Grand Times: Life on the lake has something for everyone
By Lou Fancher
Social science experts and census takers claim that great cities and urban neighborhoods have double narratives that include rich, deeply embedded historical narratives and progressive, state-of-the-art attitudes, amenities and commercial development. The best among them prove a person–to-culture matching hypothesis that says people are most satisfied and happier in places where individual attributes and values are in alignment with the cultural environment.
When the doors of the Grand Lake Theater swung open on March 6, 1926, a ticket to see a vaudeville show or silent movie cost 40 to 50 cents—25 cents for a daily matinee and 10 cents for children at any show. A Wurlitzer Hope Jones Unified Orchestral Organ installed by the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co. of San Francisco filled the one-theater hall with majestic music.
Leased to various cinema operators during the subsequent nine decades, the Grand Lake was expanded and renovated, the balcony split into a second auditorium, and a few years later, an attached neighboring storefront was added. The main auditorium’s neoclassical architectural features and Art Deco style artwork endure to this day, as does the organ. Connecting to the primary through the lobby, Theater 3, according to the website, was designed with an Egyptian 1920s “atmospheric style” and Theater 4 is meant to resemble a Moorish palace.
In 1979, the current Grand Lake owner bought the ground lease set to expire in 2023 and began making improvements, among them, replacing 9,000 decorative light bulbs and installing Dolby stereo and new projector lenses. The theater’s two projector 3-D system is a proud talking point in a conversation with theater owner Allen Michaan, but no more so than is his purpose that stated publicly he declares is to save historical theaters from the wrecking ball of redevelopment, a term he equates to “an abomination” when it comes to destroying beautiful architecture. Grand Lake holds local landmark designations for its roof sign and building exterior, and Michaan is reportedly seeking to have the theater registered as a National Historic Landmark.
In the meantime, improvements continue, and a commitment to presenting movies made by Oakland filmmakers draws a large and faithful following. While Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Dwayne Johnson, Scarlett Johansson, Sofia Vergara, Meryl Streep and other stars of the big screen bring in the Hollywood blockbuster crowds, films such as Fruitvale Station and Black Panther, both by Oakland-born director Ryan Coogler, or Sorry to Bother You, made by Boots Riley, and Blindspotting have set attendance records of the theater.
In 2022, catching a matinee before 5:45pm will tap you for $7.50, except on discounted Tuesdays, when a flick comes at $6. The Mighty Wurlitzer Organ continues to spin out tunes at Friday and Saturday evening performances and morning concerts presented by Northern California Theater Organ Society occasionally on the monthly calendar. As always, check the website for special events, current Covid safety protocols and pricing.
Before or after a movie, the Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill serves up one of the best views this side of the estuary for people- and nature-gazing. For those who say the seafood-centric menu at lunch and dinner time doesn’t come cheaply—decide for yourself—the restaurant’s Taco Tuesdays and great Happy Hours every day from 3 to 6pm make a strong case for a different evaluation.
Land a seat on Lake Chalet’s dock that projects out onto Lake Merritt’s 160-acre liquid sprawl and marvel in the spectacular, inner-city view. Local and special label craft brewed beers and intimate dinner events hosted by chefs, master distillers, wine makers, brewers and other culinary celebrities bring the establishment into modern day relevance.
Like the movie theater, a visit to Lake Chalet offers a fascinating, evolutionary history. The building itself was originally built as a high pressure salt water pumping station for the Oakland Fire Department back in 1909. Marketing manager Dustin Durham, in an email, writes that some people may not realize that Lake Merritt isn’t actually a lake. “It’s a tidal estuary, formed by several creeks that lead to and from the bay, as well as freshwater creeks and streams. Due to this, life underwater contains both ocean and sea life and freshwater creatures.”
The structure that is now Lake Chalet, when seen from an aerial view, looks like a “U”; however, the original structure was only the middle section. The high-pressure salt water pumping station was designed by John Galen Howard, who also designed the Hearst Greek Theater, California Hall and Cal Memorial Stadium at UC Berkeley, as well as the Civic Auditorium and Adam Grant Building in San Francisco, among others. In 1913, two additional wings were added to create the Lake Merritt Municipal Boat House. The building was reopened as the Lake Chalet in 2009, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the original structure.
On the menu are the expected: Grand Seafood Linguini, Battered Fish & Chips, Bourbon Glazed King Salmon and steaks available with “indulgences” such as garlic roasted prawns and Maine lobster tails. “Fabulous Sides” and salads, vegetarian options and soups set broader culinary sails, along with desserts—warm fruit crisps are wonderful end-caps to hefty main courses. Sunday Brunch, kids’ menu and Prime Rib Fridays add appeal, especially for families and group outings.
Afterwards, work off the meal with a hike around Lake Merritt. According to the FAQ page on the venue’s website, “At 3.1 miles long and the average human walking 3 to 4 miles per hour it would take 45 minutes to an hour” to walk the circumference. Not up for a hike? Gondola rides from the dock are available; check the website for updates about availability post-Covid.
Which leads us to the third highlight of the area: the multi racially inclusive Hipline. Especially geared for women and people of marginalized genders planning to turn Lake Chalet’s healthy seafood protein—or any nutrition gained at the area’s many restaurants—into pliant muscularity and physical prowess, find Hipline’s front door on the backside of the building at 3270 Lakeshore Ave.
