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The Fischers were quickly apprised of the council's decision and timetable. They responded that nevertheless, they'd be able to last another few weeks at the most, perhaps just a few days at the least, after which point the business would no longer be able to secure films, food, and other necessities. Kyle had decided to offer advance warning of that impending deadline in order to correct his mishandling of the Parkway's closure.
However, the premature announcement backfired — at a special April 8 meeting, the redevelopment agency voted not to offer assistance to a company teetering so near to the edge and evidently intending to close. So it withdrew the loan and lease modifications proposed by the city council just two days prior and opted to begin the process of transitioning to a new operator. According to council documentation, Treviño conveyed to Catherine Fischer via a phone conversation the following afternoon that "the Board had decided not to continue with Speakeasy." Yet evidently unaware of the ramifications of the city's about-face, the Fischers persevered six more weeks by withholding California sales tax in a last-ditch effort to keep the theater open. Nearly three weeks after the date at which the city's aid would've kicked in, Speakeasy was finally forced to withdraw from the Cerrito.
Fault for the Cerrito's failure, and likewise that of the Parkway, does not rest squarely on either party. Speakeasy Theaters may have made poor management decisions and kept inadequate financial records, but city officials coaxed the operator into the relationship and were decidedly unhurried in offering a bailout. The Fischers feel they were led on and left out to dry, while the city claims the couple was uncooperative and disorganized throughout the entire process. Whatever the reason, the same agency that took a year to deliver aid to its struggling partner was able to turn the Cerrito Theater over to an entirely new operator in less than two months.
At midnight on July 15, the Cerrito Theater presented a sold-out screening of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to celebrate its reopening under independent operator Rialto Cinemas, which also runs the Elmwood in Berkeley and the Lakeside in Santa Rosa. But the ghost of Speakeasy Theaters still hung in the building. After all, the theater had been designed in its image, and little had changed since it left. Convening in the lobby shortly after the curtain rose to a round of audience applause, Rialto employees seemed elated to have completed the mad dash toward reopening the theater. They looked forward to serving the people of El Cerrito as a family-friendly, all-ages venue.
Kyle and Catherine Fischer, for their part, are far from ready to move on. They still owe $650,000 to contractors, $250,000 to themselves, and more than $4 million to the City of El Cerrito. It's debt they plan to erase through litigation. Although they've never officially listed the theater as a company asset, they now argue that its millions of dollars of improvements belong to Speakeasy Theaters. The reasons are threefold, the Fischers say: They held the contracts for all work, they purchased the equipment through monetary gifts and an unsecured loan, and they represented to contractors and the public that it belonged to them. The Fischers also claim they are owed for serving as consultants over thousands of hours of theater development. "We're gonna sue them for a lot of stuff if this goes to court," Kyle said. Over the last few weeks he has repeatedly threatened the city with a lawsuit, and as of last week began interviewing attorneys to represent Speakeasy's case.
The city, however, believes the Fischers' claim to the theater and its equipment has no merit, largely based on a one-paragraph clause in the lease titled "Surrender." It states that anything left in the building after thirty days beyond termination of the lease becomes property of the city. The city, which still holds the deed to the building itself, also argues that because it initially paid for everything, whether through a loan or direct payments, it assumes ownership of all improvements.
El Cerrito's threatened counterclaim for unpaid loan and lease monies is disputed as well. While the Fischers signed both documents at the time, a letter drafted by their friend and practicing attorney Brian Toppila late last month argued that both the loan and the lease cannot be valid at the same time, and therefore Speakeasy Theaters cannot be liable for both debts. "It is all very confusing and hands are not clean," Toppila wrote.
The disagreement marks a bitter end to a remarkable project. The Fischers, who invested thirteen years of their lives in Speakeasy Theaters, have lost their livelihood in more ways than one. "When we think about this in real terms, we weep," Kyle said. "This hurts beyond hurt. The Parkway was our child. I can't tell you how much joy we got out of the Parkway." Without a doubt, so did its many followers. One of the theater's greatest coups, Kyle recalls, was being named the "Most Appealing Spot" in Bay Area nightlife by Zagat Surveys in 2002 and 2003.
"I regret ever having gone into the City of El Cerrito," he added. "We were having a great time at the Parkway. I wish I had never heard of the City of El Cerrito." Nevertheless, the theater will long stand as a symbol of what the Fischers' effort, expertise, and unique partnership produced. It has already become a rallying point for El Cerrito residents — a burgeoning community center, a source of civic pride, and an anchor for a growing commercial district that includes a cafe and record shop, a yoga studio, an art studio, and more. The proud "Cerrito" sign out front serves as a standing greeting to travelers along San Pablo Avenue.
"If it wasn't for the Fischers, I don't believe the theater would exist today," said Dave Weinstein, who, after notifying city officials to the theater's presence, became chairman of non-profit citizen advocacy group Friends of the Cerrito Theater. "They deserve a tremendous amount of credit."
Gary Meyer, founder of Landmark Theatres and current operator of the Balboa Theatre in San Francisco, agrees. "The City of El Cerrito, Friends of the Cerrito, and Speakeasy Theaters were visionaries," he said. "It is a beautiful theater. It's a real asset for the East Bay."
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