Behind the Scenes

1875 Solano (at Alameda), Berkeley
(510) 526-1836
Admission: $7, $3.75 kids/seniors,
$3.75 matinee
Parking: none

A neighborhood theater in Berkeley's tony Solano neighborhood. It had sunk to the level of second-run and B-movie house when Allen Michaan (see Grand Lake) took it off the hands of Pacific Theaters, based in L.A. Now it screens first-run art fare to an appreciative clientele.

111 Minna Street Gallery
111 Minna (at Second Street)
Admission: $5
Parking: none

A partnership between 111 Minna and the Film Arts Foundation paints this hip art gallery in the warm glow of celluloid on the last Thursday of each month. Programs usually include several short, experimental films projected directly onto a 14-foot-by-20-foot wall and accompanied by a club-worthy sound system. There are few seats, mostly a random assemblage of couches, church pews, and dinner booths. If you have to sit on the floor, take comfort in the fact that you can actually smoke and drink beer (or wine) from the gallery's bar while you watch.

Opera Plaza
601 Van Ness (at Golden Gate)
Admission: $7.50, $4.25 kids/seniors,
$4.25 matinee
Parking: area garages

The Opera Plaza was built by Allen Michaan (see Grand Lake) in 1984; it was S.F.'s first art multiplex. Some people scoff at its four smallish rooms (two at about 150 seats, the smallest a notorious 35-seater), but it's actually a nice place to see a movie, at least if it's not crowded. Now run by Landmark (see Embarcadero), it's a great operation: There's an easily readable board displaying show times outside the box office, and even a large clock. (Other movie theaters should do this.) Projection is good, and even in that small room the screen has some force.

4 Orinda Theater Square, Orinda
(510) 254-9060
Admission: $7, $3.75 kids/seniors,
$3.75 matinee
Parking: free

The luscious and breathtaking Orinda Theater is a moviegoer's dream. The restored facility was part of a development plan in downtown Orinda: Allan Michaan (see Grand Lake) operates the theater. The refurbished main house now includes gorgeous and comfy red-velvet seats, gaudy and decadent red and gold draperies, and a series of heroic murals on the walls. Two smaller screens (in the space once occupied by a next-door bank) are equally sumptuous. There's free parking. The Orinda is absolutely worth the trip to Contra Costa County. And those murals -- they depict the classical quartet of earth, air, fire, and water, all with the help of a voluptuous chorus of bare-breasted attendants; others adorn the ceiling of the lobby and even its carpet. The Orinda may be the only theater in the Bay Area that deserves an "R" just for decor.

Pacific Film Archive
2625 Durant, Berkeley
(510) 642-1124
Admission: $5.50/$7 double bill,
$4/$5.50 members/students
Parking: $2

The PFA came out of film screenings on the UC Berkeley campus organized by Tom Luddy (now with Zoetrope) and Sheldon Renan (now a film producer). Twenty-five years ago it was brought under the umbrella of the Berkeley Art Museum and now, with 7,000 films, is one of the premiere film archives in the United States, known for its holdings of West Coast avant-garde, Soviet silents, and international animation and also for what is said to be the largest collection of Japanese cinema outside Japan. But its rigorous exhibition schedule is an unfettered "full spectrum of world cinema from its earliest years to the present." The small, 234-seat screening room shows more than 600 films yearly, and shows them well. "We try to be perfect," says the PFA's Shelley Diekman.

2025 Broadway (at 21st Street), Oakland
(510) 465-6400
Admission: $5
Parking: $2 at area garages

The pre-eminent moviegoing experience in this time zone, the Paramount Theater, now a national historic landmark, was designed by architect Timothy Pflueger (see the Castro) in 1931 and restored to its original glory in 1973. The Paramount boasts an intoxicating lobby, two bars, and heavenly restrooms, all put in the shade by the auditorium itself. A fantasia of golden light and shimmering seats, the theater elevates the most democratic and populist form of entertainment to something sacred. Trek upstairs to the vast balcony and take in the whole panorama; the Paramount is one of the Seven Wonders of the modern world. The feature presentation includes a newsreel, a cartoon, and DecOWin, the Paramount's spinning wheel of prizes. Here's the kicker: All seats are only $5. Here's the rub: Fewer than 20 weekend days a year are given over to motion pictures from Hollywood's Golden Age. The Paramount wraps its fall season with The Wizard of Oz on Nov. 30 and Sabrina on Dec. 6.

4186 Piedmont, Oakland
(510) 654-2727
Admission: $7.50, $4 kids/seniors, $4 matinee
Parking: none

This triplexed neighborhood house in Oakland's pleasant Piedmont District, an East Bay favorite, sometimes runs mainstream commercial fare. Otherwise it's a typically efficient Landmark operation. Yawn.

2340 Chestnut (at Divisadero)
Admission: $7.50, $4.50 kids and seniors, $4.50 matinee
Parking: area garages

The Presidio has traditionally been operated in conjunction with its sister theater, the Cinema 21, just down the street. But by the 1970s it had devolved into a neighborhood porn house. Allen Michaan (see Grand Lake) bought it and began a rehabbing that was finished up by Syufy, now called Century Theaters, which reunited it with its sibling. (See Cinema 21.) There are very nice seats, and a very big screen; the interior, though severe, is one of the classiest in S.F., with a humongous light fixture hanging down the middle.

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