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Rheem's "Electric Tiara" Shines Again

But plenty of questions remain over the long-term fate of Moraga's most visible landmark.

The Rheem Theatre's "electric tiara," historian Ben Hall's term for movie houses' glowing signs, will shine again June 25.  That is the opening night celebration and membership drive to raise awareness and funds for the theater's new owners: you.

The California Independent Film Festival (CAIFF), working with owner Mike Puri, town officials, and the community at large, will determine how long the theater's latest breath of life will last.

"We'd like to promote the arts and bring back to the community," says Beau Behan, CAIFF's Program & Promotions Director.  "The film festival is based in Orinda, but Lamorinda is our first sphere," he explains, about the Moraga theater's rebirth. 

And explanation is surely needed, a fact made obvious by comments from area residents.  Despite widespread coverage in the local press and EastBayDaze, many in the community remain unclear about the New Rheem's intentions.

I know that they're opening, but I don't know what they're up to," says Bess Inzeo, a four-year resident of Moraga.

"I think it's going to be mainly foreign films," says Tatiana Gessling, 15, heading into her junior year at Campolindo High School.

"I know my kids are fired up," says Charlie Younger, of Orinda, before admitting that he, too, doesn't know what the theater is "up to."

What's up is still taking shape, according to Behan.  A nonchalant conversation in late May — that's just 3 weeks ago — between the CAIFF and the Moraga Chamber of Commerce, has turned into a whirlwind of brainstorming and activity.

 Inside the theater, physical renovations have begun.  Outside the theater, in the community, Behan is meeting with organizations like Saint Mary's College, the Green Mile Society, and Moraga Movers to explore partnerships.  Online, the new website offers programming information, a speculative list of community-related collaborations and a simple, three-click process for becoming a member.

 Edy Schwartz, president of the Moraga Chamber of Commerce points out the importance of the theater's reincarnation: "It's a wonderful space, that's one piece; having the history of the theater preserved.  And for the community to have this opportunity right at our doorstep…."  She leaves the sentence dangling, then, unable to hold back her enthusiasm, finishes with, "Everyone I've talked to is totally thrilled and excited."

If she's been talking to Vice Mayor Karen Mendonca, she's right.  "I love having a local theater," Mendonca begins.  "It's a wonderful opportunity and there's such great potential to make it responsive to the community."

"Our nature is to reach out," Behan says, making the innovative partnerships ahead sound like a fête accompli.  "We have experience working with partners every step of the way."  To establish community trust, he highlights CAIFFF's history. "We've always treated ourselves as a business first.  A lot of film festival organizations come and go, but we've been around for 12 years," he says.

 To inflame Lamorindan's imaginations, he speaks of classic film series, director and critics' lectures, student film festivals, live music and theater, poetry reading, even ballroom dance classes.

 If the community is uncertain about the details, they express a single-minded clarity about the need and importance of a local theater:

"It's hard to get over to Walnut Creek, because we don't have licenses," says Gessling. 

"It's going to be more open, more convenient," agrees Maddi Larson, also 15.

"It's more like our town: family-oriented," says Megan Detrane.  At 16, she has her license, but prefers staying in town for entertainment.

 "I don't have to see a movie first; I'd just rather see it here," is the response of Richelle Serrano.  "And I love the short commute time.  You can decide on a whimsy — and just go."

The new plans and dreams are blockbuster, to borrow from Hollywood lingo.  Behan expects the first-run films to attract audiences.  But to survive, the Rheem Theatre must have community partnership.  It must have Lamorindans.  On June 25th, follow Serrano's advice to "decide on a whimsy — and just go."

The New Rheem Theatre's Grand Re-Opening, June 25th, begins with a reception at 6:30 p.m.  A feature film presentation of "Grown Ups" follows at 8:00 p.m.  For tickets and complete information, visit the theater's website at thenewrheemtheatre.com

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