ALAMEDA -- The economic gloom of the past few years didn't skip blithely past Alameda, but landed with the same thud that jolted other towns across the country. Longtime auto dealers drove off Park Street and into the sunset, houses foreclosed, many people lost jobs and businesses. Part economy, part Internet sales, whatever the core cause is, it all hurt plenty of people.
But somehow, many people kept going to the movies. They remained loyal to their super heroes, stars, drama, humor and thrills. And in Alameda, they especially relished the return to the movie-house elegance of a time passed, replete in old architectural and decorative beauty, along with the digital and 3-D perks of the present. Alameda Theatre and Cineplex, that downtown Art Deco beauty with the tall orange glowing sign that beckons the eye, has helped light the way for the Island's business growth. And it has worked out just fine.
Kyle Conner, who worked with the city to restore and reopen the long-shuttered movie house, had his second best year of profits in 2012. His best year for annual receipts was 2009, the year after movies returned to the Island.
"Things are good," he said. "We have outperformed what the expectations were to reach a percentage rent threshold to pay to the city." (Percentage rent is additional rent over a base amount that tenants pay property owners on tenant sales.)
Add that to sales tax revenues, and the city wins. And Conner also wins as his theater continues to roll out blockbusters along with a small dose of more obscure movies.
The theater first opened in 1932 with aplomb, according to Alameda Museum's website. After a speech by Gov. "Sunny Jim" Rolph, the audience settled in for a dose of escapism with a screening of "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm."
For decades, through wars and high and sub-low economic tides, the shows went on. But by the late 1970s, the aging palace began to sag from the physical ravages of time and the ever-growing competition from multiscreen theaters and television. Profits receded, and pricey improvements were needed. The screen went dark and the once-glamorous venue evolved into such unlikely enterprises as a skating rink, a tumbling gymnasium and, at one point, a teen night club that rubbed nearby residents and merchants the wrong way as they called police to report noise and other complaints that implied potential teenage alcohol and drug use.
The theater stood in the dark during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. In the late 1990s, the city and Conner began a process that took several years, hammering out myriad details, including the sensitive issue of the number of parking spaces necessary for a multiscreen cineplex.
The resulting parking garage is not an architectural favorite of some critics, but if the 2012 movie ticket receipts are any indication, the structure hasn't deterred visitors to the restored movie house, nor to other Park Street businesses.
Connor has been in the theater business since he was 14 in his native Utah, working up from an usher to a manager in Salt Lake City. His background, he said, was very meager, and he saw the business as an opportunity to "dig my way out and create a better life."
In 1988, he moved to California, settling in the Santa Rosa area, where he worked for a small family theater circuit for 13 years before moving on the Alameda project. He became smitten with the Island, and his wife and three daughter moved here in 2007.
"I felt it was a great community, and Alameda was a prime opportunity for a movie theater," he said, adding that it was a way for residents to stay on the Island to see movies, to lure new businesses here and, in the end, benefit residents, businesses and the city.
Project had support -- and opposition
Though the city departments and council members and many residents supported the project, the process wasn't all sunshine and roses.
"We all faced opposition," Conner said. "I felt like it was a pretty small segment of the population who just didn't understand the project or take time to study it. It was frustrating because so much misinformation was being spread, and that was after working on the process. It was a real eye-opening experience."
Opponents cited traffic concerns about the multilevel parking garage, increased crime, blocked views of Twin Towers Church and that seven screens were too many for Alameda, which would result again in an abandoned building. But the city pushed forward and the City Council approved the project.
"The theater has exceeded our expectations as an economic boon for the Park Street Business District," Councilmember Lena Tam said. "Every restaurant in the district seems full on a Friday night or weekend."
Conner said he sees those opponents to the theater plan now buying movie tickets. Conner also operates an eight-screen theater in Martinez. And he is a general contractor with a construction and theater-equipment company, which helps other theater operators stay up to date in the industry. The company sells and installs seats, acoustic systems and digital projectors and more. There are no gears and sprockets left in theaters, he said, with the exception of those who screen old classics. The historic theater has an old project to do that very thing -- if he can't get the classics in 35mm.
Business association led theater campaign
Longtime Park Street merchant Debbie George credits the theater for the progress in getting new businesses into the formerly successful furniture store she and her husband owned for several years. Between the decline of new housing construction, the sagging real estate market and people's dwindling funds during the economic plummet, buying new furniture lost its allure and business went downhill.
The couple emptied most of the retail space in the building of its furniture to make room for new tenants. Lanvie has opened its second apparel shop in town in the front of the building, and a cupcake stand has also taken up residence in the building's entryway. More tenants are in the works, and though George said she is excited about them, she can't yet make them public until all the paperwork has been processed.
"The theater opened up tremendous foot traffic in the district," she said.
The Park Street Business Association, of which George has been a member for 13 years, as well as past president, spearheaded a campaign for the theater to reopen. The campaign included cheering for the theater's return at numerous City Council meetings and a $17,000 publicity drive to keep the topic alive.
"The association members knew it would help us all," she said.
John Thiel, who owns the Zagat-rated Pappo Restaurant across from the theater, said he was in business and doing well before the theater was restored. When construction was under way for the restoration and parking was reduced and traffic was affected and the recession hit, his restaurant's customer count dropped. But he knew the renovation work would end. He reduced some menu prices, despite food prices increasing and hung in there with a loyal staff. His clientele increased again and today Pappo Restaurant is doing well again. Thiel credited the movie house with "solidifying the downtown district as a destination."
Scott Erwen, owner of Scott's Shoes about a block south on Park Street, said though he can't quantify if the theater has made his business more viable, he thinks it is a boon to the business district. And, he said, many of his customers say they are coming from or going to the movie house. He is also a fan of the theater.
"I love going there," he said. "It's fantastic.