The names David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and Elton John are well-known, but what may not be is that Berkeley High School’s Community theater has hosted these performers, alongside many more. Designed nearly a century ago in 1938 by architects Henry H. Gutterson and William Corlett Sr., the venue has made a name for itself and drawn the attention of many.
The murals on the sides of the theater that many students pass on their way to or from the school are artworks by the well-known sculptors Jacques Schnier and Robert Howard. These murals include a large T-shaped bas-relief of St. George slaying a dragon, as well as the words “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Students who attended Berkeley High during the years of WWII would frequently refer to the uncompleted building as the “Bird Cage” because of its exposed metal framework, home to countless seagulls waiting for students to finish their lunches. Later on, in the ’60s and ’70s, many musical legends made their appearances at the theater, including The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and more. At the time, the great size of the theater made it a clear competitor to nearby settings, like the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.
The performances often left lasting impressions, one case being Bruce Springsteen’s set at the theater on July 1, 1978. With his mother, father, and sister present, that night’s recording of “Prove It All Night,” was seriously considered for an official release following the performance. On yet another night, every song from Springsteen’s “The Ghost Of Tom Joad” was performed for the very first time, including the first live appearance of “The New Timer.”
However, non-musical figures have also graced the stage, including the 14th Dalai Lama in 2014, who came to share his wisdom on the key to happiness, and Bernie Sanders in 2018.
Berkeley’s community theater is rich with history, and yet many students find themselves unaware of it.
BHS juniors Marley Pierce and Nur Makdisi, for example, were oblivious to the theater’s complex backstory. While Pierce has been at Berkeley High since her freshman year, and Makdisi since the beginning of the 2022-23 school year, both admitted to knowing “absolutely nothing” when it came to the complex history of the Community Theater.
However, neither of them was surprised by these big names having performed there. They pointed out that Berkeley, and Berkeley High specifically, has a pretty well-known history with the arts, naming now-actor and former BHS alumnus Andy Samberg as an example.
Downtown Berkeley is a hub for the arts, consisting of many art-centered exhibits and buildings such as the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Aurora Theater Company, and the California Jazz Conservatory. Given this, it is not too surprising that well-respected musical artists have performed at Berkeley’s Community theater.
Students’ cluelessness as to some of this history may come from the fact that the theater has been under construction. In July 2020, it began undergoing major renovations funded by a 2010 school facilities bond measure.