Video by Bria Light and Buddy Terry / Thumbnail photo by Buddy Terry

The Grand Lake Theatre is an Oakland landmark, the illuminated marquee and colorful lights above the entrance beckoning passersby into the inner sanctum of the historic movie palace. Originally constructed in 1926, the theater has been entertaining the city’s residents since nearly the dawn of the silver screen itself, but it wasn’t always clear that the building would survive the forces of time.

Grand Lake owner Allen Michaan, who acquired the building’s ground lease in 1979, wanted to make sure the alluring old building on the corner of Grand and Lake Park didn’t meet the business end of a wrecking ball.

“At that time, a lot of really beautiful old theaters were being demolished in San Francisco,” he said. “You had what they were calling ‘the redevelopment,’ which was just an abomination.”

Though the old theater was dingy and rundown when Michaan took the reins, within a matter of days he’d replaced the building’s 9,000 decorative light bulbs, added Dolby stereo and new projector lenses, and restored the sumptuous mystique of the old-fashioned movie palace. 

Over time, Michaan has expanded the theater from one auditorium to four and upgraded equipment, but has taken pains to keep the moviegoing experience close to its roots, with accessible ticket prices and a viewing experience free from ads. 

“We are not T.V.,” he said. “We are a night out at the movies.”

When moviegoers step through the front doors, the frescoed walls, richly colored carpets, and crystal chandelier scattering beads of light overhead ensure that a “night out at the movies” is not just a slogan but an experience. After keeping the theater running for over 40 years, including surviving the COVID-19 shutdown, Michaan’s work is more mission than job, and he plans to preserve the building for posterity by seeking inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s a special place and I want it to be preserved,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer buildings like this that are surviving, although today, people are seeing the value of these theaters and communities are stepping up, because more and more people are realizing that these beautiful old buildings will never, ever be replicated.”

Bria Light

Originally hailing from Eugene, Oregon, Bria Light spent the past decade working as an international educator before becoming a local newspaper reporter in rural Southwest Colorado. Now a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, she is fueling her creative vision and passion for stories through the medium of documentary film. When not working you can find her playing bluegrass fiddle or running on the trails of Oakland’s parks.

Buddy Terry

Born in Portland, Oregon, Buddy Terry is an independent multimedia producer operating in the Bay Area and specializing in video production. He is currently a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Terry is passionate about using film as a medium to challenge human predispositions and perceptions.