Culture Watch 

Without Rocky Horror, can the Bal Theater survive?

Act One
Back in April, we brought you the saga of San Leandro's Bal Theater, the vintage second-run movie house that operator Brady Ferguson had been using to stage midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That came to an end when undercover cops, following up on the complaint of a concerned parent, attended a showing and found scantily clothed teenagers drinking alcohol and performing stripteases. As a result of the bust, Ferguson was charged with three misdemeanors, including encouraging lewd behavior and allowing minors to drink, for which he entered a not guilty plea and is still involved in pre-trial negotiations. The city's finance director threatened to yank Ferguson's business license, then agreed to let the Bal stay in business only after Ferguson agreed to a list of conditions: he would have to enforce local nudity and liquor laws, and he would have to shut the theater down by a requirement which clashes with the traditional Rocky screening time. Ferguson also agreed to check patrons' IDs and enforce the ratings system devised by the Motion Picture Association of America--a unique twist of fate that makes the Bal the only theater in the nation to have a city monitoring its compliance with MPAA ratings (which are usually considered "guidelines" and not legally enforceable).

It was fairly predictable what happened next: there was a dramatic dropoff in attendance after the raid, and now the Bal may be on the verge of going out of business. Ferguson, never one to mince words, puts it this way. "We're poor. We're really poor. We're behind on the lease payment to keep the building and PG&E bills." The latter, he says, can run $2,000 a month. Ferguson is giving himself a few weeks to decide whether or not to keep the doors open. He estimates that to stay in business, he needs about 350 patrons a week. (That's at $3.50 a pop and $5 for Rocky--perhaps the lowest ticket price anywhere in the Bay Area.)

Act Two
The Bal's financial troubles are compounded by the fact that Ferguson, a computer network specialist, recently left his outside job and hasn't been able to find new one in the post-dot-com job market, so he has fewer of his own resources to pour into the business. Rocky Horror used to be the theater's cash cow, but Ferguson says that its attendance has been halved since the show started screening at its new 9:30 pm start time. (Since so many Rocky regulars are young teenagers who would normally be barred by the movie's R rating, Ferguson is getting around this limitation by screening the edited version of the film as it is broadcast on television.)

Plus, in an ironic kink, the services that made the theater such a valuable community resource--and were so loudly praised during the days it seemed that Ferguson would lose his business license--were the first to go. One of the theater's other most consistent draws, the screening of open-captioned films for the hearing-impaired every Sunday, was discontinued more than a month ago. Ferguson had neglected to pay a $13 bill to the booking agency that provides open-captioned films, and now the agency won't release movies to him. "The Bal Theater was nice while it lasted," mourns Ken Arcia, a coordinator for the Deaf Counseling, Advocacy and Referral Agency, which is right across the street from the Bal. "It's a beautiful theater and the screen is really great. It's too bad that they stopped because nothing really can compare to what they were doing there." Currently, only two other theaters in the East Bay screen open-captioned movies, and hearing-impaired viewers have plenty of complaints about both: small screens, inconsistent scheduling, a limited variety of films, and showings at inconvenient times of day.

Also gone by the wayside are the charity fund-raisers Ferguson used to hold for a wide variety of local charities including the Friends of the Fairmont Animal Shelter and United Parents for San Leandro High. Ferguson would slightly boost the ticket price--expecting that the charities would publicize the event among their donors--and then give the door proceeds to the worthy causes. Instead, he found that not only were the organizations failing to publicize the events to their members, but he was actually losing regular customers who were discouraged by the higher ticket price.

And then there's the uphill battle to bring back customers who either believe that the Rocky screenings were permanently shut down after the police raid (they were in fact suspended for over a month) or that the Bal is just too troubled to patronize. "I think there is negative sentiment," says Ferguson. "I've talked to a couple of kids who come to Rocky and they said their friends aren't allowed to stay at their house on Friday nights because their parents know that kid goes to Rocky. It's going to be a long time before it goes away, if at all. ... [But] I think we're still battling the fact that people don't know the Bal exists, not 'the Bal does bad things' mentality." Unlike a larger movie theater, the Bal doesn't have a big advertising budget, so in the hopes of boosting attendance, Ferguson sends his staff with out with flyers to the farmers' market and other public events.

Act Three
Ferguson thinks that if he could just renegotiate a few of the rules governing the Bal, he might have a chance at turning a profit. "If the city let us go back to midnight for Rocky and eased off on the ID checking--and we'd still be following all the rules and working with the police to make sure all the other laws are followed and we're not the menace to society they think we are--that could easily pull us out of our rut," he says. "I think it's something they'll be willing to consider."

Michael White, the city's acting finance director, gives the Bal the thumbs up for compliance with the new rules--in fact he just sent Ferguson a renewed license for the coming year--and he says that the city is willing to listen to what Ferguson has to say. "If he wanted to change his hours of operation he'd have to come back to the city and we'd have to look at his planned activities from the scope of the safety of the public and being a good neighbor." Despite the Bal's rocky past, nobody wants the theater to shut down. "We always want to encourage business in the city of San Leandro," White says.

However, the city doesn't have many resources to give a faltering small business. As the result of decreased federal funding and a history of mixed success with giving financial assistance to small businesses, the city's loan program has been suspended for review. As San Leandro's economic development manager Luke Sims points out, without many low- and middle-income residents, the city doesn't qualify for many sources of federal funding, so it has less money to hand out. In recent years, he says, "We've directed it more into housing rehabilitation and other social issues that are arguably of greater importance than the commercial [concerns]." Ferguson, in fact, has already taken advantage of the business development program that does still exist, which gave him $5,500 to repair the Bal's marquee and exterior paintwork.

Ferguson recently joined the city's Redevelopment Advisory Committee, which has given him a look at how the city hands out fix-it funds, and he unfavorably compares his $5,500 to the help the city has given to one of its greatest tax revenue generators, the Bayfair Mall. "San Leandro coughed up four million for them over time, for Macy's to stay there, because they were going bankrupt at the time, to spice things up and make them look better," he says. "Well, here's this little small business guy whose business is falling apart and I know they will never come over here and give me a check." He pauses. "All the city documents point to the Bal Theater as a community place or an arts venue and I'm trying."

In the meantime, here are some of the things Ferguson is considering doing to save his theater: closing on weekdays, opening it for non-movie events such as concerts (although this would require negotiating another tangle of permit agreements with the city), renting the space out to producers who want to put on events he couldn't afford to do himself, or sponsoring kid-oriented movie events in cooperation with local recreation departments. (If you have a good idea, he's taking suggestions at brady@thebal.com.) "Maybe this shouldn't be a movie house; maybe it should be a venue for bigger acts than we've been doing," says Ferguson. "We've got a great place here. There's no reason it can't survive."

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