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In the ongoing gaga of the Parkway and Cerrito theaters in Oakland and El Cerrito respectively we have read or heard the views of many people over the past seven months except two: Catherine and Kyle Fisher, who created both the Parkway Theater in Oakland, California and the Cerrito Theater in El Cerrito, California. I was honored to be given the exclusive first video interview with the Fishers over brunch at the Lakeshore Cafe in Oakland.
They talked with me on video for 19 straight minutes - nothing edited - about what happened that led to the closure of the Oakland Parkway Theater and that led to the current very messy relationship between the Fishers and the El Cerrito Redevelopment Agency (ERA) regarding the Cerrito Theater, a situation which saw the Fishers lose that business too, and watch as the owners of the Rialto stepped in to take over.
First, some house cleaning: this is the Fisher's platform. The interview style was to give them a place to explain what happened in their own words and with comfort. This blog entry is not a text transcript for the video: I'd prefer you watch or listen to the video because how anyone says what they say is as important as what they say. Got that? Lastly, I do have my views on this matter - no surprise there - which I present at the end of this post.
Regarding what happened in El Cerrito, the Fishers said its hard to expand a business and especially do when you can't rely on all of the players involved in that process. Kyle Fisher said that they were approached by the City of El Cerrito in 2001 with the idea of starting a new theater in that town. The Fishers said "no" because they didn't have the financial resources required to open a second location. The agency came back to them in 2002, and had what Kyle Fisher called a "back and forth" such that the Agency said "What if we pay for it?" in other words, the ERA would give the Fisher's money to open what's now called The Cerrito Theater.
The Fishers were excited that the public private partnership served as a template for community centers in America. But the time they spent on the development of the Cerrito hurt the Parkway, and the ERA and City of El Cerrito's promise of money to help them never came through.
The Parkway was always profitable
The popular perception is the Parkway closed because it wasn't making money; not true. "The Parkway was always profitable", Kyle Fisher said. But the Fishers were using money from the Parkway to keep the Cerrito going with the idea that the City of El Cerrito's promise of money to help them with the Cerrito would come through; again, it never did. Because of this, the Parkway was "crippled" as Catherine put it. So the Cerrito's underfunded condition cost the Parkway. If they closed the Cerrito, the Parkway would have survived.
On the Parkway employees and the last minute closure
I said to the Fishers that many Parkway employees felt like they had the rug pulled out from under them. They got the notice that the Parkway would be closing, and they would be losing their jobs, just four days before the March 22nd Sunday it closed. Kyle said "I completely screwed that up, and there's no excuses for that. I misread a notice. I misread a legal notice. I'm an attorney and misread a legal notice. We had fully intended to give our employees a month's notice before closing." Kyle was under the impression the Alameda County Sheriff was coming to evict them but that was not the case. But Kyle admits he made the mistake and did so right on camera. Good for him.
The Parkway was the Fisher's labor of love
The Parkway started in 1996 because the Fishers wanted to have a place where their friends could get together and watch movies over pizza and beer. Then-Councilmember John Russo was one of their earliest supporters. He contacted them because some neighbors were concerned about what their plans were for the building the theater was to be located in. He connected them with the right people and essentially "held their hand" through the process of working with the City of Oakland. As a gift, they gave John what he wanted: a sandwich named after him.
The Parkway was the Fisher's labor of love. They were a young couple when they got involved in making the facility and essentially grew together and had kids - two now - while they were growing the Parkway.
The future of The Cerrito
Now, the Cerrito has a new operator who's currently running it in a conventional fashion. They're the same group that operates the Elmwood Theater. Kyle says that eventually they want to have the "pizza and beer and couches" formula that the Fisher's established. I shared the view that it seems like the City of El Cerrito has stolen their business. Again, that's my personal view. Kyle doesn't see whatever they do as being a speakeasy theater.
Support for the Parkway
The Fishers support whatever the Oakland Redevelopment Agency does with the building that was the Parkway Theater on 1834 Park Blvd near E. 18th. They love the community and the theater and would do anything to help if asked. Catherine says it needs a lot of work and investment, some of it the person or group may not get back. For them the Parkway was an expression of their love for Oakland and the community.
The Thrill Ville
This entire episode has broken up the close relationship between Will Vaharo and the Fishers. Will has been one of the main driving forces behind the planned resurrection of the Parkway. Vaharo and the Fisher's have known each other for 25 years, having worked together at the Berkeley Faculty Club, and before that published a book for him called "Love Storues are Too Violent for Me." According to the Fisher's it was Will who started the "Thrill Ville" on Thursday nights to bring more people in.
The Thrill Ville was a kind of celebration of B-movies that featured a kind of weird and funky movie preview with Will and Kyle. It's also the place where, according to the Fishers in the video, Will met the woman that would become his second wife. (In fact, the Parkway was the scene for a lot of dates and pairings!) A lot of memories, but for reasons we didn't talk about on or off camera, Will and the Fishers are not the friends they used to be. Sad, because it was their collective creative energy that made the Parkway go.
The Fishers' next stop
Right now, the Fishers are living on unemployment, taking care of their kids and trying to deal with the horror that has become the Cerrito issue. After the close of the Parkway, they put materials from that theater into storage at the Cerrito, but they can't get them back for reasons that are not clear to me. One thing is certain just from reading this webpage report of the March 19th 2007 minutes of the City of El Cerrito City Council meeting, the City had a really unrealistic view of what was capable with the Cerrito: they wanted first-run movies. If not getting them was the City Council's reason for not supporting the Cerrito, it was really bad for them to ask for that to begin with.
Ok, it was just plain stupid.
The Fishers speciality was second-run and "B-movies" and getting first run movies calls for number of distribution deals and relationships they weren't set up to do. In my view, the City of El Cerrito should at least take responsibility for bring the Fishers in and making representations that they would give them money to operate.
There's a lot of mess here. The El Cerrito Redevelopment Agency had recently offered to help the Fishers make a business plan for presentation to the City Council, but due to "personalities" that didn't happen. But the ERA did put that in writing. Also, while the ERA expained in a letter dated January 27, 2009 that Downey Street Productions was not paying rent but when businesses are having that kind of problem, where they're saddled with more debt than they can handle, the ERA's job is to step in and help. That didn't happen.
As I stated on camera and will write here, the El Cerrito Redevelopment Agency seems to have engaged in a kind of taking of their business without just compensation for it. That's a serious legal issue the Agency should answer for; the question is will it do so? It would be great for them to do something that at least gets the Fishers out of their current financial situation. After all, it was their business and they say their property is still behind the walls of the Cerrito Theater.
For those who bring up the matter of reported taxes owed by the Fisher's business Downey Street Productions, that too is something the El Cerrito Redevelopment Agency can take care of; it could have forgave (and still can forgive) the tax debt . When I worked for the Oakland Mayor's office, I personally worked to eliminate a $989,000 tax owed to the City of Oakland for a property owner so that person would have enough money to refurbish his building. If I can do that, El Cerrito can certainly handle $200,000. When I look at it, there are more questions I have for the City of El Cerrito and the way they handled this matter, but for the present someone needs to hire the Fishers as theater consultants.
The Parkway Video series:
The last day: March 22, 2009
Save the Parkway meeting of March 29th 2009
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