Many businesses have folded their tents in the current recession, but most motion-picture exhibitors are selling more tickets in 2009 than they did last year. Such was evidently not the case with the mighty Parkway Theater.
Last week, parent company Speakeasy Theaters announced that it was shutting the doors on the original site of its unique experiment in Bay Area movie exhibition — a combination of second-run films, beer, and wine to accompany pizza and chicken wings, plus wacky, unpredictable specialty programming with down-to-earth Oakland flavor.
Speakeasy principals Kyle Fischer and his wife Catherine reopened the funky 1920s-era neighborhood movie house in 1997 with a 21-and-over door policy, occasionally relaxed for special presentations and the celebrated "Baby Brigade" nights designed for parents of infants. Their marketing plan was built around what they called "Picture-Pub-Pizza," which guaranteed that no matter how bad the movie was, you could have a beer and relax. Admission was cheap because the films had recently "come off" multiplex screens and gone into their second runs. Audiences who came for the alcohol and pub grub stayed for quirky extras such as Will "The Thrill" Viharo's Thrillville nights of vintage horror and exploitation flicks, and the African Diaspora film series of serious foreign films, run by the owner's mother, Taylor Fischer.
Reached by phone last Thursday, Kyle apologized for returning our call a little late. "We've been in court," he admitted. Fischer added that the theater's dilemma is "between the economy and our inability to negotiate with our landlord." Indeed, regular customers were well acquainted with Speakeasy's landlord woes, including a burst furnace in the winter of 2006-2007 that forced audiences to keep their overcoats on while huddled on the Parkway's squishy sofas.
And perhaps the discretionary income of the theater's customers simply dried up. "A lot of our patrons are adults," Fischer explained, "and they've decided they'd rather spend their entertainment dollars on themselves or keep it to take care of their families."
Speakeasy's 2006 expansion into El Cerrito with the spiffy duplex Cerrito Theater on San Pablo Avenue, owned by the City of El Cerrito and leased to Speakeasy, was intended to bring the Parkway concept to a different East Bay neighborhood, and it did. But some of the same factors that sandbagged the Oakland venue undoubtedly also apply to the newer location.
Last summer, El Cerrito's Redevelopment Agency reported that Speakeasy had seriously fallen behind in its rent payments. Things have deteriorated since then. Lori Trevino, economic development manager for the city, says the theater operators currently owe $150,000 in back rent. At $10,000 a month, that means Downey Street Productions — the Speakeasy entity that holds the Cerrito lease — hasn't paid its rent in more than a year.
How long can this keep going on? Trevino wouldn't speculate. "We're in the midst of negotiations right now," she said in a phone interview. "But none of us wants to see a vacant theater." The City of El Cerrito is probably less likely to pull the plug on the theater because it believes a movie house is a community asset, and it is heavily invested in it. But right now both Speakeasy and the city are stuck in a tough position.
The notion that the Cerrito was cannibalizing the Parkway's business also has been floated as an excuse for the Oakland location's hard times. Said Fischer last Thursday: "I think the Cerrito has probably taken a toll on the Parkway."
Compounding the problem were Speakeasy's uneasy relations with the companies that supply its films. Late payments meant fewer booking options, and the money troubles spiraled at both locations. In the words of one veteran film business observer, who asked for anonymity: "It's been a long time coming. I don't think this has anything to do with the economy. It was all going to happen anyway. You could see the end coming, but it came pretty suddenly when it finally happened."
Fischer agreed that "all those factors coming together made it difficult. But the primary thing is that we couldn't renegotiate some of our contracts with our primary distributors and our landlord." Now it's up to the Cerrito to soldier on.
CerritoSpeakeasy.com is stressing that Parkway patrons can enjoy the same easy-going atmosphere and hang-loose programming in the Cerrito's cleaner, updated surroundings. However, that may prove a tough sell to hardcore Parkway-ites, who clearly enjoyed munching sandwiches and watching rubber monsters and burlesque dancers chase each other across the theater's creaky proscenium. "These will all live on at the Cerrito," enthuses horror host Viharo, who continues to serve as Speakeasy's film booker and publicist as well as ringmaster of such events as Thrillville's twelfth-anniversary twin bill of Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Re-Animator, at the Cerrito on April 9.
The Parkway's final weekend aptly encapsulated its twelve-year stab at glory. The schedule included The Wrestler, Revolutionary Road, and Let the Right One In, plus the theater's regular Saturday night presentation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Barely Legal Productions doing the Time Warp again. It all capped with one final Sunday night special show, moved up in the calendar because of the unexpected shutdown: "Oakland's Tight" Nite, featuring live music by Latin surf band Carne Cruda and a screening of Gustavo Vasquez' lucha libre documentary, Que Viva la Lucha.
Ironically, one of Speakeasy's biggest competitors in the East Bay, Landmark Theatres, is planning to add a restaurant and full bar, including spirits and mixed drinks, for moviegoers at its Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley, to open in May. Steve Indig, Landmark's senior regional publicist, scoffs at the idea that Speakeasy's beer-and-wine policy prompted Landmark to go them one better.
"We're looking for opportunities along that line," Indig said of the proposed expansion of the Shattuck complex into an adjoining space, "but Speakeasy's beer and wine was not the reason that drove our decision." Still, the demise of the Parkway casts a slight shadow even on go-go Landmark. Conceded Indig: "Something that's so indie [as the Parkway's offerings] resonates for us, but it's not really direct competition."
Be that as it may, the one niche in which both Landmark and Speakeasy do compete directly is with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which has been running nonstop on some Bay Area screen since the 1970s. Barely Legal began performing the cult horror musical live every week on the stage of Landmark's late, lamented UC Theatre in 1995, moved to the Parkway in 1999, and is now contemplating a move to the Cerrito. Let's hope they make the trip north. If Barely Legal doesn't continue in El Cerrito, the once-a-month Rocky Horror with the Bawdy Cast at Landmark's Clay in SF could well be the only surviving Bay Area live edition of the show.
In the meantime, raise a soggy nacho salute to the Parkway, the place where Godzilla, Black Caesar, Cash Flagg, Dr. Frank N. Furter, and Monica the Tiki Goddess all found a home.
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