by C. J. Hirschfield
Designated as one of the top ten vintage theaters in the nation, Oakland’s historic—and beloved—Grand Lake Theater opened its doors in 1926. It is known for its giant, illuminated rooftop sign, its Mighty Wurlitzer organ, its community screenings—and for the unapologetically liberal political messages proudly displayed on its marquee. The current message is “CLOSED. WE WILL BE BACK!” along with “Double Feature Coming Soon—The Death of Coronavirus, Plus the End of Donald Trump.”
And although longtime (since 1979) theater lease owner Allen Michaan says he considers the descriptor “conservative” to be a swear word, he nonetheless uses it to describe his approach to re-opening, given the current status of what he calls “the Trump Virus.”
His attitude is positive, however, and even though the four-screen, 1,600+seat theater is technically dark, there is still much activity taking place. For one thing, the projectors need regular maintenance; they were designed to be run every day, often for 12 hours a day. Union projectionist and 40- year Grand Lake employee Stephan Shelley is still on the job, ensuring that the equipment stays in good working order.
Michaan is proud of his decision to be “probably the last Bay Area theater to have a full union projection crew,” saying that “I want to have the best picture and sound as I can.” He invested much money to go digital, but still has the capability to play back 35 or 70mm prints (“Tarantino appreciates that,” he says.)
His other 30 or so employees, including his assistant who’s been with him for 25 years, are secure in their jobs until re-opening, thanks to funding from government assistance Michaan obtained. “We’re doing fine,” he assures.
A major project that has just been completed during the pandemic is the theater’s transition to solar power. The half-million-dollar venture was delayed somewhat due to the virus, but the cost savings it represents will be dramatic, and will help Michaan weather the closure. “The savings are enormous,” he says, noting that the 3,000+ ornamental bulbs on the roof sign contribute mightily to the theater’s $8,000/month electric bill, which will now see a decrease of approximately 80 percent.
Michaan has been closely watching the recent news regarding movie theaters’ decisions on reopening, including AMC’s abrupt about-face in requiring that masks be worn by customers (they are now required), and their changing opening dates in July.
And although California movie theaters can now open, theaters in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties must remain closed. Virtual cinema, however, is available, and is helping to support local theaters, including the Alameda, Balboa, BAMFA, Cerrito, Elmwood, Lark, New Mission, Rafael, Roxie and Vogue.
Michaan believes that many companies are obsessed with re-opening, and he doesn’t think that the Grand Lake will open on their optimistic schedules, believing that they’re “rushing it.” “I don’t want to open my theater until I can be sure my staff and customers are safe,” he says, noting that the real problem is dealing with the reality of indoor space, even with masks.
And what about possibly missing the upcoming (and twice delayed) $200 million box office blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s thriller Tenet and Disney’s live-action version of Mulan? Not front of mind for Michaan, who says he can afford to keep the theater closed as long as he has to. “I would be devastated if I jump the gun and anybody got really sick—I’m not willing to risk it,” he says.
Once he does re-open, Michaan knows that he can count on the return of the extremely loyal customer base he’s built over the last 40 years.
“People still love going to the movies,” he says. And he adds that the Grand Lake was built to last 1,000 years.
So keep your eye on the marquee. It will definitely tell you when the doors will open again—and will no doubt also say something about the current state of political affairs in our country.
The decision as to when to reopen? Conservative. The marquee message? Never.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel, and advocated on behalf of the industry. She has penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, and now writes regularly for EatDrinkFilms. and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently lives in Adams Point and serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
Editor’s Note: For more biographical information, we highly recommend the superb profile of C. J. that David Gans wrote for the December 2017 Splash Pad News titled We’re in the Memory Making Business.