It’s Thursday afternoon at the Grand Lake Theater, and owner Allen Michaan and his crew are putting the finishing touches on the historic movie palace before its grand reopening. 

Karely Cerritos, who works at the box office, walks through the glass doors of the theater’s main entrance at 3 p.m. “This is my first day here in a year and a half!” 

Out front, Miles McDuffie is replacing the mock movie posters that have been occupying the outdoor displays since last fall with those of real movies—like In the Heights, set for release on June 11—coming soon to the Grand Lake. 

Miles McDuffie replacing the posters outside of the main entrance. Credit: Amir Aziz

McDuffie continues his last-minute prep inside the ticket kiosk, where he puts up colorful signs indicating that masks must be worn at all times (except when eating or drinking). A handful of people begin lining up outside. 

Face masks are required inside the theater. Credit: Amir Aziz

Movie-goers returning to the Grand Lake will notice some changes. The theater will be operating at 25% capacity until at least June 15, when California reopens and most COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. Even then, said Michaan, the Grand Lake will adhere to whatever guidelines are put in place by the National Association of Theater Owners. “We want people to be safe,” he said.

Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake Theater, replacing the sign on the famous marquee. Credit: Amir Aziz

Patrons can still reserve tickets online and in-person at the box office, but seating within the theater has been spaced to ensure social distancing. The concession stand has been equipped with a plastic divider, and the counters will be wiped down between customers. 

During the closure, Michaan was able to work on some remodeling projects, which included a new carpet in the main lobby, fresh paint on the walls of the outer ticket lobby, updated ornamentation, new LED lights, even some much needed plumbing repairs. “We could not have done all this work if the theater would’ve been opened,” Michaan said.

Allen Michaan delegating the last of the final touches inside before doors open to the public. Credit: Amir Aziz
New carpet in the main lobby was part of the remodeling done when the theater was closed. Credit: Amir Aziz

In addition to getting a sneak peek of the theater, The Oaklandside spoke with some of the early birds who’d lined up outside for the first film, a 4 p.m. showing of Disney’s Cruella

Gabriela Aranda was the first person to get in line. “I’ve been waiting over a year to come back,” she said. “They have the best popcorn in the world and the best crew. It’s like coming home again.”

Gabriela Aranda was the first movie-goer to walk through the Grand Lake Theater’s doors after the 15-month closure. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Gordons were the first family to walk through the doors and also the first to get snacks at the concession stand. “It feels great to be back like things are getting back to normal,” said the father, Andrew Gordon. “It is the last day of school. This is a treat for our kids,” said mother Kerry Gordon, sitting next to her son Asher and her daughter Ella. “It’s nice to have some normalcy back,” said Ella.

The Gordon family came to the Grand Lake Theater to see Disney’s Cruella. Credit: Amir Aziz
The Gordon’s purchasing snacks at the Grand Lake Theater concession stand, which now features a plastic partition. Their youngest son Asher is thrilled to be back at the movies. Credit: Amir Aziz
The Gordon family inside the theater, which is set up to allow groups to maintain social distancing. Credit: Amir Aziz

Julie Ingalls was the second person in line behind Aranda, and the two chatted while waiting for the doors to open. “I’m excited beyond words,” said Ingalls, who feels safe being back inside a movie theater. “I’m fully vaccinated, and I like that the theater is keeping people sitting apart.” 

Julie Ingalls felt safe being back inside the movie theater now that she is vaccinated. Credit: Amir Aziz

For Michaan, reopening has been a long time coming, although there’s still work to be done. “I’ll be happier when we are able to be back at full capacity and not have any distancing,” he said.

The theater is currently operating on a limited schedule and will be open Thursday through Sunday. The theater will also be open this Monday for Memorial Day, which Michaan expects to sell out.

For information on showings and ticket prices, visit Grand Lake Theater’s website. 

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.