The Legendary UC Theatre

A Closer Look at Its Quirky History

By Jesse Rosenthal

Where can you catch The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight, hear the latest feature film echo through a room with a capacity over 1,000 people, and sneak in turnip cakes from the Chinese restaurant across the street? The UC Theatre Taub Family Music Hall back in the ’60s, long before its doors shut in 2002.

The UC Theatre first opened 1917, a time when world-wide cinema was shifting from one-reel films to longer feature films. At the time of the grand opening it had “the largest screen this side of the Mississippi” says UC Theatre General Manager Mathew Smith in an interview with The BCC Voice. During the mid-to-late century, the theatre played new films every week, both foreign and domestic.

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The UC Theatre in 1943. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Architectural Historic Association

Many of the Bay Area’s famous musicians frequented the theatre in their youth — bands such as Rancid, Green Day and even beloved comedian and actor Robin Williams, who some believe was wildly influenced and inspired by the theatre. Honoring a previous vow, film director Werner Herzog once ate his own shoe on stage. Alice Waters, owner of Chez Pannise, prepared the shoe. According to a film made by Les Blanc in 1979, the shoe was cooked in herbs and spices for hours, but Herzog decided not to eat the sole.

Around 1999, says Smith, there was a dispute between the landlord and Landmark Cinemas, the owner of the business at the time. The building needed a retrofit because it was unsuitable to withstand considerable seismic activity. Landmark Theaters did not find it feasible to pay for the retrofit on the income of a one-screen theatre, so they moved out and the theatre went dark.

David Mayeri, the CEO and Founder of the UC Theatre we know today, took on the project of turning the theatre into a music venue.

After negotiating for a seismic retrofit in 2015, and with its completion in 2016, the theatre reopened as one of Berkeley’s largest live music venues. Halloween of 2016 saw the revival of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, bringing new life to an old staple in the community.

According to Smith, the venue is now a non-profit organization, and hosts a side project called the Concert Career Pathways Program. The program consists of paid internships intended to teach youths ages 18 – 25 about the technical, creative and business aspects of the music industry.

With over 100 employees on the payroll, ranging from full-time to part-time, and a hospitality staff tending the four full-bars in the venue, the theatre is always active. Volunteers stay busy, helping with IT, PR, and various other endeavors. The theatre accepts what Smith calls “user volunteers” to help out on a show-to-show basis. You can visit the theatre’s website for more details about how to volunteer at theuctheatre.org.

“People can expect to see 110 to 125 excellent shows coming out of The UC Theatre each year” says Smith. “We’re really excited to provide a diverse range of entertainment to Berkeley.” If you catch a show at the theatre, you’ll know you’re at a venue with a future as rich as its past.

At the top: A packed house at The UC Theatre. Photo Credit: Dave Weiland

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