Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre stands the test of time

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The Grand Lake Theatre has been part of Oakland since 1926 when it opened with silent movies and Vaudeville screenings.

Sitting in the shadow of Lake Merritt,  the theater’s 60-foot tall rooftop sign, illuminated by nearly 3,000 bulbs, beckons people to spend a few hours inside one of its elaborate, themed auditoriums.

But the theater, with its signature red and gold carpeting, curtain-drawn screen and intensely detailed art deco walls and ceilings, has always been about more than just movies.

“The Grand Lake is one of the last great surviving movie houses that shows movies exclusively in the United States,’’ said owner Allen Michaan. “Theaters like this just don't exist anymore.”

Michaan has been running the theater since 1980 and recently bought the building from nine owners for $3.75 million. Michaan prides himself on his low ticket prices, the real butter on the popcorn and the fact that movie-goers will find Tiffany glass, but no arcade games in the lobby.  

He speaks with pride about the “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ” that is played for 10 to 30 minutes in the main auditorium before the two Friday and Saturday evening shows. And he’s quick to brag about the full-time union projectionist and his top-of-the- line equipment that allows screenings of higher resolution, 70 millimeter films.

“The (movie) buffs will seek us out,’’ said Michaan. “They'll drive 200 miles to come see a 70 mm film here at the Grand Lake.”

And he may soon have more theater bragging rights if a plan to have the movie house registered as National Historic Landmark moves forward.

Michaan believes the theater should be a community hub. He hosts candidate forums, and never shies away from weighing in on politics on the theater's outside marquee.

“The Grand Lake is famous for my very left leaning liberal marquee messages,” he said. “I call them my political haikus. I’ve got three lines and so many letters and characters and it's got to fit.”

Some messages are related to state and national issues and politics, such as: “Happy indictment day. Sessions is off to a great start. Time to drain Trump’s swamp!” And: “Dear Gov. Brown, fracking poisons our air and water and causes earthquakes. Ban fracking in California now!”

Others are more Oakland-centric, such as his many rants about the city’s parking issues.

Michaan began posting messages in November, 2000 when the U.S.  Supreme Court stopped counting the votes during a recount dispute in Florida related to the presidential election. Over the last 18 years, he figures he’s posted about 200 messages related to his political leanings.

He’s also announced decisions he’s made about politically-charged movies on the old-fashioned board.  A few weeks ago, Michaan announced on the sign: "We will not enforce the 'R' rating on 'Fahrenheit 11-9..... political discourse must not be stifled"

"Fahrenheit 11-9" is a political documentary by filmmaker Michael Moore about the 2016 presidential election and the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump.

Michaan said an "R" rating on a film that's political in nature is uncalled for. The Grand Lake also suspended “R” rating restrictions for Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9-11” film, which similarly addressed the George W. Bush presidency.

Michaan’s love of movie theaters began in the 1970s when a lot of old theaters were being torn down.  It was then that Michaan dropped out of UC Berkeley and bought the Rialto Theater in Berkeley.

“Over the next few years, I picked up theaters in San Francisco, in Contra Costa County, in Menlo Park and in Palo Alto,’’ he said. “And then 1979 I had what I thought was my first really big break. I had the opportunity to acquire the ground lease from the Grand Lake.”

His friends questioned his decision, believing moviegoers weren’t interested in going to a theater from a bygone era. But, Michaan moved forward and in 1980 took over running the theater,  which needed a lot of work.  He closed the doors for four days and replaced 9,000 lightbulbs and added Dolby Stereo and new lenses on the projectors.

“All of a sudden people started looking at the Grand Lake in a new way. It was no longer dark and dingy. It was bright and beautiful and colorful and the projection and sound were all great,” he recalled.

All the hard work paid off in 1982 when he put money down on a bid for a movie by Steven Spielberg that had a working title of "A Boy's Life."

“Universal gave me the film and then it got retitled as “E.T.” and we became one of the highest grossers in the country,” he said. “From that time on, the Grand Lake got everything it wanted and we became one of the highest grossing theaters in the country.”

“E.T. played for 45 weeks at the Grand Lake, a lucrative time that was followed by years of ups and downs, including a time in the 1990s when the theater nearly went bankrupt.

“For me, the Grand Lake is as much a member of my family as it is a business,” he said. “I love this building, I love this theater and I love operating it. I really loved restoring it over the years and making it thrive.”