J. Moses Ceasar hopes to see the Parkway's marquee lit again.

On Kickstarting a Campaign to Bring Back the Parkway

Kim Nunley May 20, 2011

Despite its popularity with locals, Oakland’s charming Parkway Speakeasy Theater, known for its eccentric programming, comfortable seating and the food/alcohol delivered to patrons as they watched the film, closed its doors in March of 2009. Numerous parties interested in reopening the theater have come and gone since then, but none have had the determination and motivation of entrepreneur J. Moses Ceasar.

Ceasar was a regular patron of the Parkway and was particularly fond of how it offered an affordable night out and brought divergent groups people together. The original location needed extensive updates and repairs, so Ceasar exercised the fundraising skills he’d acquired from years of nonprofit work and utilized the online fundraising program Kickstarter to raise nearly $400,000. However, despite Ceasar’s efforts and the strong aspirations of neighborhood residents and city officials for the theater to return, property owners Yan and Judy Cheng have not been willing to offer up the beloved leasing contract. While the original location on the corner of Park Boulevard and 19th Street just south of Lake Merritt is ideal for sentimental and logistical reasons, after back-and-forth communication between Ceasar and the Chengs, it doesn’t appear promising.

This leaves Ceasar looking to take the theater, which he’s calling the New Parkway, elsewhere, with the most viable site appearing to what was previously a night club in the Temescal district. (Another location in Oakland’s Uptown area is also under consideration.) The likely change in location may be disheartening to some, but those who loved the Parkway before can find relief in knowing that Ceasar plans to keep the theater’s values in tact, offering the same type of programming and communal ambiance as the original.

SF360: Can you talk a little bit about how you came about wanting to reopen the Parkway Theater?

J. Moses Ceasar: I used to run a nonprofit organization in downtown Oakland called Diversity Works and as is the case with many nonprofit folks in Oakland, we were looking for cheap good fun. So we’d come to the Parkway a lot, especially on two-for-one Wednesdays. I just loved it there. I liked how it stressed community, how it was about being comfortable, how it was inexpensive. It just felt homey in many ways. So, when the theater closed, I actually said to a few friends that I was going to reopen the theater. But at the time, there were so many people meeting and organizing and I thought that one of those folks would come through and open the theater. I watched from the sideline as several people came forward to try and get the theater reopened. Each time, it didn’t happen. Like many other people, I was saddened and just watching it from afar. After a year, I thought, well, if none of these things have happened, I should at least look into it. I don’t know what it is that made me feel like I could do something that other people before me hadn’t done, and I think it wasn’t so much as I was going to do this, it was more like, you know, I’m going to educate myself about things and talk to people. That was March of 2010, and it kind of kicked off with a meeting with the Fishers in early April. Lots of conversations with folks and looking at numbers and how viable it might be and trying to figure out a model to raise some funds. And many months later, here we are.

SF360: What steps have you taken to educate yourself on how to run a movie theater?

Ceasar: I have a long ways to go on that front. It would be foolish of me to think that I could run a movie theater, a restaurant and a bar basically, when I’ve not run any of those things in the past. I’ve been involved in some of those things, but perhaps just enough to just make myself dangerous. What I think is critical is knowing that regardless of how much education I have for myself, I’m not going to be ready for all of those things. It’s going to be critical that I bring in people who know how to do those things. The nice thing is that there are a lot of people who are theater managers, who, with closures of other theaters, are going to be looking for work. There are a lot of restaurants that are going under and who could provide restaurant management and things along those lines. My hope is that I will be smart enough and self-aware enough through the process that I won’t think that I know enough to do this on my own. With that said, I think I will be doing a huge amount of stuff in every area. If it’s washing dishes, or prep cooking, or if it’s sitting at the fryer frying fries, or if it’s ordering movies, or getting movies up or whatever it is. I’ll be learning, just like other volunteers in that regard. What’s most interesting to me about the Parkway theater is the sense of community that it promotes, and that’s something I feel I’m a real expert at. That’s what I can bring to the table and then I’ll surround myself with folks that know their craft a little more than I.

SF360: I’ve read an article that the Fishers claimed the Parkway closed because of the struggling economy and less people going to the movies. Why do you think the Parkway will succeed this time?

Ceasar: I think you’ll read other articles where they say different things. The downturn of the economy has not hurt the movie business. Movies have actually picked up. There are a few things that are recession resistant, and they are cheap entertainment, inexpensive food and alcohol, so if any business is going to be a little bit recession proof, I would say that this is such a business. I also think that the biggest threat to the movie business is not the economy, but people watching movies at home. But I think people rarely went to the Parkway for the movies. I think they went here for a sense of community. They went there for a cheap date. They went there for something they can’t get on their big screen TV. And I think the people that can afford to pay $50 to see the movie on their TV right when it comes out probably are a different set than what’s coming to the Parkway. So, I’m not so concerned about that, as long as we can put a product that’s really good and that we can always be fostering community. I think we could do more things to foster community than what was done in the past, or maybe do things slightly differently in that regard.

