Just before 8 a.m. on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I joined a long and polite line outside of The New Parkway theater at 474 24th St. in Oakland to watch the Presidential Inauguration ceremony on the big screen.

It was still bright and cold out – I had actually scraped ice off of my car windshield before starting the ignition 15 minutes earlier – and the theater itself seemed sleepily surprised at its early morning wake-up call, as cold and slow to start as everyone waiting in line.

At the food counter inside of the theater, the coffee was just starting to brew. Onscreen, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) was warming up the podium. New Parkway patrons started settling themselves into chairs in Theater One to watch the ceremony unfolding in Washington, D.C. We were an all-ages and all-ethnicities group of spectators and together we were gathered, along with the crowd onscreen and with other crowds across time zones, to witness the ceremonial start of the second term for the 44th President of the United States.

The first time Barack Obama was sworn in, on Jan. 20, 2009, I was in Washington, D.C, fresh off of a red-eye flight that landed half an hour before the Inauguration address was scheduled to begin. Dashing through the metro system with all of my baggage hanging off of my body, I emerged above-ground to the heart-stopping sight of people gathering on the National Mall, as far as the eye could see. Two million people, news sources would report, bundled like snow people against the freezing winter morning; two million people standing together holding flags, waving signs, chanting Obama, listening to the loudspeakers with heads bowed, tears freezing on eyelashes. I remember that, when we cheered, the ground literally shook with the cheering.

On this morning in 2013, the audience at the New Parkway was no less enthusiastic, though smaller and warmer. Together, we laughed as Sasha Obama yawned on-camera, listened intently to Richard Blanco’s Inaugural poem and applauded with real fervor after Beyonce’s rendition of the National Anthem.

There’s an immense potency to sharing cultural moments with strangers.

It’s why we go to Super Bowl and Academy Awards parties, why we head to the streets for spontaneous celebrations or protests after watershed political moments. It’s why we might attend a special screening of “The Goonies” even when we have the DVD at home. In the shared experience, it’s not only friends and family, but strangers we get to love – strangers who cheer and clap at the same moments we do and at different and unexpected times, too.

The offering of that community space was J Moses Ceaser’s primary motivation behind establishing The New Parkway, the resurrected version of the original Parkway Speakeasy Theater that closed in 2009. Ceaser is the guy who currently serves as The New Parkway’s general manager; he’s also the guy who decided to take the plunge into the project in the first place, who contracted with Black Creek Builders, who rounded up 56 separate investors, who took on nearly $1 million in debt and who poured his current life into nearly every aspect of the endeavor to open the theater.

As a “second-run” theater that screens films only after they have left the big first-run theaters like AMC, The New Parkway is able to devote much of its programming to events that gather together people who appreciate particular themes – cult classics, grindhouse, midnight shows, presidential Inaugurations orThrillville Theater nights curated by the original Parkway’s Will Vaharo.

Ceaser’s background is in photography and nonprofits, not in movie theater operations; he’ll readily admit that he has no idea what he’s doing sometimes and that he and his staff figure out problems as they go. A month into the theater’s opening, “We’ve now worked out about 90 percent of the things we wish we’d worked out before we opened,” Ceaser told me, with some admirably dry humor.

But he knows why he’s suddenly found himself in the movie theater business: Because he’s committed to keeping this unique community space open and accessible to anyone. The New Parkway is all-ages, community-minded (Ceaser makes it a point to pay high wages and to utilize local vendors) and affordable. Most screenings are $6 and no single serving on the menu (which features staples like pizza, nachos, grilled meats and, of course, beer) is more than $10.

“I feel that a community theater needs to have inexpensive prices,” Ceaser said. “I used to go to the Parkway because it was the only place I could afford. I knew that for $10 I could get a movie and a slice of pizza and be around people.”

In the 20 minutes that Ceaser and I spent chatting, half a dozen people approached to let him know that they plan to return often and thanked him for hosting an Inauguration screening that brought them out of their living rooms and into a shared experience.

Ceaser has lots of upcoming plans for continuing to bring people out into their “second living room,” including, yes, both a Super Bowl screening and an Academy Awards screening.

That means that you can look forward to sharing this cozy second living room on a regular basis in the company of neighbors and beautiful strangers, seated on a second-hand couch, pint of beer in hand.
Upcoming at The New Parkway:

The New Parkway hosts a “Grease” Sing-Along this weekend, Jan. 26-27. Enough said.

Also look out for Nerd Nite East Bay #4 on Monday, Jan. 28, featuring discussions on collective behavior and global good.


Elsewhere in Oakland:

Foodies and art appreciators alike will be excited to know that Off the Grid debuts at the Oakland Museum of California TODAY, Friday, Jan. 25, and will continue to return to the OMCA every Friday from here on out. Along with food trucks, local beer and wine and live entertainment, you also get half-price admission and extended hours at the museum.

Another art party also is popping up TODAY, as F3 takes over the Cotton Mill Studios. Park at the Fruitvale BART station and hop onboard a free F3 shuttle to the Cotton Mill, where open studios, art exhibits, food trucks, a design bazaar, live performances and champagne await. Oh, and free admission.

And continuing with the art theme, Swarm Gallery + Studios will host a six-program experimental music series called “Sound Salon” starting this Saturday, Jan. 26. This first evening, curated by local musician Tim Kim, brings together three music-makers from Chapel Hill, San Francisco and Portland, and is a series debut not to be missed.


Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact goingout@oaklandlocal.com.

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