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Oakland says goodbye to neighborhood hang-out

Dozens of people lined a dingy street and wrapped around a small brick building. Some curled up in blankets. Others bounced in place or tightened their scarves around their necks as they waited in the freezing night air.

Camera flashes created faux strobe lights as customers tried to snap as many pictures as possible before the theater ushers could wedge them into the crowded lobby.

“Are we going in?” A man in line shouted as the people in front of him finally inched through the glass doors. “Yes, we’re heading in!”

It was almost 9 p.m. on a Sunday, but no one wanted to miss their last chance to say goodbye to their old friend: the Parkway Speakeasy Theater.

On Sun. March 22, the Parkway shut down due to the weak economy, according to owners Kyle and Catherine Fischer. And fans of the theater flocked to attend its last screening, a Swedish vampire movie called the Let the Right One In.

Petitions from Lakeshore community members give some hope that the City of Oakland may reopen the Parkway as a theater, according to a March 24 Oakland Tribune article. However, the theater’s fate is still uncertain.

For many, this theater was the emotional core of the Lake Shore community. “We’re losing a part of our history, and it’s sad,” said Nicole Leigh, an Oakland resident and Parkway customer.

Leigh and her friends made a spur of the moment sign that said “I [symbol of a heart] the Parkway” in magic marker and green glitter. The women stood by the road in front of the theater and held up the sign as passing cars honked in support.

The Parkway first opened in 1997 when the two Fischers wanted to create a safe place for members of the Oakland community to hang out: a combination of a movie theater, a restaurant and a pub.

Except for the weekend matinees, only people over 21 could get in because of the theater’s open beer tap.

For five dollars, which is half the cost most movie theaters charge, customers could lay back on well-worn couches with popcorn kernels peppering the cushions and watch a flick. Plates of nachos or pizza and pitchers of beer often cluttered the coffee tables between these seats.

“It’s like being in a big living room,” Leigh said.

The theater does not seem like much at first glance. The pink walls at the entrance clashed with the faded and peeling yellow walls in the lobby. The carpet had worn away at places, yet for customers like Emma Cofod, these little “problems” made the Parkway special.

“What people want is beer and food, not a marketing scheme,” she said. “And the theater knew it’s community.”

“All the furniture is used – there’s a reality to that,” she added.

Husband and wife Gary and Kristen Schillinger would agree. They went to the Parkway every week for the last seven years and do not watch movies anywhere else.

In fact, Gary said, “We didn’t know anybody when we first moved to Oakand, and the Parkway was our first friend.”

The two said that they are willing to support the Parkway’s sister theater, the El Cerrito Speakeasy Theater, but the Parkway still has a place in their hearts.

Oakland residents Carol Fields and Jendyi Plaid also have fond memories of the Parkway. They had their first date at the Parkway and watched Stardust, a fantasy romance based on a book by Neil Gaiman, there.

“It was the perfect atmosphere [for a date], cuddling up on the couch,” Plaid said.

In order to make sure that they had tickets to the last movie the Parkway ever showed, Plaid stood in line from 4 p.m. that Sunday afternoon until around 6:30 p.m.

Fields said that she and Plaid had not gone to the theater in a while but were “[t]here to say goodbye.”

At 11:10 p.m., the customers filed out the Parkway’s glass doors and the red neon sign that flashed the word “Parkway” for the last twelve years turned off for good.

Regardless of whether the Parkway will reopen, it will remain alive in it’s customers’ memories and photographs for years to come.