Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre is a relic of eras past

Wayne Freedman Image
ByWayne Freedman KGO logo
Thursday, February 19, 2015
Oakland's Grand Lake Theater is a relic of eras past
The owner of Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre says he's keeping the place open at a loss, for his own sense of history and aesthetics.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- In the days before television, movie palaces filled thousands of seats often three times a day. Oakland has a remnant of that era in the Grand Lake Theatre. And the venue's owner is determined to keep it alive.

When dealing with the acquisition, collection, and care of antiques, add another word: addiction. Because what begins simply often becomes easily complicated, especially when an antique is a designated historic landmark with a unique designation.

"This is the largest surviving rotary contact incandescent light bulb sign in the world," said Grand Lake Theatre owner Allen Michaan.

It's the pride and passion of Michaan who, for three decades, has owned not only the sign but also the Grand Lake Theatre beneath that sign. One relic perched atop another.

"Theaters like this, once closed, they rarely if ever reopen," he said.

When built in 1926, this was the largest theater west of the Mississippi for a month. It predates talkies. The sign was state of the art. Of course, now it needs a little work.

PHOTOS: Up close look at historic Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland

The problem with antiques is they always break long after the previous owner threw away the instructions. You better like fixing broken circuit boards and bad bulbs. They're part of the charm, because you can't exactly take a rig like that off the roof to a repairman.

"The problem with parts like this is they are all handmade," said antique electrical mechanic Greg King.

When mentioned that he could just put in LEDs, Michaan said, "But it wouldn't be historic or it wouldn't be the same as it is right now."

As Michaan sees it, that's the point. From the instant a person enters the Grand Lake's lobby, he or she steps into a remnant of a bygone era.

"It's unique, it has character," said box office attendant Denalda Siegrist.

Michaan added, "It's a museum of what movie theaters once were"

Look around, you'll appreciate why they call the place grand. It's a palace from a time when theater owners and architects tried to outdo each other. You'll find no video games in the lobby. No modern signs above the one snack bar. And that's real butter on the popcorn.

Michaan says he keeps the place open at a loss, for his own sense of history and aesthetics.

"What we are doing here is trying to hold on to the classic movie going experience," he said.

"I was telling the kids this is where you used to come," said grandfather Cyrus Keller. "This is why it looked this because this was the show. And we have so many other spectacles today."

Though, there are few like this one. That time capsule on the corner, the one topped by that massive sign on the roof, the treasure, broken bulbs, and all.

"Yeah, there must be 200 of them out, it does bother me," said Michaan with a laugh.