Most cinemas these days are completely lacking in imagination. You drive to some box at the mall and fight for parking so that you can choose from fifteen new flicks to match your $15 popcorn. Offering relief is the Grand Lake, which opened in 1926 as a vaudeville and silent movie palace and was purchased and restored in the '80s by current owner Allen Michaan. Its neon sign is an Oakland landmark, and the theater's dazzling marquee includes odd bits of Michaan's political commentary. Inside it's all retro elegance -- chandeliers, wood, and velvet -- with a 900-seat main auditorium and art deco murals. On Friday and Saturday nights, the Wurlitzer organ serenades moviegoers prior to the feature. A few years ago, the Grand Lake was on the brink. Michaan filed an antitrust suit alleging that Signature Theatres, which operates Jack London Cinemas, had used its clout with distributors to keep the blockbusters off Grand Lake screens. Fortunately for Oakland, all the distributors except Paramount ultimately sided with Michaan and helped preserve a piece of local history. Besides the neat aesthetic, the Grand Lake is convenient. You can park under the freeway a block away, grab dinner at one of many restaurants nearby, catch a flick, and later knock off a couple at Lucky Lounge or the Alley, both a short walk away. Best of all, you can actually get in to see a big movie on opening night without lining up around the block.