During the first year since the UC Theatre’s opening, the venue has already gained significant recognition in our community. From attracting hip concert-goers to shows like Deerhunter and Toro y Moi, costume-clad groups of college students to the venue’s long-awaited renewal of Rocky Horror Picture Show, and politically-conscious science nerds to Bill Nye the Science Guy, the UC Theatre touches on all audiences present in the Berkeley community. Yet what is even more impressive is the fact that the UC Theatre does all this while remaining a 501(c)(3) non-profit, maintaining an active effort to charitably give back to the city we call home.
The UC Theater first opened in 1917 as a Nickelodeon movie house, showing anything from spaghetti westerns to classics, and was home to the largest screen west of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, the venue closed in March 2001 because of the tremendous cost of seismic retrofits, and was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark in 2002. In 2013, Berkeley native David Mayeri formed the 501(c)(3) non-profit organization Berkeley Music Group to save the space, renovating the UC Theatre and turning it into a state-of-the-art venue for live productions. Last Friday, I was lucky enough to interview Mayeri about the renovation of the space, all the accomplishments of the last year, and what is to come in the future.
Mayeri grew up twelve blocks from the UC Theatre, and was always well acquainted with the space as what mayor Jesse Arreguin called a “major cultural institution.” For many Berkeley natives, the space was a popular hangout, with annual presentations of cult classics like Rocky Horror Picture Show running for a shocking 22 years straight. However, for those of us who have moved to the area since the UCT was shut-down, the space has been a mystery, standing as nothing but an empty room and marquee on University Ave. Mayeri was formally introduced to the space in 2007, when he was asked to meet with the owners of the theatre to give them advice on how to best use the space. Mayeri says he immediately saw a future for the venue as a music space, and the Berkeley Music Group devised a plan to raise money and start a non-profit with the idea of creating “a music venue that offered community benefit” and a “diverse range of cultural entertainment.”
In fact, this is what sets the UC Theatre apart from other local music venues like the Fox or the Greek Theaters. The Theatre has three main education programs: the Concert Career Pathways program, Youth Advisory Board, and Youth Promoting Youth. These programs offer a variety of paid internships, allowing 17-25 year-olds access to hands-on workshops; the opportunity to work on design and implementation for the education programs; and teens the opportunity to promote and manage their own Battle of the Bands show. These students “don’t supplement the existing staff for shows” Mayeri says, but rather are given an opportunity to interact with “hands-on experience from professional people in the music industry.” The theatre is also proud to say that 50% of participants in the programs are underserved youth with 50% identifying as female and 70% being people of color. Additionally, the venue gives back to the community by making a special effort to work with other non-profits, discounting the room for fundraising purposes as well as to raise awareness for other organizations.
Within the last year, the UC Theatre has hosted a broad spectrum of artists, ranging from punk groups like Social Distortion and Green Day to EDM producer Nicolas Jaar and rapper Tech N9ne. The venue also makes an effort to host local and community-based artists, with at least 20% of their calendar designated for shows that Mayeri describes as “creatively important” even if they aren’t as profitable. The venue, in conjunction with smaller venues like the new 500-person capacity space Cornerstone and larger venues like the 8,500-person capacity Greek Theater, aims to build “art and music in particular from the ground up in Berkeley,” capitalizing on opportunities to showcase local talent and building “a strong music scene that is Berkeley-based.” During the last year alone, the venue has attracted a surplus of concert goers to the Berkeley area, providing a uniquely exciting attraction that keeps the East Bay quality of life strong in comparison to San Francisco (something Mayeri says is necessary if we are to keep techies and business moguls from moving to SF). Additionally, the UC Theatre has been praised for bolstering the economic success of a lot of local restaurants and bars which concert go-ers flock to before and after shows.
Moving forward, the UC Theatre plans to continue growing, hosting artists like the Zombies for their 10-show lineup of anniversary celebrations. Plans include expanding their community involvement towards the possibility of free concerts, day field trips for middle school and early high school students, and hiring more cohorts for their Concert Career Pathways programs as funding provides. The venue has a goal of raising $600,000 a year for their annual fund, representing a third of their total budget and raised by a diverse group of community donors contributing anywhere from $25 to thousands. The venue has certainly exceeded expectations in their first year, and we’re excited to see what the future holds.
Written by Veronica Irwin