SF360: What do you think is going on with the landlords of the theater? What do you think is keeping them from handing over that lease to sign?

Ceasar: It’s an outstanding question that we may never know the answer to. One of the things the landlord (Yan Cheng) told me at our first kind-of formal meeting was, ‘I love the theater and I love what it’s about.’ He’s actually turned down a few more lucrative offers from other people that have not involved being in a movie theater. He wants it to be a movie theater and he wants to get that lucrative offer that other people are offering him, and the two are not going to come together, especially with a community-minded theater like the Parkway… I figure, you know what, we’ll put our best offer. He can accept it or reject it, and then there are other options out there. I think if there weren’t as many other site options out there, then it may be a different

SF360: Is there anything that you feel specifically that the community can do to help you bring the Parkway Theater back?

Ceasar: Sadly, the only thing that could be done amongst neighborhood folks to bring that theater back, the most effective way, would be to encourage the city council to take the building over through eminent domain. And I know that that’s a last resort thing, but my guess is that it’s not too many steps away. They wouldn’t do it unless there was an operator ready, but I think if this fails and we take the theater somewhere else, and anyone else comes along, they may do that. I don’t know everything that goes into that, but I think the city has put in so many hours and are so intensely frustrated because everyone wants this to be a theater. And, sure, the Chengs own it, but they’re super unrealistic about what their expectations are, and it is an important building for an important commercial district. So, what can folks do? I’m not sure. I was thinking about that today, because I’m doing the next Parkway newsletter. I think that maybe the only thing that someone could do that might make a huge difference is if they were to volunteer their services as a commercial real estate agent and say to the Chengs,‘We want to get this deal done, and we’re not going to charge you any money to do this.’

SF360: What types of movies are you planning on showing?

Ceasar: That’s another thing that’s very interesting when I talk to people about the Parkway, or people that love the Parkway. They have this thought that the Parkway did a lot of artsy movies, or movies that were kind of retrospective, or things that are on DVD. The fact is, maybe 5 percent of the Parkway offerings were kind of art-house type films, or cult-type films. The vast majority of the Parkway showings were second-run blockbuster hits, if you will. A lot of crap went through that theater. And, I think that it’s actually a winning strategy. Not the crap side of things, but there are a lot of movies that people would like to see on the big screen, but they don’t want to pay $12 or whatever it is. Or, they’d like to see it in comfortable seats. They could wait three of four weeks and see it at the Parkway. So, we’ll be doing mostly things like that. We will do some other programming, which will be unique. We’ll bring back Rocky Horror, which was there before. I went to school at UCLA, at least for the first couple of years, and UCLA and their main ballroom would do some really fun things with 800 people in the audience where they would do triple-features, but it was thematic. It would be like Star Wars 1, 2 and 3. So, the Star Wars trilogy. Or, three Woody Allen movies, or whatever it is. And it would go until two or three in the morning. It was a lot of fun, and it was kind of good, clean, fun. People would go there, and sometimes they would go in their pajamas and bring their sleeping bags. I’d like to do things like that, because I think things like that lock into people’s heads. We’re also hoping to do a you-choose, YouTube night, where people vote each week for their favorite YouTube pieces and then it’s curated by someone and it’s maybe on a Sunday night or something. Only one showing, where we’re just showing 90 minutes of YouTube things in community with folks. So, I think we’ll do some sports on Sunday, like daytime sports, classic soccer games, kind of live football games, Olympics and World Cup soccer and some Presidential stuff. A lot of it will be similar to what happened in the past, and I’m sure there will be some new spins on things. But, I think the programming will be mostly similar, including theme nights. We’ll bring back Baby Brigade, absolutely have two-for-one Wednesday nights. And I think we might add a few other theme things during the week.

SF360: Is your overall focus going to be presenting the movie? The menu? Or is it going to be the overall experience?

Ceasar: That’s a good question, and I think as a perfectionist, I’m going to want them to like everything. I want folks to be able to come in, have a really nice experience at the movies, have a good technical experience at the movies. I’d like for the staff that they interact with to be absolutely charming and supportive and all that stuff. I would also like for them to feel like if they order food that they’re happy with the food that they order, and that they got a good deal on everything. I think that’s really important.

SF360: Do you have any fears at all about going for it?

Ceasar: Sure. My biggest fear is actually how we’re going to get all of the people into the grand reopening party.

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