For over forty years the Cerrito Theater and its history have remained in darkness, all but gone from public memory. However, this vintage motion picture theater has a fascinating background. In its heyday, it had a life of its own.
Much fanfare and celebration surrounded the Gala opening of the Cerrito Theater on Christmas Day, 1937. “Thin Ice” with Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power was the first movie shown. Admission was a whopping 30¢ and a child’s ticket sold for a Dime! Patrons looked forward to “Dish Night” when pottery was given away. During World War II GIs were admitted free.
The Cerrito was a joint venture between Henry Goldenberg and the Blumenfeld Theater Chain. They sought to hire the finest staff. Their first Cerrito manager was Alvin T. Sontag and they chose Millie Luce as their first cashier for opening day
In 1937, Newspapers featured pages of ads by local merchants welcoming the new enterprise. The Berkeley Gazette claimed it to be “…of luminous beauty with the finest appointments and most modern mechanical equipment. It will be the last word in comfort and luxury.”
William B. David was selected as the architect. He had designed a number of other theaters in California. He did not design a grand motion picture palace such as the Paramount in Oakland. Instead, he designed a small movie venue that would be a good fit for the El Cerrito community.
According to a 1944 survey done by the Motion Picture Association of America, the Cerrito held 644 seats. A loge in the rear main floor area was considered a luxury for its elevation and exclusivity.
The oval jewel box lobby was embellished with Art Deco architectural elements. A blue mirror etched with the goddess Diana, hunting with her bow in hand, was prominent in the foyer. Deco chandeliers and sconces graced the ceiling and walls. Several doors had round portholes with blue etched glass windows. Some of these features can still be seen today.
As they were in 1937, the most intriguing aspect of the Cerrito is the murals. The murals tower over the proscenium and progress down either side of the stage, a fantasy of dancing warriors and maidens, of Zeus and his thunder bolts and harlequins skipping to a distant tune. They are fanciful and fantastic, much like the motion picture films that played across the silver screen beneath their feet.
Today, the Friends of the Cerrito Theater continue to research the identity of the muralist. There is the possibility that this art work was done in the studios of Anthony Heinsbergen, a nationally renowned muralist. Absolute confirmation however, has not yet been forthcoming. Hopefully, some day this piece of the puzzle will be made clear to us all.
THE THEATER CHAIN
The Blumenfeld Theater Chain was a distinguished regional motion picture exhibitor in northern California by the 1930’s. The patriarch, Max Blumenfeld, started his fledgling entertainment business with a nickelodeon in North Beach in 1917 showing “flickers” of Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Cops. From San Francisco he moved his family to Marin County for the superior climate. There he began to open motion picture houses in addition to the ones he had opened in San Francisco. The Blumenfelds continued to maintain their corporate offices in San Francisco however, as they do today.
The burgening demand for movie houses in the East Bay was all too obvious by the late 1920’s and Max and his son Jo opened a branch office in Oakland. An extraordinary number of Americans were seeing and demanding motion picture films at this time. The demand was staggering.
In 1929 they saw the need for a neighborhood theater in the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood in Berkeley and built the Oaks on Solano Avenue. The Oaks would be the tenth movie house in their circuit. By 1936 they had taken over and remodeled the declining Berkeley Theater on Shattuck Avenue with the technical aid of S. Charles Lee, movie theater architect extraordinaire.
From their Oakland center of operations they built and owned motion picture venues in Oakland, Lafayette, Walnut Creek, Antioch, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, Stockton, Napa, Berkeley and finally El Cerrito. This was a feverish period of expansion for the Blumenfeld family. By 1936 Max had passed on but his four sons, Nat, Joe, Jack and Abe continued the family corporate tradition. They would eventually own over 60 theaters in California.
The motion picture industry was hit hard by the advent of television in the 1950’s. At least five movie houses had flourished in Richmond, California alone during World War II. Most would be gone by the 1970’s. The novelty of Drive-In Movies lasted a short while, only to succumb to the fate of its parent movie venues. The Blumenfelds opted to turn to shopping malls and bowling alleys when the lights went dim on the fabulous motion picture houses.
Today, it remains for local communities to band together and embrace and restore their movie theaters. We must recognize that the motion picture arts and their glorious, flamboyant venues were a critical and magnificent part of American art and culture. Motion pictures left their mark, not only on each one of us, but on the world.
William B. David
The Cerrito Theater’s architect, William B. David, had a colorful, diverse and somewhat flamboyant career. Born in Massachusetts in 1905, he served with Redwood Theaters in northern California from 1935 until 1943. He was then in charge of production of Action Pictures, Golden Gate Pictures and Lida Productions from 1943 to 1947. He studied with and worked in the theater architectural firm of streamline modem architect S. Charles Lee before striking out on his own.
David then concurrently owned and operated a small theater chain down the Peninsula, as well as forming William B. David & Associates, a theater architectural firm. He was the architect of several movie theaters in Northern California including the Tower and Esquire Theaters in Sacramento, the Eureka Theater in Eureka, as well as in Marysville. His services were used often by the Blumenfelds for their various enterprises.
A charter member of the Variety Club of Northern California, William B. David served as president of their variety’s charity organization for several years. This organization is a national service club of the entertainment industry. To raise monies for needy children, the charity recruited motion picture entertainers such as Jack Benny, Jimmy Durante and a host of others.
William B. David continued to live and work in San Francisco until his death in the 1980’s, but he left his mark on many movie houses in Northern California, especially in the City of El Cerrito.
THE FOLKS WHO OILED THE REELS
The sense of drama and the illusion of glamour in cinema art were the magic that drew the crowds to movie theaters across America. That magic was sustained by the men and women who worked “behind the scenes”. From projectionists to managers to usherettes, the employees kept the reels running. From post-Depression days through post-World War II, these men and women contributed to the economic health of everyday show biz. Their lives were profoundly effected by the impact of the theater they worked in.
Millie Luce was the first cashier at the Cerrito in 1937. She met her future husband Don a short time before arriving in El Cerrito. Employees were not supposed to date each other but owners Henry and Naomi Goldenberg turned a blind eye to their own policy when they saw a romance brewing and acted as matchmakers. To smooth the way they lent the couple a car for a first date. One week after the Cerrito opened, Don and Millie were married.
Pat Jordan Garcia also remembers the Cerrito. In 1930’s her family established the Jordan Pharmacy next door. Not only did she usher at the theater, but she remembers that at noon her father used to sprint from his shop to the Cerrito to watch the Movietone newsreels he so loved.
Oriene Weeks also ushered at the Cerrito as a teen. You had to be 16 to work there. In 1945, fifteen year old Oriene wanted a job. The Manager kindly told her he would look the other way if she wrote “16” on the application. Years later, her child Debbie would dance on the Cerrito stage between films. Oriene has kept the Cerrito in her heart all of her life.
DARKNESS INTO SUNLIGHT
In 1963, movie ads for the Cerrito Theater disappeared from local newspaper listings. Two years later, Naomi Goldenberg died. In 1966 Henry Goldenberg sold the Cerrito to the Keifer family and the lights went dim on a movie house that many had called “home”.
In 2001, the movie house came on the market again, and public interest in seeing it restored reached a feverish peak. In February 2002 the Friends of the Cerrito Theater, a project of the El Cerrito Community Foundation, was formed. On May 3rd, the City with the help of the Friends, hosted an open house which drew 3000 people to view the theater and its wonderful murals. In June of that year, the Redevelopment Agency/City Council voted to purchase the Cerrito Theater for future restoration.
History research done by Pam Challinor with gratitude to all those who gave so generously of their time, support, and enthusiasm.