which gave away groceries, dishes and cash, respectively.
Trips to the theater had sentimental value, too, for people such as Alan Ward. “I remember numerous Sunday matinees with my father. It was the only day he had off,” he says. “There’s something about going out with your dad. Just the two of you. That made it special.”
The $37.3 million project has three parts: the $15.2 million restoration of the theater, the construction of the $11.3 million new parking garage and the $10.8 million new cineplex.
The work of revamping the theater to its former splendor began in earnest in September 2006. Jennifer Ott, development manager for the city, is in charge of the theater restoration project, which aims to restore as much of the building’s original elements as possible while also modernizing them.
On the exterior, the blade sign has been restored and repainted, as have the marquee ceiling/canopy, and the black-and-white-striped awnings have been put up to match the originals. Automated ticket booths on either side of the entrance will replace the old ticket booth.
Most of the restoration work has been done to the lobby, the theater’s most opulent room and where all patrons will enter the main theater and cineplex. The lobby’s ceiling and plaster floral designs have been repainted in silver and gold leaf to match the original. The lobby’s coffered ceiling has been repainted, while the elegant chandelier’s 180 etched glass panels were taken down, cleaned, restored or replaced. Two of the lobby’s original chandeliers, stolen from the theater after it closed and anonymously returned once restoration began, will hang once again. The lobby’s twin torchieres have been restored. In the auditorium, new acoustical panels, which have been wrapped in fabric and painted in gold leaf to match the walls, are up. The original curtain has been restored.
None of the original 2,200 seats were located, so the theater will have mostly new stadium-style seats. The balcony will not be reopened initially, but the theater operator has the option of reopening it. The new cineplex will have seven movie screens ranging in size from 78 seats to 185 seats for a total of 1,042 seats.
-Historic Theatre Screen size: roughly 30′ x 50′. Considered the largest
West Coast movie screen when the theatre opened in 1932.
-The installation of a Barco DP 32B-3D projector in the theatre’s original
projection booth, allows the images to achieve an accurate brightness with
up to 43,000 lumens and has been named by Guinness Book of Records as ”
The World’s Brightest Projector”.