Tearing a ticket for the next showing of Lemony Snicket, Mark Haskett compared himself to P.T. Barnum. "He said there's no such thing as bad publicity," Haskett said. "If the city wants to keep putting me on the front page of the papers every week, it brings people in."
Haskett was standing proudly in the popcorn-scented lobby of his new micro-movie theater, the Central Cinema in Alameda's West End neighborhood. It's located in a former funeral home and -- except for a refreshment stand in the lobby and a small marquee outside -- pretty much still looks like one. Somber floor-length curtains greet you as you enter the lobby, and the auditorium itself features a high-arched ceiling and churchy chandeliers. If it weren't for the comfy couches and rocking chairs and the projection booth in the back, it would be easy to imagine being here for a post-mortem viewing of Uncle Joe.
The auditorium holds 42 people, and twenty minutes before the seven o'clock showing on a recent Saturday night, the prime couch spaces were already taken. Local folksinger Dave Lionelli was performing for the early-comers. "We have an organ -- a leftover from the mortuary days -- but my organ player is traveling in Mexico with his girlfriend," Haskett sighed in mock exasperation. "Musicians!"
Despite his good-natured bravura, Haskett had a lot to be exasperated about. After all, the city government has demanded he close down his theater. He sublet the space from the Alameda Multicultural Center and quickly converted it to a theater replete with excellent surround sound. He opened for business, believing that the center's permits -- which allowed gatherings and movie screenings -- would cover his little theater.
But the city concluded otherwise. The fire marshal visited, and handed Haskett a laundry list of violations and a fine of $250. Some of the violations were for still-on-the-books archaic laws that were easily fixed (for example, hanging a sign on the projection-room door with one-inch block letters stating "SAFETY FILM ONLY IS PERMITTED IN THIS ROOM," which made sense before flammable cellulose nitrate film was replaced by fire-resistant safety film ... in 1952).
City officials also said the site is not zoned for a cinema and that the theater must be closed until Haskett applies and receives a zoning change -- a process they admit would take four to six months. After Haskett hired an attorney and vowed that the show would go on, city representatives began sending sterner letters threatening $1,000 fines and six months in jail for every day he kept the theater open.
Yet aside from jumping up every few minutes to man the ticket counter or projection room, Haskett seems reasonably serene. Perhaps it's his faith that the law really is on his side, or that overwhelming community support will persuade the city government to come to some accommodation. So far, the support seems to be there. From the letters column of the local papers to strangers volunteering aid and support, Haskett clearly has won the hearts of the community, not only as the little guy fighting city hall, but as the guy who at long last has done the seemingly impossible by bringing a first-run movie theater to the insular island community.
The lack of a local movie theater has been a community gripe for years. Sure, the Jack London Cinema is just across the estuary, but to many Alamedans, that's like a trip to a foreign land. Many older residents can recite the betrayal they felt decades ago when they discovered that the downtown Alameda Theater, designed by the same architect who designed Oakland's Paramount, had been shut out of the movie business when a boxy mall duplex negotiated a no-competition clause with the city government.
Ever since the new theater's management ran it into the ground and bulldozers felled its leaky building in 1998, the island has been without a movie theater while the city, owner, and developers dickered endlessly. The latest plan, with a projected due date two years from now, is to spend millions of dollars in city funds and federal grants to turn the Alameda Theater, for better or worse, into a modern movie palace complete with parking and multiple screens housed in an add-on building next door.
Many residents have harbored a pent-up sense of incomprehension and frustration at the long-delayed reopening. These are the people who have been so delighted that it took a young upstart no more than a few months to find and create a credible theater and begin showing first-run fare like The Incredibles and Finding Neverland.
On this recent Saturday, a dozen customers asked how they could support his theater. Haskett has a stock answer: "Go on in, enjoy the movie, and don't worry about it." A man with construction experience asks if there's anything he can do; another comes in from the cold to shake Haskett's hand and pledge support before going out again. Once the movie starts, Haskett has time to talk between apologizing to latecomers that tickets have sold out.
"I didn't really mean for it to happen like this," he said. "I'm a stay-at-home father, and I started getting frustrated at the fact that there really wasn't much for parents and preschoolers to do together during the day." Haskett had experience working in movie theaters in Asheville, North Carolina, and figured a theater that would show kid-friendly shows during the day and more adult fare in the evening would be a good thing. It took him two years to find a suitable place, and then ninety days to whip it into shape.
The theater is often filled with families and unaccompanied pods of preteens. "It's a place where I'd feel safe letting my eight-year-old go to the lobby or bathroom unaccompanied," said one mom. "I don't feel that way in the Jack London theater." To add to Haskett's original goal of accommodating parents with young kids, he has decreed Tuesday to be "Baby Night."
"The theatrical experience is going the wrong way," he said. "I may be the only guy in the world who hates stadium seats in theaters, but I like to sit in the front row and stadium seating makes that impossible. Also, the best seating area for most people is where they usually put an aisle instead. I'm aware that my biggest competition is you watching a video in your own living room. That's why I wanted to make a theater that was small and comfortable, but with a large screen and great sound."
If you ask Haskett why the city is coming down hard on what everyone thinks is a great idea, he suggests a connection with the city's slow-as-molasses Alameda Theater plan. He suspects that they're so desperate to get the theater off the ground that they're willing to grant the new theater a noncompete clause.
Assistant City Manager Paul Benoit wouldn't confirm that, but also wouldn't rule it out. "We've been negotiating with the prospective operator and builder for almost two years," he said. "It has no relationship to the current issues. Whether there's going to be a future discussion about noncompete clauses has no relationship with this case right now. I can tell you that those are not uncommon, particularly when you have a confined environment like Alameda. Theaters run on pretty skinny margins, and you'd rather have one thriving operation than two bankrupt ones."
Although the city is being hard-nosed about Haskett's lack of permits, inspections, and zoning compliance, Benoit expresses a bit of grudging respect for what Haskett has accomplished: "You gotta give the guy credit. I live in that end of town and personally, I think it's kind of a cool thing he's doing for that neighborhood. But we can't use that sentiment as a basis for ignoring the laws."
So what would solve the conflict and allow the theater to continue?
"The building inspections and fire-safety issues are the easy parts," Benoit said. "What he'd have to do, which we would assist him in doing, is amend the zoning ordinance to allow commercial movie theaters in that zone. Unfortunately, we can't allow him to continue operating illegally until then, and it's probably a six-month process even if everything goes well. My heart goes out to the guy, but he'd have to cease operations until then."
Whether that's going to happen is still up in the air. Meanwhile, Haskett said somebody has been calling distributors to tell them not to rent films to him, making his booking more difficult. Whatever happens, the theater has no phone, so don't try calling for news and showtimes. They can, however, be reached at CentralCinema.net, the theater's Web site.
"Is going to jail for this theater worth it?" Haskett asked. "Since when is showing movies a crime?"
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