The Return of the Parkway: Oakland Theater Tries to Revive Tradition


This blog post was originally published on KQED’s blog, NewsFix.

Movie sequels rarely do as well as the originals. The owners of the New Parkway Theater are betting that trend doesn’t apply to theaters themselves.

On Nov. 30, the New Parkway Theater hopes to replicate the success of the beloved Parkway Theater at the foot of Park Boulevard in Oakland where the audience could lounge on couches and loveseats while chugging beers or munching pizza. The original Parkway closedin March of 2009.

The New Parkway is popping up in the sizzling Uptown neighborhood at 474 24th Street. Local businesses threw the theater a welcome-to-the-neighborhood party Oct. 24th.

The theater is still under construction, but true to the spirit of the original Parkway, surrounding stores opened their spaces for screenings of movies like “American Graffiti,” “The Night of the Living Dead,” and“Ghost World,” selling empanadas, chocolate truffles and other treats… along with beer.

And as the management of the theater hoped, some old Parkway devotees gathered for the party. “I left a Giants’ game to come here,” said Risa Nye, a former regular. “So, you know, that means a lot.”

The new owners are optimistic they can avoid the fate of the old Parkway’s owners, Kyle and Catherine Fischer, who shut the theater down in 2009. According to the East Bay Express, the old Parkway made money, but the Fischers became overextended after investing in a sister location in El Cerrito.

The New Parkway owners wrote this about the old ones:

You can call the Fischers poor managers, you can call them overambitious, or you can say that they had the bad fortune of trying to expand in a contracting economy, but there is no denying that they built a wildly popular, incredibly unique, highly acclaimed, and financially successful theater in a part of Oakland where many doubters would have said it could never be done.  We plan to follow in their footsteps.

Parkway II

After a failed attempt to reopen at the original location, J. Moses Ceaser, the managing partner of the New Parkway, connected with Matthew Iglehart, who owns a couple of properties in the Uptown area and wanted to rent one out as a theater. By December 2011, a new lease was signed.

Will “The Thrill” Viharo was the former programmer for the original Parkway and is now the publicist and event consultant. “It’s like the cancellation of Star Trek,” he says. “So there [are] all these ‘trekkies’ out there, or Parkway heads, and they’ve been wanting this show to come back. So this is kind of like Parkway the Next Generation.”

The new management of the theater will follow the same basic concept as its predecessor but plans improvements.

Managing partner J. Moses Ceaser says people complained about the quality of the food and the cleanliness of the original venue. “I think we can be kind of Parkway-plus in that regard,” he says.

But opening an independent theater is one thing. Keeping it open is another, especially with the New Parkway’s unusual format.

The Cerrito is now leased to Rialto Cinemas, which also runs the only independent theater in Berkeley, the Elmwood. Like the Parkway, the Cerrito serves food and alcoholic beverages, but unlike the old one, the New Parkway runs new releases as well as older movies.

Ky Boyd, the proprietor of Rialto Cinemas, says running an independent theater is hard because a single venue can’t depend on a big company to bail it out if it hits rough times. “It’s a challenging business but a very rewarding one in ways other than finances,” he says.

It can be even more difficult to successfully run a theater if it only plays second-run movies, meaning new releases that can be 3 to 5 weeks old. “Movies are perishable products,” he says. “They don’t always do well in their second cycle.”

And serving restaurant quality food in a theater, as Boyd does in the Cerrito, requires extensive planning. “You have a much higher operating cost everyday that you have to plan for,” he says. “But it is always a good time to open a new theater especially when you are bringing entertainment and you are anchoring in a neighborhood that didn’t have a theater before.”

Parkwayheads won’t have to wait much longer for the grand opening and The New Parkway is already programming upcoming events like a Parkway Classic night. Every Thursday, the New Parkway will be screening movies that made the old Parkway famous with classic cult movies.

Stay tuned for “Revenge of the Parkway.”

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