Longtime Larkspur resident and former International Latina Film Festival associate director Bernice Baeza just couldn’t stand to see the 1936 single-screen art deco theater disappear.
The Lark Theater, located in the heart of Larkspur’s historic downtown district, had fallen into disrepair and was showing sub-runs when it finally shut its doors for the last time in 1999. But Baeza and her business partner, Heidi Hillenbrand, saw the building’s potential: good bones made of old redwood and a classic design by the prolific theater architect William David, who often designed for the Blumenfeld movie house chain back in the 1930s.
“As a resident I thought, ‘The theater is closed and it might not ever reopen,’ ” Baeza says. “It had been a favorite; there was just something about it. People liked it.” Baeza, who loves film, says she hated to see another town lose its theater. “So in a crazy moment, a friend and I didn’t think about the future and took a leap of faith.”
That leap of faith led to the signing of a lease with the building owners and the formation of a partnership with community volunteers to completely refurbish the interior of the theater and the lobby in 2004. The group brought the seat count down from about 330 cramped metal seats to 246 comfortable and modern red velvet chairs, added attractive deco-inspired metal-and-glass lights, painted an art deco mural in the theater, installed a new screen and stage lights, laid new tile in the lobby and topped the whole thing off with state-of-the-art 35 mm and video projection, Dolby 5.1 surround sound and a revitalized neon marquee.
Even current Larkspur vice-mayor Kathy Hartzell and her family got into the mix. “We were supporters from the beginning,” Hartzell says. “My son and husband got down and dirty and did tiling. This theater is more than just an entertainment venue; it is a focal point for programs that inspire conversation and discussion.”
With the movie house doing well, Baeza and Hillenbrand decided to actually buy the building in 2007 and formed a public/private partnership to purchase the theater and run it as a nonprofit. In just four months, $1.5 million was raised and the Lark’s future as a single-screen community theater was guaranteed.
And then something that no one expected happened: Access to a wider range of entertainment became available. “It wasn’t in the business plan, but technology really changed the way we do things,” Baeza says. “Movie theaters like ours have had to get more creative.”
For the Lark, that meant adding concierge service to certain shows and offering beer, wine and unique food items like organic
beef hot dogs and fresh sandwiches and, most important, using technology to change the type of programming people expect from a theater.
“The Metropolitan Opera is just amazing,” says frequent volunteer Arthur Corbin about the live high-definition simulcast at the Lark. “It’s a chance to see opera up close; the small cameras they use are right onstage.”
But that’s not all; the Lark also hosts simulcasts of the National Theatre London, the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl and Broadway plays and even Skypes in directors to commentate for its Books2Film series as well as other films. In addition, the theater shows family-friendly films and sporting events; offers a chance for new families to bring their babies to films with the CineMama program; and gives up-and-coming filmmakers a shot with special screenings from the city-sponsored Youth Film Festival. “I love programming films and serving the community,” Baeza says. “Often I’m sitting in the house as well; it’s thrilling.”
It’s no secret that communities that have saved their downtown theaters have seen them become catalysts for reinvigorating their city centers, and for Larkspur — already flush with top restaurants like Emporio Rulli, the Tavern at Lark Creek, Left Bank, Picco and more — that rule holds true.
“It’s a testament to the town that they have it,” says theater board member and Academy Award–winning actor Claude Jarman. “It’s a small, cozy place to watch a movie, enjoy a glass of wine and, afterward, head next door and have dinner.”
Councilwoman Hartzell agrees, adding that having an active theater listed on the National Register of Historic Places bolsters the look and feel of the nationally recognized historic downtown. “It’s an exciting and vibrant thing to have as part of your community,” she says.
Novato city leaders seem to agree, as they are looking to Baeza to advise them on forming a nonprofit group to raise funds to purchase and restore the downtown Novato Theater, which has been vacant for 20 years. “It has potential and a wonderful location,” she says.
But ultimately, Baeza has just one hope for America’s local independent theaters and the families and children they serve. “I want children’s first film experience to be in a movie house,” she says. “With a real curtain that opens and closes.”