February 14, 2006 > Saving the Center Theater
Saving the Center Theater
by Jeremy Inman
For Almost Ten Years Now, an ongoing battle has been waged in Fremont. The battlefield: Centerville. The mission: bring back the Center Theater, fully operational and under the ownership of The Center Theater Preservation Group.
I recently had a chat with Julie Gilson, President of the Center Theater Preservation Group in light of their upcoming Oscar Night event (more on that later in the article), and she was able to give me a little background into the continuing efforts of her organization and its goals.
"The interest has been there to make it a community facility for a number of years," Gilson says, "We would like to see it owned and operated by a nonprofit entity, namely the Center Theater Preservation Group and to be professionally managed and operating with patrons in there every week."
This, however, has proven to be no easy task. The Center Theater, a single-screen, commercial movie theater, was built in the early 1940s under the ownership of the Salih Brothers, who had built and operated a number of such theaters throughout Northern California. It operated successfully until the 1960s, when multiplexes started springing up. Around this time, it was rented out by the Salih Family to a number of operators; for a while, it ran second-run films under the name of The ABC Theater; after that it ran Hispanic language films, and more recently it was a Naz Cinema.
By the time the Naz Cinema moved out in the mid-1990s, the theater had suffered significant deterioration, and the Salih Family was ready to sell. Enter the Save the Center Theater Group. Because it was in the Centerville Redevelopment District, local business people and residents from the area approached the redevelopment agency at the time in hopes to make it a redevelopment project. The City of Fremont eventually did a study and deemed the project too expensive. What they would do, however, was to fund a community group- driven business plan project with a city-chosen consultant specializing in the operation of similar facilities.
And so, in 2000, the Save The Center Theater Group was born and has since been incorporated into the Center Theater Preservation Group. But the fight was long from over...
When they were still the Save the Center Theater Group, local businessman and board member Dirk Lorenz rented the Center Theater from the Salih Family for 3 months. During this time, the theater put on a number of events including a New Years Eve party, stand-up comedy, and most notably, a showing of Casablanca (where this humble writer, as a volunteer helping the effort, first met the esteemed editor of this publication). Lorenz, who would later run a city council campaign, estimated that he broke even by the end of his three month lease.
The Center Theater Group determined that it would require a lease of at least nine months to make a profit because marketing, advertising, and talent booking requires a longer timeframe than a short lease would allow. But the Salih Family was no longer interested in renting the property. And so it went unoccupied for a number of months until the current owner purchased it in January of 2005 and made significant renovations. Among the upgrades, which were limited to the interior of the theater, the current owner replaced all the upper seats, the carpeting and the stage curtain; a long overdue seismic retrofitting was done and a DVD projection unit and new sound system was installed. Seats in the lower level of the theater were removed and a terrace arrangement built to accommodate banquet tables, as well as room for fold-out seats. Bathrooms were renovated and many fixtures replaced.
Maximum seating occupancy of the Center Theater is now estimated to be somewhere between 450 and 500 people, but due to parking restrictions, the theater is only permitted an occupancy of 174 - an obstacle that contributes to the difficulty of running the theater successfully.
This brings us to the present: the Center Theater Preservation Group's latest community event, the Oscar Night Celebration, initially suggested to the group by Howard Hyman, Executive Vice President of Fremont Bank On Sunday, March 5th, at 4 p.m. members of the community who have purchased tickets will arrive at the Theater dressed in formal attire and walk the red carpet into a catered Oscar gala with all the Hollywood fixin's of an Academy Award Celebration. The Group will also be awarding prizes as part of an Oscar Picks Contest. Every ticket comes with an Oscar winner prediction form that patrons can fill out and bring the night of the event. Guests with the most correct picks will win prizes from a number of community sources. The best part: all proceeds from the event go to the Group's continuing effort to preserve the Center Theater.
"We think we're the best game in town," says Group President Gilson, "but we have a significant amount of funds to raise. We've been working with the redevelopment agency on an ongoing basis to come up with some sort of proposal that works within their economic restraints. Their not out to make a profit but they have to look out for the interests by law, of the city."
The Center Theater Preservation Group has a wealth of ideas. They are discussing co-producing a 50th Anniversary Fremont Film Festival with Niles Essanay Theater Group and a number of community events bringing 'name acts'from around the Bay Area to the theater.
As the Group continues its efforts, volunteers or contributions are always welcome. Interested parties can email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 510.797.1210 Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Oscar Night tickets are available for $100 at Fremont Flowers and Bogie's Discount Pet Supply, at 510.795.6000 and 510.797.1136 respectively.