OAKLAND — At the Grand Lake Theatre, a popular movie house in one of the nation’s most liberal cities, protests against Donald Trump get equal billing with the latest Hollywood movies.
“WE HAVE 4 ACTUAL NATIONAL EMERGENCIES. CLIMATE CHANGE, FAKE ELECTIONS, GUNS AND A LYING TRAITOROUS CRIMINAL PRESIDENT,” the marquee spelled out in blazing red and orange letters this week, alongside showings of “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” and “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part.”
Over Thanksgiving it read: “THE WALLS ARE CLOSING IN ON CRUEL RACIST LIAR DONALD TRUMP & THE TRUMP CRIME FAMILY. JAIL TO THE CHIEF!!”
Allen Michaan is locally famous for plastering his 1920s-era movie house with punchy political messages. His most recent rebukes of the White House’s current occupant have been an even bigger hit than usual, coming as an ugly political fight between California and Trump is brewing. And now, as his unusual form of politicking spreads in the wilds of social media, he’s getting a national audience.
Even in one the bluest states in the nation, not everyone’s a fan of Michaan’s in-your-face, freewheeling political expression. “I will NEVER enter your theater doors again, and I will encourage my colleagues, who feel the same as I do, to act in unison,” one MAGA supporter from nearby Piedmont, California told Michaan in an email this week. “When you take down your disrespectful message, and apologize to the public, there might be a reconsideration in supporting your business.”
This lifelong Democrat and Bernie Sanders supporter shrugs. He’s the only theater owner he knows who has turned his marquee into a political billboard. His scathing attacks on Trump don’t make him popular with the Fox News set, but Michaan believes speaking out is his duty as an American patriot.
“People either love it or hate it,” Michaan, 66, says, standing in the lobby of the movie theater he’s run for decades. “And, if they hate it, they hate me.”
A very visible platform
As far as platforms go, Michaan’s is remarkably visible. The bustling Grand Lake shopping district may not have the wattage of a Times Square, but the neon lights and Art Deco facade easily catch the eye on nearby Interstate 580. The political chatter ranging from election tampering and fraud to the Iraq war has become such a popular roadside attraction that it even has its own Flickr account.
“CONGRATULATIONS TO DICK CHENEY AND HALLIBURTON ON YOUR GLORIOUS FINANCIAL VICTORY IN IRAQ” is one of Michaan’s personal favorites. When in November 2006, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi pledged that impeachment of George W. Bush was “off the table,” it was her turn on the marquee. Michaan gave everyone her office phone number and urged them to call her.
Pelosi’s not the only Democrat to get flak. Michaan called on President Obama to bring home the troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. (He didn’t). He urged Gov. Jerry Brown to ban fracking in California. (He didn’t). Oakland’s “parking extortion racket” is also a frequent target.
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The idea of squeezing his political views onto the marquee came to Michaan in December 2000 when the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a devastating blow to Al Gore’s presidential ambitions by ending the recount in Florida. Raging mad, Michaan racked his brain about what to do. Then he pictured the tens of thousands of cars that stream by his movie theater daily and up went his first communique: “THIS IS AMERICA,” he wrote. “EVERY VOTE SHOULD BE COUNTED.”
Motorists leaned on their horns. Letters of support poured in by the dozens. People would drop by the movie theater just to thank him. From there, he says, “it just took on a life of its own.”
David Gans, a musician, author and radio host from Oakland who runs the Flickr account, says he began taking photographs of the marquee and archiving them years ago.
“This guy was putting his mouth where his money is, risking the enmity of the public and speaking his truth. That’s what we are supposed to do as Americans,” Gans says. “It’s an odd little soapbox, but it’s a surprisingly powerful one.”
A life at the movies
For an entrepreneur who made a life out of his love for movies, it’s an unusual plot twist. One of Michaan’s favorite haunts as a kid was the Palace Theater in Stamford, Connecticut. Soon he was checking out 16-mm films from the public library and hosting his own screenings in his parents’ garage attic.
Fleeing the frigid weather on the East Coast, he enrolled then dropped out of UC Berkeley. He began showing classic movies in rented auditoriums around town. At 19, he salvaged materials from theaters being torn down to build one of his own in a funky old tin warehouse in an industrial stretch of the city. At the Rialto, Michaan ran the projectors, his then girlfriend Lisa Hutz sold the tickets and popcorn and, with no money for an apartment, they bunked in a small windowless room, sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
He couldn’t afford first-run films so Michaan came up with his own eclectic programming to appeal to the counterculture sensibilities of the early 1970s: a mix of classics, cartoons and political films with a decided anti-Nixon bent. A staple of the theater was “Reefer Madness.”
The Rialto’s run came to an end, but from its ashes rose one of the nation’s largest chains on the art movie circuit, as Michaan breathed new life into rundown theaters. When the 1990s multiplex building boom threatened his livelihood, Michaan struggled to hold on but eventually decided to channel his energy into an auctions business and antique fair in nearby Alameda, while keeping his crown jewel, the Grand Lake Theatre.
Originally built in 1926 as a single-screen theater for silent films, the once plush movie house topped by a 65-foot sign illuminated by 2,980 light bulbs was slowly sliding into ruin in 1980 when Michaan took over what remained of the 95-year lease and restored it. Today it’s an ornate homage to the movie palaces of yesteryear, with colorful murals and Corinthian columns, a turn-of-the-century Tiffany glass window and a collection of vintage projectors.
On Friday and Saturday nights an organist on the Mighty Wurlitzer regales moviegoers in the main auditorium. The flowing drapes in that room were rescued from the Fox Theater in San Francisco before it was demolished in 1963. Almost unheard of these days, the Grand Lake has 35-mm and 70-mm film projection systems in three auditoriums. One thing you’ll never see at the Grand Lake Theatre: A commercial.
Building a community theater
“We always really try to be very much a community theater and to do things that benefit the community,” Michaan says.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has held town hall meetings at the Grand Lake. After Hurricane Katrina, residents arrived in droves with donations of clothing, food and blankets, filling 14 semi-trucks. On Thursday, the Grand Lake Theatre screened $1 films for students whose schools were shut down by the teachers strike in Oakland.
The community has reciprocated. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler comes from a family of moviegoers and his childhood memories include seeing “Boyz n the Hood” and “Malcolm X” at the Grand Lake Theatre.
The Grand Lake was the first major movie house to show Coogler’s 2013 film “Fruitvale” Station about the killing of Oscar Grant III, who was shot in the back by a white Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on a subway platform in Oakland.
Last year Coogler held a splashy premiere at the Grand Lake for Black Panther. The first week the movie played there, it grossed $204,000. The box office bonanza, largely fueled by movies from Oakland filmmakers — Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You” and Carlos López Estrada’s “Blindspotting” — made 2018 the theater’s best performing in Michaan’s 38-year run. In August, he bought the building that houses the theater for $3.75 million and he intends for it to stay in the family.
“I feel very honored to be able to run the theater the way that I do,” Michaan says.
And that includes his ongoing protests of Trump. Last month Michaan, convinced the president is working with the Russians against American interests, held free screenings of “The Manchurian Candidate,” a 1962 film about a Korean War veteran who’s brainwashed into becoming a sleeper agent for the former Soviet Union and China.
“Regardless of whether I lose customers over this, I always speak out on issues that I think are important,” he says. “This is my contribution to the resistance.”