Berkeley's Elmwood Theatre temporarily closed by car crash

"We will reopen as quickly as possible and we look forward to welcoming everyone back to the movies," said Ky Boyd, Rialto Cinemas owner.

Berkeley's Elmwood Theatre temporarily closed by car crash
A driver struck the Elmwood Theatre on Wednesday afternoon resulting in the temporary closure of the movie house pending repairs. Scanner Insider

Update, Friday, July 21: The Elmwood Theatre is back open for business, in time for this weekend's Oppenheimer premiere. An assessment found no structural problems after Wednesday's crash. Cosmetic repairs are pending.

Original story: Rialto Cinemas Elmwood has been temporarily closed by a car crash Wednesday afternoon on College Avenue in Berkeley.

Police say the 63-year-old driver lost control of his car and struck the building shortly before 3 p.m.

There were no injuries, but the driver struck the wall containing the building's electrical panel. The Berkeley Fire Department has now red-tagged the movie house pending needed repairs, police said.

"We will reopen as quickly as possible and we look forward to welcoming everyone back to the movies," said Ky Boyd, Rialto Cinemas owner. "This is not the end of the Elmwood but we continue to need everyone's support."

Community members alerted The Scanner to Wednesday's crash at the Elmwood Theatre and expressed concern for the fate of what is now Berkeley's only first-run movie house.

The crash could not have come at a worse time, said Laurie Capitelli, a board member of the Elmwood Theatre Foundation, a community nonprofit that has helped keep the movie theater alive over the years: The Elmwood just recently secured its beer and wine license and Oppenheimer is slated to open there Friday.

According to Berkeley police, the driver was northbound on College Avenue with a passenger in the front seat when their poodle, which was in the back seat, suddenly jumped forward.

That caused the driver to press down on the accelerator, do a U-turn and crash into the front of the Elmwood Theatre building, Berkeley police said. There were no injuries to the vehicle occupants, including the poodle.

Boyd, Rialto Cinemas owner, said the driver who struck the building hit the wall "at a fairly high rate of speed," which damaged some of the historic tiles and destroyed poster cases outside.

The driver was uninsured, he said.

"The whole wall has been pushed a little bit, which knocked loose some of the electrical on the other side of the wall," he said. "It may just be cosmetic. We don't know. But it was enough that we need to have an inspection."

That inspection will happen Thursday and, best-case scenario, the Elmwood will reopen Friday.

"We won't know anything about a reopening timeline until we can get a professional assessment of what the damage is," he said. "Maybe it's one of those things that looks worse than it actually is."

If the Elmwood cannot reopen Friday, Boyd said staff would work with the city "to reopen as quickly as possible."

"The timing is awful but you don't get to choose these things"

Boyd said Elmwood staff would be contacting customers who bought advance tickets for upcoming movies, including Oppenheimer.

The movie theater was already open for the day Wednesday when the crash happened.

"Thank goodness there was no one on the sidewalk and no one in the area when it was hit. And everyone in the car was able to walk away. That's the blessing," Boyd said. "Nobody wanted it to happen. The timing is awful but you don't get to choose these things."

Allen Hibbard, another Elmwood Theatre Foundation board member, went to the scene after the crash to learn what he could.

"The crux of the matter is the repairs need to be done," he said. "We don't want the theater closed for any number of days, so we're going to be looking for help from the building department to expedite the permits to get this work done."

"We may have to get some help there," he continued. "We'll of course support the operator in any way that we can."

A community member who was walking by just after the crash said everyone had been relieved that no one was hurt.

"Incredibly fortunate that no one was hit," she said. "Scary. It could have been so much worse."

Local residents also expressed concern about the fate of the theater and said they hope it will reopen soon.

"We were so disappointed," said Lynne Cutler. "The only remaining movie theater in town."

(Film buffs, take note: The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive also has a theater, but is focused on classics and special screenings rather than new releases.)

According to cinematreasures.org, the Elmwood originally opened in 1914 as the Strand Theatre. It was designed by architect William Dufour.

After numerous remodels, it reopened as the Elmwood Theatre on June 26, 1947.

By 2009, Rialto Cinemas was running the operation.

Councilmember Mark Humbert, who represents the Elmwood neighborhood, described the theater as a local treasure.

"It's a beloved Elmwood institution," he said. "It's a precious resource. I hope that it opens again just as soon as possible."

This story was updated shortly after publication with several additional details.

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