A photo of the Parkway Theater circa early 2000's. Credit: Courtesy Hilary O'Brien, Ivy Hill Cannabis and Dorothy Lazard from the Oakland Public Library

Oakland’s historic Parkway Theater, which had its grand opening on the east side of Lake Merritt in 1925, hasn’t been an active movie theater since 2009. Now, a group of cannabis workers is hoping to reimagine the space as the city’s first weed-friendly movie palace.

“This was a lower-end Art Deco theater, not as grand as the Paramount or the Grand Lake. They were all built by the same architecture group in the early 1920s,” said Hilary O’Brien, manager of Ivy Hill Cannabis, a dispensary that opened inside the former Parkway Theater building in 2021. “This was more like the working man’s theater.”

O’Brien spoke about the theater’s history in Oakland while giving me a tour of the stunning 16,000-square-foot building, including its original projector room and vintage red seats. An Egyptian-style molding still surrounds the movie screen, and an orchestra pit rests beneath the stage. 

The Parkway Theater officially shuttered in 2009, after operating for nearly a century as a local hangout for Oakland residents. During the late 1990s and 2000s, the Parkway Theater set itself apart from the city’s other movie theaters by allowing patrons to watch movies while seated on cushiony sofas and chairs, while enjoying pizza and other food, and sipping draft beers. That version of the Parkway appeared around 1996 when Catherine and Kyle Fischer started renting the space with the aim of returning the theater to its former glory as an old-school movie house and Oakland staple. The couple spent months making renovations and repairs to the dilapidated building. They dubbed it the Parkway “Speakeasy” Theater and officially reopened in 1997. 

A newspaper clipping announces the opening of the Parkway Theater in 1925. Credit: Courtesy Hilary O'Brien, Ivy Hill Cannabis and Dorothy Lazard from the Oakland Public Library

After the Fischers had spent a few years operating and running the theater, Yan and Judy Cheng, landlords from San Francisco, bought the building and took control of the lease in 2002. The change in ownership led to disputes with the Fischers about rent increases and renovation issues. This was among the reasons, the Fischers reported to Oakland North at the time, that they decided to close up shop in 2009. 

After the closure, a group of 56 investors and avid movie-goers, headed by general manager, J. Moses Ceaser, decided to reincarnate the business as the New Parkway Theater, which opened in December 2012 and currently still does business at a different location in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood.

Meanwhile, in the years that ensued after the old Parkway Theater’s closure, a slew of investors urged the building’s owners, the Chengs, to transfer the lease to someone who would be able to carry on the theater’s legacy by renovating the space and opening it back up to the Oakland community. 

The most qualified candidates included Bill Koziol, who had extensive experience in the marijuana industry. The Chengs, according to current manager O’Brien, were slow to let go of the building’s lease but were impressed by Koziol’s experience, his history as a seasoned real estate investor, and as a certified public accountant. 

Koziol and a few others from Telegraph Patient’s Group, a domestic nonprofit that began in 2011, had been managing the well-known dispensary Telegraph Health Center, also known as THC, which opened on Telegraph Avenue in 2014. Shortly after THC opened, there was a series of legal issues regarding its lease, and that dispensary closed in 2018. 

That’s when Koziol, a key member of Telegraph Patient’s Group, pitched his business proposal to the Chengs, and in the following year, secured the lease from the longtime owners of the Parkway Theater. He transferred TPG’s permit to the Parkway, and added on a new stipulation, an onsite cannabis consumption permit

Koziol and his company had unique plans for the renovation of the Parkway Theater. He envisioned a dispensary where customers could buy and consume or smoke cannabis inside while lounging on bar-styled seating and watching films. The idea was to also create a weed bar, where patrons could indulge in marijuana-infused beverages. O’Brien noted that their original plan also included a pizza kitchen on the sales floor for customers wanting to have dinner after purchasing weed.

But due to a lawsuit against Richmond Patient’s Group, a nonprofit corporation that Koziol also directed and operated in Richmond, the vision to turn the Parkway Theater into a deluxe cannabis lounge is on hold for the foreseeable future. 

Richmond Compassionate Care Collective (RCCC), the first company to receive a medical marijuana permit from the city of Richmond, filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that Koziol and various other Richmond dispensaries had paid for community opposition to RCCC’s permit applications and slandered RCCC’s reputation in the community. 

The lawsuit RCCC filed was an antitrust complaint under the Cartwright Act, which limits the combination of “two or more persons” capital from creating a monopoly that could harm other businesses. The lawsuit brought a series of allegations against Koziol and his managing partners and resulted in Koziol, Alexis Parle, and Darrin Parle being tried in court. Koziol and Darrin Parle were found guilty, but Alexis Parle was not. RCCC was awarded $5 million in damages, which will eventually be tripled to $15 million.

Because of the lawsuit, Ivy Hill is currently under receivership, which is essentially court-appointed ownership. O’Brien said that until a new investor purchases the dispensary, they won’t be able to renovate the space—a process that could take several years. 

But O’Brien hasn’t given up hope just yet, and still hopes to see the dispensary become one of the first movie theaters that allow people to smoke weed openly and legally, while also watching movies and eating food. 

