The marquee on November 4, 2006. Credit: David Gans

“This is America, every vote should be counted,” read the marquee at the Grand Lake Theatre.

The message suits our current political climate: voters across the country are receiving their ballots, and some politicians, especially in red states, are threatening the election process. But the message didn’t appear today, or last week. It was put up nearly two decades ago in the aftermath of a hotly contested presidential election that involved accusations of voter suppression and litigation.

A photo of that marquee message—the first of many protest statements that Grand Lake Theatre owner Allen Michaan has placed above the theater’s entrance—is part of a Flickr photo archive curated by local photographer, musician, and radio host, David Gans. For the past 20 years, Gans has religiously photographed the now-familiar messages that regularly light up the night sky on the corner of Grand Avenue and Lake Park Avenue. 

“The first marquee went up the day that the Supreme Court stopped the counting of the votes in Florida, in December of 2000,” Michaan recalled, referring to that year’s contested presidential election. “I was so furious. I was having lunch with my ex-wife, and I said, you know, I need to do something, and I came upon the idea of putting that first message up on the marquee.”

That year, George W. Bush won the election, but only after the Supreme Court stopped a recount of Florida ballots, a crucial swing state that could have given Al Gore a victory. Gore conceded, even though he won the national popular vote by about 500,000 votes.

Michaan knew that displaying his political views would cost him some business, but felt it was the right thing to do. Ultimately, he said, the message was well received by most patrons. 

“People would drive by and blare on their horns in approval,” he said. “It was really something. That’s what started it all, that particular day.”

“It can be a costly thing for a person in the arts on any level to take a political stance,” said Gans, who lives in the neighborhood and decided to start the archive because he “wanted Allen’s messages to be amplified and shown to the rest of the world as a matter of pride in Oakland.”

Despite some of them being decades old, most of Michaan’s marquee messages still resonate today, at a time of extreme political polarization and disconnect between Republicans and Democrats.

For Michaan, what transpired during the 2000 election has either been forgotten or not taught to younger generations of voters. “A lot of people don’t remember that George Bush’s brother was the governor of Florida. In Miami, the police set up roadblocks in Black neighborhoods to keep people of color from voting. And they prevented many thousands of people from voting that day.”

Twenty years later, voter suppression is again an issue. Many fear that the Trump administration will interfere on Election Day, and without evidence, Trump has attacked the legitimacy of voting by mail.

At 66 years old, Gans has seen how presidential elections can influence the course of U.S. politics. “I’ve watched the Republican party turn Ronald Reagan into this utter icon of falsehood,” he said. “The Republican party has been anti-democracy all that time. Bush versus Gore was one of the first criminal travesties of justice.” 

To Gans, Michaan’s decision to repurpose the Grand Lake Theatre marquee as a political billboard was a stroke of genius. “When he put that first message up, he recognized that hundreds of thousands of cars drive by that marquee. It’s not just for us in Oakland. It’s for everybody driving by [Interstate] 580,” Gans said. The I-580 freeway, one of the busiest in California, passes right by the theater and its sign is visible from the roadway.

In the two decades since that first political message went up, the Grand Lake Theatre has become an unofficial meeting place for protesters, and other community actions.

On September 9, 2005, countless garbage bags filled with relief items for the victims of Hurricane Katrina spilled onto the sidewalk in front of the Grand Lake. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who had earlier put out a call for donations, was expecting to receive a truckload’s worth of supplies. Instead, so many donations were dropped off outside of the Grand Lake, that multiple trucks were required to haul them off.

More recently, hundreds gathered outside of the theater on December 17, 2019, the day before the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. 

The Grand Lake Theatre, of course, is also where local luminaries debut their film projects. Director Ryan Coogler premiered both of his films, “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther,” at the Grand Lake. Oakland’s Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs also had the red carpet premiere of their film, “Blindspotting,” at the cinematic landmark.

With 2000 still fresh in his mind, Michaan said he’s concerned about the possibility of a rigged election this year. “It’s not because mail-in ballots are bad. It’s because the machines are bad, they need to be removed from the system,” he said.

Along with worrying about November 3, Michaan is also dealing with the Grand Lake Theatre’s ongoing closure due to the pandemic. “It breaks my heart to see the theater empty every night,” he said. “Not to be able to safely invite people back into that beautiful building is such a sad thing.” 

Some larger cinemas are shutting their doors for good. The Regal Cinema chain announced this Thursday that it will close all of its 536 locations in the country, including Jack London Cinema. Despite a larger chain like Regal folding, Michaan said moviegoers shouldn’t count Grand Lake Theatre out of the game yet. 

Michaan said that reopening in a limited capacity doesn’t make sense financially, and wants to hold off a full reopening until he deems it safe for his staff and patrons.

“Tell readers that when theaters start reopening at 25 percent capacity, not to be alarmed that the Grand Lake doesn’t reopen,” he said. “We will wait, even if it takes another year. We will wait.” 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.