MORAGA -- When the town's sole movie theater lost three screens earlier this year because of code issues, residents responded with an outpouring of support.

Now, town leaders are doing what they can to make sure the struggling New Rheem Theater stays open.

On Wednesday, officials approved refunding $3,000 in fees theater operators Derek Zemrak and Leonard Pirkle have already paid the town as they work to install a new wheelchair lift to provide access to the upstairs screens. The equipment is replacing a malfunctioning elevator that was the focus of complaints and concerns about Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

Officials also agreed to work with the theater's operators and owner Mahesh Puri to designate the building a historic landmark. And they will sublease a portion of the space on a trial basis for parks and recreation activities.

But the council stopped short of making any loans to assist with ADA improvements and other needs until the operators and owner can agree on a long-term lease. They also voted to hold more discussions about public benefits provided by the theater before drawing up a loan agreement.

The decisions come a little more than two months after officials named the Rheem's preservation a 2013 town goal.

"It helps define Moraga ... it's a part of the local landscape," said Mayor Dave Trotter.


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Residents think so, too. They rallied together and raised the $30,000 operators said it would cost to install the new wheelchair lift. The largest gift came from resident Joan Bruzzone, who donated $5,000 in addition to making a $25,000 no-interest loan. Operators also raised more than $7,800 during a recent Oscars night benefit.

And while Zemrak said he has ordered digital equipment for the main theater, operators still need to purchase projectors for two upstairs screens. Major studios are requiring theaters to ditch 35 mm film in favor of digital projectors that can cost thousands of dollars per screen. The town is estimating it will cost $90,000 to convert the Rheem's remaining screens.

Pirkle admitted on Wednesday that digital conversion isn't a simple issue and said the Rheem is not a "profit center." But he and Zemrak remain committed to operating the theater.

"It's not because it makes money, it's not because it's a good business, it's because it's a good thing for the community," Pirkle said. "We do it because we feel good about it and we would hate to see it close."