History of the Orinda Theater

Historical Picture of Orinda TheaterIt was the golden age of movies, the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, the heyday of Hollywood.  It was a time when movie moguls made the movies and the extravagant movie palaces to show them in.  Sparing no expense, they commissioned the finest artisans to fashion the palaces that would showcase their stars. On a scale rare for a small town, the Orinda Theatre arose, towards the end of this era, as one of those showplaces.

The theatre was initiated by local resident Donald Rheem, and was built on land he acquired in an area of town that was referred to as the “Crossroads”. A fan of Hollywood and motion pictures, Rheem reportedly wanted to build the finest theatre money could buy, and spent nearly $400,000 building it.

Rheem commissioned two of the top theater creators of the movie palace era, architect Alexander Aimwell Cantin (1875-1964) and interior designer Anthony B. Heinbergen (1895-1981).

Cantin, a native of Oakland, California, was one of California’s first licensed architects.  Fox West Coast Theatres commissioned him to designed several west coast movie palaces, and based on his excellent work for Fox, was commissioned by Rheem to design the Orinda Theatre.  Cantin completed the theatre design in partnership with his son, A. Mackenzie Cantin.  Their design was praised for its “new stadium theory of seating” and “black (concealed neon) light”. Six years later, he was recommissioned to add the adjoining American Trust Bank Building and even later to build the Rheem Theatre.

The theatre and adjacent bank building typify a late art deco style known as streamlined moderne, using plain white concrete, applied fins and pylons, rounded corners, parallel striping, Carrara glass and stainless steel finishes. Featuring a giant vertical “fin” marquee flanked by concave tiered spires and rounded neon streamline design elements, the architecture was inspired by the Court of the Moon portals of the 1939-1940 Golden Gate Exposition.

Heinsbergen, an immigrant from Holland, had a highly acclaimed career that spanned 50 years and decorated over 750 theatres. Way overbuilt for the area, Heinsbergen decorated the Orinda Theatre as a “jewel box” concept, something that will most likely never be done again.

In comparison to the concrete cubes that house multiplexes today, in the days of the movie palaces, the show always began on the sidewalk.  Glittering neon abounds.  An abstract ballerina dances below colorful back lit saucers.  On either side of her, striped, quarter round fins echo the lines of the magnificent tower.  More quarter round neon accent the corners of the marquee.

Early Construction of the Orinda TheaterBelow, multicolored terrazzo leads you to the entrance.  Inside the unique rotunda lobby, your gaze rises to stylistic murals of flying figures covering the domed ceiling.  Streamlined stripes swirl and cross the dome ending in moderne relief plaster work that meets the floor.  Backlit etched glass bricks and circular cove lighting compliment the striping.

The ultimate spectacle, of course, awaits you in the theatre.  As you enter the spacious auditorium, Heinsbergen’s lavish murals of The Four Elements of Man greet you.  They are an eclectic combination of references to classical mythology and modern technology. Fruits and flowers represent Earth, an Aqua God depicts Water, wings and a stylistic airplane portray Air and workers forging steel symbolize Water.  The hand painted murals stretch from floor to ceiling.  In recognition of Heinsbergen’s contibution to American mural design, the Smithsonian curated a special traveling exhibition, “Movie Palace Moderne” in 1972-1974 highlighting 43 examples of his monumental achievement which included 3 of the original water color drawings of the murals.  Said to be some of Heinsberger’s favorites, the originals are still in the office  Sweeping curves of wood and iron rail work, warm neon tucked behind oval coves, nudes floating among stars and a red and gold butterfly with the body of a boy complete the embellishments.  This was the rich architecture of fantasy that is missing in today’s theatres.

The theatre opened on Dec 27th, 1941, reportedly with a double bill of The Maltese Falcon and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, although it has also been rumored that the theater opened with Wyoming Wildcat and Texas.

Historical Picture of the TheaterThe theatre was and still is the most visible and vibrant cultural centerpiece in an otherwise sleepy suburban community. In the ’40s the architect built a bank next to the theatre, blending it architecturally, as Orinda’s business district expanded.

By 1970, it became more difficult for single screen movie houses to attract enough patrons to survive in an environment of changing public taste and an evolving film industry. The theatre and adjacent land was finally purchased by Wallace and Associates and closed to prepare for new development.

Local citizens organized to save the theatre in December of 1981 when Wallace and Associates presented plans to the County Board of Supervisors that called for the theater’s demolition. The battle to save the theatre was led by a group called the “Friends of the Orinda Theatre” who worked closely with the non-profit organization Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

On August 13, 1982, the State Historical Resources Commission voted unanimously (8-0) to recommend placement of the Orinda Theatre on the National Register of Historic Places.  They agreed on waiving the “50-year rule”, because the theatre building fully met the criteria under “exceptional significance”.  The application went on to the national level and received unanimous support as well.  However, the Commission’s recommendation does not guarantee the survival of the theatre.

The first battle to save the theatre lasted eight years and ended up with the California State Supreme Court calling for a stay of demolition while the case was heard by the Fifth District Court of Appeals. While the case was working its way through the courts, the citizens of Orinda voted to incorporate and create the framework for local government and local control over planning decisions. The Fifth District decision successfully cancelled the approvals for the demolition and the new city embraced the theatre and called for its inclusion into the New Theatre Square development and supported the expansion of theatres two and three in 1992.

As part of the approval for the current theatre square complex the owner committed to a restoration of the theatre including repairing the Marquee, recreating the original lobby carpet, recreating the original cut glass entry doors, and restoring the extensive damage that had occurred to the interior murals and decorative areas when the building was vacant and prepared for demolition.

A local theatre chain, Renaissance Rialto, Inc., operated by theater mogul Allen Michaan, assumed operation of the theatre and reopened on Thursday, June 29, 1989. It ran a combination of art house films and first-run fare. Michaan built theatres two and three to expand programming options and add to the theatres economic viability.

The newly renovated Orinda theatre thrived during the 1990’s.  The Orinda was also  home to the short-lived Orinda Film Festival (2002-2005). However the development of the Multiplex theatres in Emeryville, Oakland, Pleasant Hill and Walnut Creek with the convenience of many show times, have strained the economic viability of the three screen historic complex.

The Orinda Theatre has made a rich architectural and artistic impact on the local community and beyond, but it has also had many operational challenges throughout the years. The film industry continues to face challenges each year in creating, marketing, and exhibiting profitable films that appeal to mass audience’s constantly changing tastes.  More specifically, independently operated movie houses face ever increasing competition from more efficiently designed and operated mega complexes and the in home delivery of DVDs and On Demand films.  Beautiful, single screen art deco movie theatres are being boarded up or demolished throughout the country unless they adapt to the changing environment, and creatively pursue new avenues to bring audiences back in the front door.

The beautiful Orinda Theatre is no exception to this dynamic.  There is no town in the San Francisco Bay Area that more closely ties its identity to a theatre marquee than does the city of Orinda.  The hundreds of thousands of motorists that routinely wind their way through Orinda, along highway 24, can clearly gaze upon the magnificent neon marquee spelling out the city’s name.   As the focal point of Theatre Square, the Orinda Theater once was, and can once again become, the focal point of downtown Orinda.

In response, a group of local citizens joined forces and formed the Lamorinda Film and Entertainment Foundation (LFEF) with the stated goal of preserving the historic aspects of the theatre and enhancing the entertainment venue for the Lamorinda area.

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