Orinda Theatre to re-create opening night for 75th anniversary
By Lou Fancher
The city of Orinda’s crown jewel is celebrating its 75th anniversary with a party priced at 50 cents.
That’s the ticket charge to attend the Orinda Theatre’s festive cinematic swing into 75 years of nearly continuous operation on Dec. 29.
The open-to-all community party features not only 1941-scale admission, but a screening of “Texas,” the first film ever shown in the iconic art deco movie house.
Starring Glen Ford, William Holden and Claire Trevor, the western packs a classic buddy story with action, humor and dramatic tension between good and evil. Short films and newsreels from the 1940s precede the main feature.
Consistent with the retro theme, theater owners Derek Zemrak and Leonard Pirkle have scheduled an opera singer and a Paul Winchell-style ventriloquist. They invite everyone to dress in 1940s attire.
Zemrak plans to wear a zoot suit and writes in an email that his favorite memory since taking ownership of the theater with Pirkle in 2011 is an appearance by comedian impressionist Rich Little.
“Rich was amazing. It was like Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Johnny Carson and George Burns all attended our grand opening evening,” he says.
Arguably, no film shown in the 800-seat theater built between 1937-1941 by local developer Donald Rheem or the two smaller theaters added decades later by former owner Allen Michaan is more climactic than the history of the theater itself.
Rheem was the son of Standard Oil Company president William S. Rheem and a movie fanatic. Constructed by young Rheem, the theater walls and foyer ceiling featured enormous murals by celebrated muralist Anthony Heinsbergen.
The “air, fire, water and earth” imagery, red velvet seats and a main curtain added glamour and sophistication to the movie house. The art deco architecture and interior decor led in part to the building’s designation in 1982 as part of the National Register of Historic Places.
So when then-owner Clark Wallace in that same year proposed demolishing the theater to replace it with a shopping center and shut the operation down, the community was in an uproar.
“There was huge citizen involvement,” says Ann O’Connell-Nye, an Orinda resident since 1973 whose moviegoing habit was disrupted by the closure.
“We went to every possible meeting to stop this,” she recalls. “The Friends of Orinda Theater and the Orinda Association Planning Committee — everyone. It was a real community effort.”
A large San Francisco law firm worked pro bono as the case wound its way through the courts. Eventually reaching the California Supreme Court, Wallace’s request for a variance was denied and The Friends ended up with a stay of demolition that stopped the developer from “turning the theater into a big box,” according to O’Connell-Nye.
In the meantime, the theater had fallen into considerable disrepair — the roof leaked; mold had grown on the artwork. Wallace paid for restorations that under the careful eye of the community, preserved the landmark building’s historic charm.
“A lot of times restorers cut these places in half. We kept the whole movie palace intact,” says O’Connell-Nye.
Zemrak says that since its completion in 1986, other than regular upkeep, no further restoration on the murals has been required.
Today, in addition to the feature films shown by the three-theater mini-multiplex, the venue offers a monthly international film series, free movie screenings sponsored by local media organizations, concerts, comedy nights, annual awards events, the California Independent Film Festival, and more.
Next door, Ciné Cuvee, a Hollywood-themed wine and beer bar co-owned by Zemrak, adds an adults-only extra feature while Zemrak and Pirkle work to secure a liquor license for the theater.
At the party, easel-mounted storyboards will chronicle the theater’s history and display images of its original construction, restoration, famous guest appearances and special occasions.
Memorabilia loaned by O’Connell-Nye will include JoAnne Muller’s intricate, stained glass artwork that depicts the theater marquee.
“I believe it took 110 hours for JoAnne to assemble it,” she says.
But the most significant remnant representing the theater and its importance to the community is the feeling held in the hearts and minds of people.
“Orinda has a gem like no other. It’s a beacon that represents home,” says O’Connell-Nye. “For a community to save a historic structure when there’s a tendency to tear things down and build a same-old, same-old structure … well, this theater represents our history. We believe in updating, but history can’t be replaced.”
A “$75 for 75 Years” donation is encouraged as are early ticket purchases. At 50 cents a pop, people might want to get their tickets early: a sold-out show is likely.