Dan Dillman first tried to buy a movie theater two decades ago, when he was about sixteen. It seemed like a long shot, but Dillman was enterprising, for a high-school student. He made decent money producing tracks for local R&B stars and fixing computers on the side. So when he saw a for-sale sign in the window of the Lorenzo Theatre in San Lorenzo, not too far from his childhood home, Dillman thought, Well, why not? "The guy on the phone pretty much could tell I was a kid," Dillman recalled, two decades later. "He said, 'Can you afford to buy this place?' I said, 'No — but God told me!'"
"God didn't really tell me," he later admitted. "I just kinda felt it — I was supposed to have that theater. Of course, that didn't really pan out."
Two years later Dillman got married, moved to an apartment on 150th Street in San Leandro, and discovered a new venue to fetishize — the Bal Theatre on East 14th Street, "I was sitting across the street at McDonald's, going 'Wow, look at that theater right there,'" Dillman remembered. "And then I kinda had the itch for this one, too." The opportunity finally came a couple years ago, in the form of another for-sale sign. "I began praying over the building," said Dillman. "We called the Realtor. They wanted a ridiculous amount of money. ... A few times I called, the building was in escrow." Dillman's luck turned when the city recouped the Bal from a developer who wanted to use it for other purposes than as a theater. "They wanted to either tear it down or do some kind of retail stuff, and I guess that wasn't in the plan of the city," said Dillman. "The time came, I made the offer, and they accepted the offer."
In fact, the Bal was a steal at $750,000, about half the asking price. Dillman, who still specializes in web design and computer repair, went through a lengthy process to get the building converted for multiuse. He moved his own media company, Xzault, to the Bal's second-floor office space and started running a computer repair shop from the lobby, thus creating a revenue stream to help pay the mortgage. Come November, he'll reopen the Bal as a theater, with regular Saturday-night screenings of locally made documentaries. Dillman says that now, with the roof repaired and the interior renovated to its original luster, the Bal is worth about $3 million. "But it's only worth that much if we sell it," he said. "That's not happening."
Since its genesis in 1946, the Bal went through various iterations, starting as a movie theater with occasional live music performances. The Martin family bought it in 1972 and briefly converted the place into Spanish Cinema before handing it over to various operators. One of them was Brady Ferguson, who began hosting late-night screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, during which he allowed an all-age (and to a large degree underage) audience to drink alcohol and allegedly encouraged them to engage in lewd acts. Cops raided the place twice in 2001, ultimately busting a private rave and leading Brady to flee the business in disgrace, having lost $25,000 of his own money. In 2004, Shiraz Jivani purchased the business and reopened it as part of his Naz 8 Bollywood Theatre chain. He left shortly thereafter, having invested a ton of money to renovate the building, but having failed to draw a real audience. By 2005, the Martins had grudgingly regained control of their 800-seat white elephant, which by then had all but shuttered. They screened movies every few months just to keep the place operational, but otherwise let it fall into disrepair.
Now, Dillman says he has new designs for the building. With the help of his wife, Gina, and right-hand man Franco Gonzalez, he'll run his repair shop and media company by day, and once a week turn the place into a haven for unknown, C-list movies — many of which he had a hand in making. The programming begins November 14, with Secrets of the Stone Tablets, a film about the Dillman family quest to find a lost treasure of Aztec emperor Moctezuma. (It's buried somewhere near Four Corners, says Dillman, who executive produced and directed the film.) Dillman will appear for a postfilm Q&A with two of his uncles, Paul and John Dillman, who are both "real-life treasure hunters." In January, they'll show Treason in America: The Council on Foreign Relations, a film by Franco's father, Servando Gonzalez, also executive-produced by Dillman. "In a nutshell, what Servando's research kind of proves is that there is an invisible government running our current government, or pulling the strings — puppet masters controlling the puppets," Dillman said.
Dillman has always been an entrepreneur of sorts. His grandfather led archeological digs and fiddled with ham radios, and Dillman puts that inherited technological acumen to use as a hip-hop producer and repairman. He began making beats in middle school and learned how to fix computers at age fifteen, after having to pay someone else to fix his own. His company does everything from animation to audio production to web sites to graphic design, and Dillman says he works "seasonally," meaning he'll dabble with music for a few months, then switch over to designing a 3-D cartoon, then direct a film. He's friends with old R&B stars like Bobby Brown and Ralph Tresvant of New Edition (whose story Dillman told in a recent DVD documentary), and hopes to ultimately have them perform at the Bal, once he transforms it from a second-run movie house to a concert venue. (That's still about a year away, he says.)
Dillman's plans might seem a little ambitious. Considering that even many first-run movie theaters are having a hard time breaking even, it seems like a longshot that an 800-seat San Leandro venue can survive programming documentaries few people have ever heard of? Yet Dillman remains sanguine. He says that all the random things he's done throughout his life culminated in the purchase of this building. Essentially, it's a chance to put one man's world under one roof. Moreover, Dillman intends to stanch all the bad blood that's existed between the Bal and the city of San Leandro, bring foot traffic to the area, and boost local retail. "There's been a little black cloud hovering over this theater with the city specifically, and the community," Dillman said. He promises to rectify things with "a nice little circle of love."
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