It’s 1917, and the UC Theatre is being built in Berkeley, California. As an international phenomenon, the “movie theater” is almost a teenager. Hanging from the steel frame is a sign advertising the work in progress, “Featuring the Best in Photodramatic Art” – presumably an early way of saying “Featuring Movies.” Six Marquees and 98 years later, the UC Theatre is under construction again, to be reopened for the first time in 14 years as a full-fledged music venue.
When the Berkeley Music Group became a non-profit back in 2012, they committed to renovating and reopening the UC Theatre as a music venue, which was a tall order considering it was a movie theater and needed to be seismically renovated. This meant the long, sloping seating area had to be replaced with tiered levels, the walls had to be sound-proofed and the building had to be made structurally sound in the case of an earthquake, just to name a few of the many necessary changes.
For a while the timeline for this long list of renovations was up in the air, because construction only happened at the rate the community supported it. But about two months ago Tad Taube, Bay Area philanthropist, donated a $1.3 million matching grant, meaning every dollar someone else donates is doubled.
Slated to open sometime before the new year, The UC Theatre is already getting compared to the Fillmore, in both size and caliber of artists. The theater will fit 1,400 people and aims to have about 75 shows in the first year. David Mayeri, President of the Berkeley Music Group and spearhead of the project, said the UC Theatre will be a place to see the bands who have outgrown places like The Independent, The Great American Music Hall and Brick and Mortar – a much needed East Bay middle-ground between venues like The New Parish and The Fox Theater.
The marquee and box office are somewhat small, but the venue is deceptively big, filling the inner third of the entire block. Walking into the room is like reaching into a magician’s hat. One of the more noteworthy aspects of the room is its squareness. Unlike most venues, the UC Theatre is a massive cube – a soundwave’s dream come true.
“This room was built as a theater but it was meant to be a music venue, because it’s almost as wide as it is deep,” Mayeri said. “It’s a beautiful box, with no balconies or unusual surfaces to reflect the sound off, creating an acoustically sound environment.”
The Berkeley Music Group’s non-profit status gives The UC Theatre the opportunity to be more than a venue, but a gold-mine of potential industry experience for local youngins. Part of the theater’s raison d’etre is to give East Bay young adults (roughly 17 to 25) the same opportunity Mayeri had as a child.
“The education program is an outgrowth of my experience,” Mayeri said. “I’m class of ’72 at Berkeley High. When I was a 16 year old Bill Graham Presents brought shows into the Berkeley Community theater. I got paid 10 bucks cash to be an intern at the show and unload the truck, set the stage, usher the show, tear down the stage and re-pack the truck. I would’ve paid 10 bucks to do it.”
Part of the UC Theatre’s educational program is a two phase internship. Phase one introduces the intern to various positions in a venue, and phase two lets them focus on a position they’re most interested in. After phase two the interns will be introduced to folks from venues around the bay. They’ll also offer one-off workshops, teaching anything ranging from marketing to light design.
So many kids today that love music dream of being behind the mic and performing, but it’s very hard to make it as an artist and make a career out of it. This whole education program that we have is designed to give people the opportunity to work in the entertainment business, so you can be around the mic, not just behind the mic.
Check out some photos of the UC Theatre, from 1917 on through its most recent construction phase.