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Cinema Demolished After Preservation Effort Fails

Tuesday April 01, 2003

The Fine Arts Cinema building was leveled by a bulldozer Monday, bringing an end to the last physical legacy of Berkeley’s repertory cinema heyday and clearing the way for construction of a new 250-seat theater on the Shattuck Avenue site. 

The proposed cinema, to be completed in August 2004, is part of a five-story, mixed-use development plan proposed by real estate developer Patrick Kennedy that includes 100 units of housing.  

Under the proposal, the theater’s current leaseholders will run the new movie complex under a 20-year lease. 

Kennedy faced opposition to his plan last year by artists, preservationists and former patrons of the theater, including renowned poets Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who said the theater was a monument of the Beatnik subculture that helped distinguish Berkeley as a mecca of radical art and politics during the 1950s and 1960s.  

They also said it was the birthplace of repertory theater and the impetus for the American Film Movement, an era marked by a new-found fervor for rare, old and foreign films among intellectuals and artists. 

“For us to have cavalierly torn down the most viable remnant of that period is irresponsible and short-sighted,” said Leslie Landberg, who earlier this year led the failed attempt to convince the Landmarks Commission to declare the building a historical landmark, a designation that might have saved it from demolition. “It’s an assault against the history and culture of the people of Berkeley.” 

Landberg is the daughter of Edward Landberg, the man many film experts say established the first repertory cinema house in the country. In 1961, the elder Landberg extensively remodeled the building that became known as the Fine Arts Cinema. That cinema was the second repertory film house Landberg built. The first theater, originally called the Cinema-Guild, was established in 1953 on Telegraph Avenue near Haste Street. The Berkeley theaters were joined by a third, The Gateway, in San Francisco in 1968. All three theaters were managed and programmed by Landberg and, until 1960, his first wife Pauline Kael, a pioneering film critic who would later go on to write for The New Yorker. 

Landberg lost his rep houses to his second wife after their divorce in 1969. Unable to keep the theaters financially viable, she sold out to the Mitchell Brothers, a San Francisco porn theater company. Following the Mitchell Brothers’ stint, the cinema had various occupants, including an Indian film showcaser and the Landmarks Theaters chain. It became the Fine Arts Cinema in 1988, providing a repertory art house oasis amidst a landscape of commercial, mainstream multiplexes. 

Kennedy said the Fine Arts Cinema leaseholders probably would have shut it down had he not come in with his redevelopment plan.  

“They probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to do the seismic retrofitting, fire safety and ADA remodeling required,” he said. 

Fine Arts Cinema leaseholder Keith Arnold plans to team with the Cinema Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization that will operate a film museum and screening room on the site.  

But the plan to include the museum doesn’t soften the position of the theater’s defenders, who say the old building was a “living legacy” worthy of preservation for its role in shaping the spirit and culture of a community.  

“Once the building is gone, the history only exists in photographs, in libraries and in the memories of the people who were there,” said Harold Adler, co-curator of the Free Speech Cafe.