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Boomtown: Forget the usual predictions of a single large project resurrecting downtown nightlife. The Camera 12's relocation into the old United Artist Pavilion is good news for movie buffs.

Dawn of the Dead

Vacant for four long years and once targeted for demolition, downtown's largest cinema space will return June 18 promising to be better than ever

By Richard von Busack

TWO WEEKS BEFORE its opening, the former United Artists Pavilion in downtown San Jose—about to be renamed the Camera 12—is still heavily under reconstruction, with plywood on the carpet and a maze of stacked cardboard boxes on the main floor. Dumpsters and about a dozen mobile platforms—used for hoisting workers to the ceiling—are parked in the lobby. There's a smell of sparks in the musty air from the carbide handsaws slicing through metal studs as workers make pony walls in the bottom-floor auditoriums. Some of the auditoriums are still stripped down to tar paper, waiting for the drywall to be installed.

Camera Cinemas co-founder and director of operations Dennis Skaggs negotiates his way through the snaking electrical cords. Though the theater will open in three weeks, there's still a thick layer of dust on the concessions counter, only part of it due to renovation. Considering the forlorn state of the phenomenally jinxed UA Pavilion Theater, it's a pity no one thought to shoot a post-apocalypse movie inside it.

We climb inside the theater, and Skaggs takes note of the escalators. They need new brushes, he says, and $30,000 in repairs to bring them to code. I stop to look at the carpet on the exit stairs. I'd been there three days before the UA Pavilion opened on Feb. 16, 1996, trying to extract a quote from the manager. Couldn't get anywhere. He didn't have much more than a professional interest in movies. Instead, he kept drawing my attention to the expensive carpeting, the one feature that really pleased him most in the new theater.

Whatever else had happened, the carpeting was still in place, cascading three landings down the stairs, gradually changing from orange to violet, dying for a rug shampoo.

Modern-Day Standards

When the UA Theater chain closed the Pavilion on the weekend of Jan. 15, 2000, just a few weeks short of four years after it opened, its managers were in a hurry. The Pavilion had never been a success for a number of reasons. Nationally, the financially troubled United Artists chain was in the process of closing dozens of theaters, including the former Pruneyard Theatres, now the Camera 7. Locally, more powerful competitors, AMC and Century Theaters, booked hits before the Pavilion. It couldn't have helped UA to pay the Pavilion's exorbitant rent—a reported $1 million annually.

In various newspaper accounts of the hurried closing, the phrase "under cover of darkness" recurs. This is technically false, since United Artists Theaters actually left on the lights when managers cleared out. The bulbs eventually burned out in their sockets. Workmen arrived at the start of the weekend to strip the complex, while moviegoers who lined up were shooed away under pretext the theater was undergoing technical problems.

"They started clearing it out on Friday night," Skaggs recalls, "because it made it hard to get a restraining order to stop them until the following Monday." Sound equipment was torn out so fast some of the screens ripped. About 1,400 chairs and other appliances were sent to Los Angeles cash on delivery. Delivery was refused down south, and the shipment boomeranged into a local warehouse. "The liquidator contacted me to purchase the seats for the Camera 7," said Skaggs.

In late 1999, I talked to Pam Kelly, then-publicity person for the Camera Cinemas, which became the only cinema player downtown. "When the UA Pavilion was being planned, we warned the city that this might happen," Kelly said at the time. "They wouldn't listen to us. They thought we were being crybabies."

Skaggs adds today, "We told the Redevelopment Agency it wouldn't work."

Post-9/11, which became bleak times for downtown San Jose, the empty Pavilion was a monument to futility. The shopping center it was meant to anchor remained half-empty. During the day, the sun bleached its curling, peeling posters. At night, vandals painted graffiti on its glass. But it had been almost a year before the Twin Towers fell that the Pavilion actually bottomed out. As Genevieve Roja reported for Metro in December 2000, then-RDA head Susan Shick had argued for the demolition of the Pavilion—a building that cost taxpayers $4.6 million and caused the eviction of five small businesses.

