After frantic venue searches, Jewish film fest back on course

Juggling flaming torches or kittens or chainsaws is hard. But juggling movie theaters? That's really hard.

Yet this is just what Janis Plotkin had to do in the last few months when not one but two longstanding sites for the 21st annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival fell through.

After the late March closure of Berkeley's 1,300-seat UC Theatre and the unexpected loss of the Park Theatre in Menlo Park, the festival's longtime executive artistic director had to scramble to come up with a pair of replacements: U.C. Berkeley's Wheeler Auditorium and Redwood City's Historic Fox Theatre.

"In early April, I called Landmark Theatres' district manager as a joke to say, 'I know you closed the UC, but we're OK at the Park, right?' recalled Plotkin. "He said, 'Actually, something is happening.'"

"Something" turned out to be a rumbling within the Landmark art house chain that, once again, eliminated a place for Plotkin. Landmark's eviction from its theater in Palo Alto Square meant the chain would be forced to shunt that movie house's films over to the Park, displacing the film fest.

Of four original sites, Plotkin was down two. Yet order emerged from the chaos of early April, with four sites nailed down for the July 19 to Aug. 6 festival.

After ruling out the vast Berkeley Community Theatre, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Oakland's Grand Lake and the ornate Paramount and the Albany Twin Theatre, Plotkin settled on Wheeler as the East Bay base.

Situated in the marble, 1930s-era Wheeler Hall, the 760-seat auditorium will be available for matinee showings and, Plotkin points out, comes equipped with all the creature comforts.

"There's air conditioning," she said with a laugh. "The seats are really comfortable, and it's a very relaxed environment. The projection, sound and video are top of the line."

Through a stroke of serendipity, Plotkin was able to snare a new Peninsula venue without so much difficulty. After noticing an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a development group restoring Redwood City's Historic Fox Theatre after the old burlesque house had been closed for four decades, she gave the cinema's new proprietor a call. He was enthusiastic, and a deal was quickly struck.

"It has a full stage with flies [the area over the stage that contains ropes used to raise and lower scenery] and dressing rooms," said Plotkin. "And it's big — 1,400 seats. I was very, very worried about Berkeley, but on the Peninsula things fell apart and came into place all in one week."

The Historic Fox — which officially opens in mid-June with a Tom Jones concert — comes equipped with a large, elaborate foyer the film festival plans to put to good use. After the day's last film is shown on Sunday, July 29, New Bridges to Jewish Community will host an opening night reception at the theater.

"Out of lemons came a bigger theater with a nice lobby so people can enjoy themselves and socialize more," said Plotkin.

Minus the drama of the East Bay and Peninsula sites, the festival retains its traditional San Francisco and Marin venues. The city's Castro Theatre will be hosting the festival for its 13th season, while San Rafael's Rafael Film Center will be in its third year.

And while the bumpy road to this point has taught Plotkin you can never be complacent, with all venues set she's finally able to breathe a little easier.

"The program is at the printer," she said. "That's always a good feeling."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.