On a recent gray midday, half a dozen preservationists gathered on the wet sidewalk in front of the now-dark Fine Arts Cinema in downtown Berkeley to show their opposition to the impending demolition of the outdated movie house. They were led by Oakland resident Leslie Landberg, whose father Ed Landberg, along with the late film critic Pauline Kael, built the building in 1961 to house what some people claim was the first repertory theater in the country.
Rep houses, of course, are rapidly vanishing even in the movie-loving Bay Area. With the closing of the Fine Arts earlier this month -- in preparation for an August 2004 rebirth inside a new mixed-use building to be erected on the site by developer Patrick Kennedy's Panoramic Interests -- only the Parkway and the Pacific Film Archive still show old movies in the East Bay. Home video and changing tastes killed the reps, but don't tell that to Leslie Landberg. Armed with placards and a grim sense of purpose, she has sued to stop the transformation of the Fine Arts and even obtained a hearing before Berkeley's Landmarks Preservation Commission -- which was evidently attended by the same six antidevelopment activists. Not exactly a groundswell of public opinion. "I can appreciate this passion of hers," says the Fine Arts' Keith Arnold, who's anxious to move ahead with Panoramic's plans to help him build a new theater. "I'm trying to keep that thing going, but if they landmark the building, I can't imagine anyone occupying it. The business environment is pretty slow there."
Landberg and her little band of outsiders deny they're being unduly nostalgic, but when pressed are vague about how saving a rundown, tacky-looking building from the pre-George Jetson school of modern commercial design -- which has a beam running across the sightline in front of the projection booth, among other design flaws -- is going to benefit their vision of "a living legacy of the American Film Movement." Landberg is fond of comparing this depressing box to the truly noteworthy Grand Lake. "I'm this one person like Don Quixote tilting against public opinion," asserts Landberg. "I don't believe they are going to really build a new theater. You might as well believe in the Tooth Fairy." Her blitz of e-mails and phone calls on the subject has puzzled local movie people, seemingly including her own father. The elder Landberg was recently quoted as saying he didn't care one way or another about the building's landmark status. When asked about that statement, Ms. Landberg replied: "He's 81 years old. I'm the voice of Landberg now." Her Web site is www.savethecinema.com.
A continuation landmark hearing is scheduled for Monday, March 3. It may be too late. Chris Hudson, Panoramic's project manager for the Fine Arts, says: "I have all the permits I need. We expect to get a demolition permit in March."
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