"The theater is obsolete," Shick said then. "It's not a theater built to modern-day standards." The plan was to bulldoze the multiplex and replace it with a mixed-use building, as tall as the Fairmont Hotel across the street.

The scheme to demolish the Pavilion fell through. In May 2002, the RDA announced a plan to rent it to the locally based CineLux Theaters, operators of movie houses in Willow Glen and Campbell. After much delay, that plan fell through, too. In the meantime, Camera Cinemas was talking about expanding on the ground floor of its current building at Second and San Carlos. So it was natural for the company to eventually look at the Pavilion as a new home.

When it opens next weekend, the Camera 12 will have added four new theaters to the cineplex, bringing the total number of screens to a dozen. The redesign's been done by Henry Architects of Seattle, a firm specializing in retrofitting large spaces for theaters. The Camera 12 will have new stadia—concrete risers—to improve sight lines. New rocking chairs will pamper the viewer's lumbar; upholstered armrests are intended to sooth locally endemic cases of carpal tunnel. The seats are 2 inches wider than standard to pamper the ever-spreading North American rump. Each theater will have Dolby sound, with wall carpeting to muffle sound leakage between theaters. Since the theater is planned to be the home of the Cinequest film festival, theater 12 includes additional light circuits, controllable for public speaking and lectures.

The master plan is to use the first-floor theaters for independent, specialty and foreign films. More typical mainstream fare will play at the larger theaters on the second and third floors. Having said that, Skaggs adds that the definition of an art movie is more elastic now than it once was.

For example, Alfonso Cuarón—who wrote and directed the art-house success Y tu mama támbién—went on to direct the latest Harry Potter movie, bringing many of the same qualities and aesthetics of his earlier work.

There's a poster on display in the window of the Camera 3, mimicking the now familiar food pyramid. It councils increased consumption of indie films, with a smaller portion of sugar-and-fat-loaded Hollywood blockbusters. No matter how the industry has changed, Camera Cinemas plans to continue to serve those kinds of portions.

Premier Art House

Preceding the opening of the Camera 12 was the closure in May of Camera One on South First Street. Skaggs didn't show up for the Camera One's closing night, saying, "It was too emotional for me to go."

In the early 1970s, Camera One was operated by the Tarzana-based Great Western theater chain. It closed during the terrible economic years of the mid-1970s, Skaggs says, because "the phone bill was too high." Skaggs, then the theater's projectionist, partnered with SJSU film professor Jim Zuur and theater-arts grad Jack Nyblom to assume Camera One's lease.

Skaggs, who is still in partnership with Zuur and Nyblom, easily remembers the first double bill (A Man and a Woman, Cabaret) as well as the day the Camera One reopened, Sept. 6, 1975. (He's off by three days; it was actually Sept. 3.) As an art theater, the Camera One showed six features a week—movies like Harold and Maude, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Mel Brooks' short The Critic.

It was the premier art house in a rough and tumble blue-collar city, located on a main drag alive with porn shops, transvestite bars and cruisers in a way city officials would never permit today. Persisting over the years, Camera One kept the lights on while the city changed around it. The Camera Cinemas expanded to the Camera 3 (in 1984) and opened a theaterplex, the Camera 7 in Campbell. Meanwhile, Camera Cinemas withdrew from the vintage Towne Theater on The Alameda this spring. The company will continue running the venerable Los Gatos Theater but will vacate the Camera 3 within a week. The building might be converted to an art gallery with performance space.

At the Camera 12, all the construction work brings some drama to the wedge-shaped lobby. Light from the 54-foot array of windows will be a problem. "It's going to cost 10 grand to clean them," Skaggs said.

From the top floor, you can see how quickly the downtown skyline has changed in the last few years. From the top floor, the unfinished new Civic Center is visible, as is the San Jose Rep, the new Martin Luther King Jr. Library and the Pavilion's clock tower.

"This is going to be a cornerstone. It's a wonderful plan," says the usually laconic Skaggs. "It's been a long time since I was this excited about anything."


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From the June 9-15, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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