With ragtime ukulele music and a Three Stooges flick, Piedmont Cinema recently celebrated renovations designed to restore the 93-year-old movie theater's vintage style while bringing in a few modern comforts.
Landmark Theaters Vice President of Development Michael Fant, who oversaw the project, says the improvements were not aimed at boosting revenues, but were meant primarily to reward the loyal patrons who have been coming to the theater for decades. Landmark therefore tried to balance the old and new in making the design decisions.
"If we had changed the auditorium and made it a modern theater ... the patrons that had been going there for years wouldn't feel like it was the same place," Fant said.
The theater first opened its doors on the corner of Piedmont and Linda avenues way back in 1917, so there were many layers of paint to scrape through to uncover traces of the original palette used to come up with the colors that now cover the walls; and there was much sanding to do to resurface the original stain in the main auditorium's wood floor.
Fant and his team had to fly in some "old timers" from the Midwest to get new acoustical drapes made for the main auditorium, rather than switching over to modern wall panels. The pattern of the new carpeting is also of the 1920s era, even if the material is not.
"It's obviously of modern quality—it's fire proof, built to last longer, ... it can't stain easily," Fant said. "We pour coca cola on [carpet samples], we take popcorn with butter and we stomp on it. ... I have a few samples here in my office that didn't pass the mustard, literally."
The return of the old-fashioned details provoked nostalgia among some who were at the cinema on Nov. 16 for the open house showcasing the renovations.
Bill Cesari worked at the theater as a teenager back in the 1950s, earning $1.10 an hour behind the candy counter. He said though admission to the loges upstairs was $.90 instead of just $.75 for general admission, they would always sell out fast, even in bad weather.
"One winter the roof leaked, people were sitting up there under umbrellas," Cesari said.
The holes in the roof have long since been patched and the loges are gone now. In 1986, when the theater was last renovated, the balcony was converted to two smaller auditoriums. And patrons at the November open house had taken note of the new modern seats installed with the latest upgrades. Instead of red velveteen, they're made with faux leather and the same form-fitting foam NASA uses.
"I came here the other night to see the [The Girl Who Kicked the] Hornet's Nest—the chairs were really comfortable," said Darlene Gall, an Emeryville resident who frequents the cinema.