“My hope, my secret, and not-so-secret hope is that somebody sees the big vision with this place and buys it because they want to do the big vision,” O’Brien said. “Renovating the theater, making this the first restaurant, entertainment complex, theater, and cannabis lounge that’s ever existed. Legally.”

For now, Ivy Hill will continue as a cannabis dispensary 

Ivy Hill manager Hilary O’Brien stands outside of the dispensary, which is located inside the historic Parkway Theater building on Park Boulevard east of Lake Merritt. Credit: Sydney Fishman

While touring the space, Asia Howard, an Ivy Hill bud-tender and sales associate took some time to explain the different kinds of cannabis. She spoke about which samples help people sleep and which provide a burst of energy. She referenced an Oakland distributor that provides some of the staff’s favorite weed and has remained a popular favorite among customers. 

“Anything from Oakfruitland is going to be pretty fire,” Howard said. “That’s what I have in my bag right now. That’s the most exciting sample I’ve had in the last couple of weeks.”

Howard and her co-workers have a lot of experience with cannabis, either from on-the-job training or from experience as consumers. Customers often list off the reasons they want cannabis, which can range from anxiety or depression to recreational use, then the Ivy Hill employees try to find the right sample for people’s needs. 

But no one knew the inventory more thoroughly than Ivy Hill supervisor Roxy Attaway. Attaway emphasized how cannabis can be used for more than just smoking, and can be consumed in various different ways. 

“There’s so many people in all different kinds of professions that consume it in all different kinds of ways,” Attaway added. “You don’t just have to smoke weed. You can use a tincture, an edible, or even a patch. It can also cure things health-wise too.”

Attaway, who has worked at Ivy Hill for the last year, said not all of her experiences with cannabis have been positive. She explained an incident where she had a run-in with Oakland authorities and was taken into custody because of marijuana possession. 

“I went to jail for selling weed,” Attaway said of a time when she had a large quantity of marijuana while staying at a hotel. “So when they came up to my hotel room, they found the weed. That’s why I was incarcerated.”

Attaway added that she only stayed in jail for one month, and was then granted probation. However, the incident negatively impacted the way she interacted with cannabis. She said that for a period of time she didn’t believe there was a place for her in the weed industry, but that changed when Attaway was hired as an Ivy Hill employee. She emphasized that working at the dispensary allowed her to feel more comfortable working in marijuana and created a tight-knit community for her in Oakland. She is now one of the top salespeople at Ivy Hill. 

But despite the laidback atmosphere of Ivy Hill Cannabis, there is a huge amount of work that goes into picking out the shop’s inventory, and that’s the job of manager O’Brien. When I first spoke to O’Brien at Ivy Hill, she sat in her office above the dispensary, behind a large wooden desk with a computer, a walky-talky, and a stack of papers. As she was busily going through the inventory with the shop’s general manager, there was a serene view of Park Boulevard and a rainbow flag hanging over the window. 

O’Brien spoke about Ivy Hill’s agreement with the city of Oakland to carry local, equity products that focus on marginalized communities impacted by the war on drugs. This was first started in 2017, when Oakland began the Cannabis Equity Program Services, to create equitable opportunities and lessen disparities for minorities working in cannabis. 

“We are always kind of on the lookout for the latest and greatest flower, we’re very flower focused,” she said. “Flower that’s grown by women, by non-white folks, by local Oakland neighbors and equity businesses, they’re gonna get a much higher priority.”

O’Brien learned about cannabis from the ground up, literally. Before working at dispensaries in the Bay Area, she was a weed farmer in Humboldt County and worked as a jack of all trades in the underground market. 

“I worked for myself for a decade cultivating, buying, and selling weed,” she added. 

This was before 2016, when California voters passed Proposition 64 to legalize recreational marijuana. Before the legalization of recreational weed, most of what O’Brien was growing was for medical dispensaries. But as O’Brien continued to work in the underground market, it became more difficult for her to maintain a stable career. With decreasing prices of cannabis and a confusing licensing process required in legalizing farms, she wanted an escape and decided to pursue a career in legal cannabis. 

She eventually sold her interest in the partnership she was in while residing in Humboldt County, and moved on to legal dispensaries in the Bay Area. But she said that while she’s enjoyed her time at Ivy Hill Cannabis, it is still challenging to make a steady profit. 

“I have no illusions about who built the industry and where we all came from, but the state needs to figure something out,” she said. “I don’t look at it as cracking down on the black market as much as giving us a break in the legal market, and to see the challenges that we’re currently up against.” 

Ultimately, O’Brien wants future generations to understand that while cannabis work can be incredibly laborious and time-consuming, it can lead to fruitful careers in the long-run, and can sharpen skills for other kinds of jobs. 

“I hope folks know that there is a place for them. The skills do apply across the board. These are hardworking folks that know how to get things done,” O’Brien added. “Everyone I know that comes from cultivating is an incredibly hard worker because it’s seven days a week. It never stops. It’s Mother Nature.” 

A version of this story was first aired on KALW Radio in San Francisco.