On a Wing and Prayer: Lark Theater Stays Aloft

Courtesy San Francisco Chronicle / Photo by Penni GladstoneUntil recently, Larkspur resident Bernice Baeza would pass by the darkened lobby of the Lark Theater and want to weep. Now, she smiles as brightly as the neon lights that illuminate the local landmark’s marquee.

Thanks to efforts she spearheaded, the Lark is now a nonprofit film center that boasts an eclectic lineup of independent films, classics, family films, documentaries, special events and public forums.

Built in 1936, the Lark is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a Larkspur Heritage Building. By the late 1990s, however, the theater had fallen into disrepair and its doors were shuttered. Six years passed until the community, rallied by Baeza, came together to reopen what is one of the few single-screen venues in the Bay Area.

“It had been closed for years, and I kept driving by it, hoping, wishing and dreaming,” recalls the energetic Baeza, a self- described film enthusiast and former associate director of the Latino Film festival.

“I love this town, but what was happening here was that this end of town was dying,” she says, referring to the block along Larkspur’s main drag where foot traffic had waned while the theater was closed. “I talked to a friend of mine and said, ‘Somebody has to do something about it, and I think it may have to be us.’ ”

When Baeza learned 19 months ago that the theater was going on the market, she made an offer but was outbid. Baeza eventually approached the new owners, local developers and real estate investors Terrence Andrews and Michael Gottlieb, and asked what they were going to do with it. Fortunately for Baeza, they also wanted to maintain the site’s heritage as a movie theater. With the aid of local attorneys, Baeza created The Lark Theater nonprofit, which now operates the movie house.

Baeza, now the theater’s executive director and president of its board, then faced the daunting task of restoring and upgrading the venue. Fund- raising efforts yielded $500,000 from community and corporate supporters, and renovation began with an outpouring of services from local professionals who offered their time pro bono or at reduced rates. Larkspur residents, from local architects and contractors to volunteers of all ages, pitched in to return the theater to its former grandeur.

The theater’s exterior was restored to its original Art Deco design with new neon lighting and a floor of refurbished terrazzo tiles. Inside, however, is where restoration efforts are most evident. The walls, once decrepit and moldering, were repaired and repainted, gallery spaces were created to showcase local artists, and a lounge area was added to accommodate patrons between shows and during special events. New environmentally friendly carpet made from recycled materials that produce no off-gases was installed.

A refurbished concessions stand features all the standard theater fare as well as organic popcorn, coffee and turkey dogs and individual “six-packs” of candies that the staff packages by hand. Wine and beer are served on weekends.

The auditorium’s original decorative lights were hand-restored, and a mural was added to reflect the theater’s vintage design motifs.

“Volunteers designed it, we did it over three weeks, night and day, with tiny paint brushes and lots of masking tape,” Baeza recalls with a laugh. She is also pleased with the new curtain that flanks the screen and relishes having it open and close before and after each show — a ceremonial nod to the glory days of cinema long-forgotten at the multiplexes.

“When theaters are entering an era of big entertainment conglomerates, it’s nice to know that this kind of homegrown, homespun community effort is here. The community really got behind it, which made a big difference,” says Phil Siegel, a San Francisco publicist and friend of Baeza who promotes the theater pro bono.

Audiences also will appreciate the new 35-millimeter projector, the recently installed video projection system and the modern Dolby Digital sound equipment.

There are about 200 new seats. According to Baeza, the old seats had become receptacles of all order of detritus. “The things we found,” she says shaking her head in awe. “When we put in the new seats, we sacrificed a few spaces to get more comfort in the aisles,” she says and proudly points out that the cup-holders in the armrests have spill-preventing bottoms.

Some of the new seats have small plaques bearing the names of donors. For a $1,000 donation, film fans can have their name displayed on an armrest (160 seats are still available). This and other fund-raising initiatives are necessary to keep the theater open, Baeza says.

“Once the neon lit up, people saw it and loved it, but then thought, ‘Oh, it’s done,’ ” she says. Baeza says an additional $350,000 is needed.

“We know that local residents are hungry for this kind of programming, and we also know that independent and mainstream filmmakers are looking for additional outlets in Marin County to show their work,” Baeza says.

As she has programmed the theater’s calendar, Baeza has been careful to focus on the needs and interests of her audience.

“Our mission is to serve the community and have the theater available for events and a variety of things that the community would be interested in,” Baeza says.

For film and event times and ticket prices, call (415) 924-5111, or visit www.larktheater.net.

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