Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Parkway is Closed

When a beloved but beleagured second-run theatre finally decides in March 2009 that it no longer has a place in a world of emphasized opening weekends, fiercely territorial bookings, and shortened DVD release windows, It's hard to imagine a more appropriate current film to close out a terrific twleve-year run than Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler. Oakland's Parkway Speakeasy Theatre is no broken-down, beat-up piece of meat. In fact it had just recently acquired a new set of plush couches on which its patrons could guzzle beer and nosh pizza. But its line of credit has dried up. I'm not referring to the goodwill of the community of supportive customers (though if lines like the ones found at the theatre on its last weekend of expected operation had been a more consistent presence at the theatre, there'd surely be another end to this story). But to actual creditors- vendors, landlords, etc. These were mentioned by Speakeasy founders Catherine and Kyle Fischer in their video message screened before we in the audience watched Mickey Rourke get pummeled physically and emotionally for an hour and a half while drowning our sorrows in Sierra Nevada and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Living across Frisco Bay, I probably attended the Parkway less than a dozen times myself. Memorable screenings with the Parkway audience include Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, Bong Joon-ho's the Host, and the documentary King of Kong. The only day I've ever spent as a film extra was at the Parkway, when Rob Nilsson shot Go Together. The theatre presciently played itself a few years down the line: a theatre about to close its curtain and shut its doors. But don't watch Go Together just because of the Parkway (or, God forbid, for my nanosecond of screen time); watch it because it's a daring film by an important Frisco Bay filmmaker. It's available as part of a 9-film box set.

According to Jack Tillmany and Jennifer Downing's Theatres of Oakland book, the Parkway was first opened on September 23, 1925. It had an organ, an Egyptian-style decorated proscenium and ram figures at the exit doors. There was even a soundproof-glassed "crying room" for mothers and infants (presumably this was during the silent era), a fascinating precursor to the theatre's innovative "Baby Brigade" series, now being held only at the Cerrito Speakeasy, just like all of the regular Parkway programs, including, for the next week or so anyway, the Wrestler (it also plays at the Castro on Friday on a double-bill with Runaway Train).

Rourke's Randy the Ram, feeling abandoned by his few remaining human connections outside the world of still-barely-professional wrestling, the remnants of a scene where he was once a lead actor, decides to forsake it all and follow the desires of his cheering fans. Aronofsky deprives the audience of a clear message as to whether or not this was the right decision, but his choice is certainly an emotional, not a rational, one. Mountains of words have been arranged to describe the way the film's arc mirrors the biography of its refurbished star. Not nearly as many have described how The Wrestler's themes might resonate to many of us in this last portion of this first decade of this millennium. The questions I asked myself were, how many of my facebook friends (hypothetical here- I'm still a holdout on that particular platform) would really care if I caused myself to become hospitalized through my own poor decision-making? Is it worth even lifting a finger to satisfy the desires of strangers who will never really know me, if it means I have less time to spend with loved ones? As those of us living in information-age societies become ever more comfortable expending our emotional energy in virtual communities where it's possible for just about anyone to achieve a semi-celebrity status, isn't it inevitable that "irl" communities will lose some of their vitality? These questions have been elicited by other films, books, articles, etc. But never as poignantly for me as the Wrestler in that particular theatre on that particular weekend. I left the theatre with a vow to myself not to check my twitter account until I'd written a letter to my grandmother first. Not the reaction I expected to take away from a film featuring men jumping around in spandex.

Catherine Fischer, speaking on KQED about as candidly as I've heard on the topic of the Parkway's closing, showed no hint of bitterness toward audiences who have grown out of the habit of frequenting the Parkway once or twice a week. "They need to take care of their families," she says. There are a couple ways of interpreting the word 'family' however. It might mean the kind of connection Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood are play-acting in the Wrestler. But a community space like a theatre can be a home for another kind of family- that family of movie lovers that, if you've gotten this far, you and I both belong to, and that I hope can continue to congregate in real, physical spaces and not only virtual ones.


  1. A very nice piece, Brian. Alas, I never made it over to Oakland to check out the Parkway, and now apparently, never will.

    I was fascinated by your mention of their having a glass sound-proofed "crying room." The Catholic church I attended while growing up in NJ had one, to which our family was banished while my younger brother was in his infancy.

  2. Oakland councilwoman wants Parkway reopened...from today's Chronicle (which may be closing soon as well).


    Although I support the effort, Oakland has more pressing problems than reopening the Parkway.

  3. Yes indeed. It turns out I have a personal connection to one of this weekend's slain police officer; we worked at the same summer job as teenagers (though not at the same time- I don't believe I ever met him). It feels odd mourning the loss of a theatre on a weekend of such a hig-profile human loss.

    Michael, the "crying room" was long decomissioned by the time the Speakeasy Theatres folks took over the Parkway's operations. But I have seen such rooms in churches as well- I believe St. Monica's at 23rd Avenue and Geary has one to this day.

  4. Brian, Dan, thanks for observing that the sadness surrounding the closing of the Parkway should be seen in relative terms, but that fact, as evidenced by the emotion held within this post, does not mitigate the loss the neighborhood and the community of film lovers is experiencing over the shuttering of this theater.

    I went to the Parkway exactly once, about four years ago, to see Team America: World Police. I was underwhelmed by the movie, but I left quite excited by the sense of camaraderie, community and support for all avenues of cinema that I felt while I was there.

    "A community space like a theatre can be a home for another kind of family- that family of movie lovers that, if you've gotten this far, you and I both belong to, and that I hope can continue to congregate in real, physical spaces and not only virtual ones." The Parkway indeed, as far as I could tell, fulfilled this criterion, Brian, as does a place like the New Beverly Cinema and Cinefamily here in Los Angeles. These are funky, homespun venues that cater to the love of film, and though it's unfortunate that the Parkway is no longer showing movies, perhaps someday in the future, in a different economy, someone who learned to love movies within the Parkway's doors will find a way to revive its spirit and community purpose in another venue or in another fashion.

    Thanks for relating this news.

  5. Great homage, Brian. You have singlehandedly guided focus on the few remaining repertory theaters in the Bay Area so--like Michael--I regret not having taken you up on your alerts to sample programming at the Parkway. So as not to become too maudlin, however, it's good to know that the old Chinese Theatre in Chinatown is reopening for exhibition. Holehead and Dead Channels already have their eye on it. And it would be nice to be lured into a neighborhood I don't wander into that often anymore.

  6. Michael, I was oblivious to this development. Are you talking about the Great Star Theatre? Or some other location? Keep me abreast of anything you find out, as this sounds quite exciting.

    And Dennis, thanks so much for your reminiscence. I hope I can make a pilgrimage to the New Beverly and Cinefamily soon (and I might find an excuse to in the not-so-far-off future!)

  7. I was at the Parkway exactly once, for the same film Dennis saw there. It seemed like a great venue to watch films that benefit from audience participation.

    That's one reason I never returned - mostly I prefer a quiet reverence during film screenings. The other is getting to and from the theatre. A friend lived around the corner from the Parkway and wouldn't let me walk to her house from BART. Oakland is scary without a car and without knowing the neighborhoods.

    And I've seen crying rooms in theatres that had speakers installed, though perhaps they were an after-market addition.