Allowing for an editorial comment from someone who’s been a gym rat for 30-some years, you won’t suffer self-inflated heroes telling you how to pump iron or sideways eyes from rail-like wiry types. That’s not to say people of such description might not participate, but Hipline’s vibe that goes beyond acceptance and marketing reaches mutual, shared exuberance on a daily basis—regardless of body shape, size, color, age or ability. The attitude is genuine and wipes out judgment.
Opened in 2008 by sisters Samar Isabel Nassar and Gabriela Nassar-Covarelli, they call Hipline a “women-identifying and nonbinary space” that originally offered belly-dance classes that evolved into their style known as Shimmy Pop. With a mission to serve women from all ages, backgrounds, skill levels and incomes, Hipline offers approximately 20 instructors introduced as “choreographers,” customized classes, a class-rate-reduced membership and sensitivity in all its practices to cultural, racial, body and gender identity diversity. Hipline participates in annual outdoor fundraisers and partnerships with Oakland-based nonprofits such as MISSSEY, an organization that provides trauma-informed services for women and fights human trafficking in the Bay Area.
On the website, the owners say, “Our classes and programs center on non-judgment, empathy, and joy. You can expect each class to be infused with heart, creativity, fun, and often, some booty-shaking.” Importantly, transparency has this information: “Our space is not completely physically accessible. We are committed to improving our facility access and offering indoor and livestream classes that include members of the community with a visible or non-visible disability, as we believe this is a part of a community’s diversity. Service dogs are allowed.”
Among the classes available in-person, livestream or on-demand are a broad assortment that universally emphasizes music and specific atmospheres. Shimmy Pop is a cardio dance class that combines high energy music and whole body movement. Power Pop is a targeted strength class that blends recognizable songs with easy-to-follow and challenging movements performed with safety and all fitness levels in mind. The Mix, Shimmy Pop + Power Pop Fusion incorporates dance cardio and strength training into one workout, and Stretch Pop is a joyful exploration into finding your shimmy within breath, music and flowing movements.
Sundays w/ Tiffany is a choreography based class in which every two weeks the dynamic Tiffany drops new, easy-to-learn choreography performed to favorite songs. Industry Pop brings on a one-hour Shimmy Pop class with the added bonus of heart-pumping cardio dance routines. (Note: This is a once a month class held to honor people who work in front facing service industries.)
Another fun option is Learn Samba no Pé with Nadia Q, featuring Brazilian Samba. And for the many people who yearn for stretch, improved posture and mind-body connectivity, join Movement + Meditation Yoga with Archaa. The class integrates posture, breathing and meditation accompanied by a South Asian sound score that draws on Archaa’s Indian roots.
Urban Indigo is our final stop. The multi-purpose gift store presents a collection of curated items chosen with a keen, designer’s eye, making it the perfect last-stop shop to purchase a gift for giving or a memento to keep after a day spent in the Lakeshore district. Household items, handmade jewelry, home furnishing and kitchen textiles, holiday ornaments when in season, socks, cards, journals, jigsaw puzzles, art and special Oakland-themed gifts are available, and the stock is refreshed often. Affordability is a key feature, so if the budget halts at $10, there’s no need to leave empty-handed. Gift wrapping is done with care and flair.
Recently available: an Embroidered Oakland Tea Towel, the city emblems and name silkscreened and embroidered by hand on 100% hand-loomed cotton, it comes presented folded in a reusable organza pouch. A Cali Bear Hug Plush Pillow has an adorable caramel color furry bear hugging a puffy state of California-shaped pillow.
Humor that underlies many items shows up in the Rubber Chickens Window Shade, Birthday Girl Rainbow Tiara (sparkly little gems in sequin colors outline each letter), Avocado Men’s and Girl Power socks, a Constitution Whiskey Glass (buy nine and send them to the SCOTUS), and O-balm-a Lip Balm that bears former President Barack Obama’s image and comes labeled, (Apply Liberally) and (Actually Works).
For sentiment, there are dozens of cards: Greetings from Oakland card; a “Remember the day you were born? BEST. DAY, EVER.” birthday card; and a Magic Butterfly kit with a simple windup butterfly to put in a card or a book, and when it is opened, the butterfly flies. Don’t leave behind the Pop Up Happy Birthday Balloon: Whack the bag, shake it up, and the balloon self-inflates and bursts out of the packaging with a special message for the recipient.
For heartfelt gift-giving or to add fashion to your profile, Urban Indigo’s reasonably priced jewelry is consistently excellent: a Mother of Pearl Green Necklace makes a stunning statement with three bold strands of dime-size disks; Marina Earrings echo the ocean, with seafoam green orbs dangling on simple gold loops; the Leo Bracelet’s 1.5-inch thick, brushed brass outline is robust and lead and nickel free—store it in an airtight container to protect it from tarnishing.
Nature lovers might select the Little Bee House made from premium pine wood that actually provides bees with a safe place to nest in a 4″ x 2.2″ x 5.1” home. Or they may choose the Frog Stone that sits under the waterline in a vase or bowl and separates the stems of a half-dozen flowers for a low-cost table centerpiece.
Urban Indigo always has amazing window designs, often following seasonal themes such as December holidays, Mother’s Day, graduation/wedding seasons or Day of the Dead. Linger on your way out and make a note for the next adventure in Lakeshore.