Beer, wine could soon be sold at Riverbank movie theater

12/20/2013 7:26 PM

12/20/2013 11:16 PM

Galaxy 12 is poised to become the area’s only first-run movie theater to sell beer and wine – after a $3 million renovation, probably in a few months.

Remodeling work has not yet begun, theater manager Nathan Paul said Friday, and Galaxy’s alcohol-sales application is pending with the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

But the company cleared its most important hurdle when Riverbank planning commissioners on a split vote agreed in September to go along with Galaxy’s plan to sell beer and wine, despite some residents’ protests and the reservations of the police chief.

Before the vote, Galaxy CEO Frank Rimkus cited “our patrons’ growing interest in increasing their movie entertainment experience by having an option to enjoy a glass of wine or bottle of beer while watching their movie.” He compared that to alcohol sales at Gallo Center for the Arts concerts and sporting events.

“Brew and view” theaters have caught on in Texas and the Northeast, and the trend is moving into California, said Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Theatre Owners. From 700 to 800 theaters in the United States serve alcohol, including about 15 in other regions of California.

Industry magazine In Focus said some theaters have separate family and adult-only areas, while others don’t admit viewers under 21. Some require drinking patrons to wear a wristband, and a two-drink maximum is common.

In 2008, Galaxy won approval in Riverbank to serve beer and wine in four second-floor lounges, each holding about 35 adults who would pay an extra $5 to view movies from the rooms. IDs would be checked at entrances accessible by a separate elevator, and drinks would be served only during a movie’s first half.

But the company never built the lounges and its Riverbank permit expired. The recently approved permit has no such constraints.

Before approval, Police Chief Erin Kiely worried that it would be “almost impossible” to stop adults from passing drinks to children in dark theaters. Also, people with “slowed reflexes and impaired judgment” could “elevate the risk to public safety” in an emergency like a fire, Kiely said in written comments.

Fred Wood, a schoolteacher and pastor of Riverbank Holiness Church, predicted “chances of violence at the theater would escalate.”

Former Mayor Charles Neal, also a clergyman, said in a letter to commissioners, “If adults cannot watch a two-hour movie without alcohol, then they have a problem.” Riverbank offers plenty of other establishments where adults can enjoy themselves without exposing children to the vices of alcohol, he said.

Others encouraged commissioners to be open-minded. “Old business models are being updated,” said resident Brian Lomax, citing big-city theaters that “do more than serve candy, popcorn and soda.”

Former school trustee Mark Coons said “added amenities” would help Galaxy remain competitive.

“In our opinion, one of the best things to happen to Riverbank was for Galaxy to locate a 12-screen theater here,” wrote Doug and Polli Hutchins.

On Thursday, Riverbank Chamber of Commerce President Jerry Van Houten said Galaxy has brought “a boost to the economy.” The renovation “is just going to bring more people to Riverbank to see a good movie, and usually when they come, they spend money at other businesses as well,” he said.

Suzanne Lewis said, “I have had a glass of wine at the State Theatre (in downtown Modesto) and see no difference.”

The State, a historic theater run by a nonprofit group, emphasizes independent cinema. Operators obtained a full liquor license a couple of years ago and can sell cocktails in addition to beer and wine. Patrons flock to the martini bar when it’s rolled out on special occasions, said manager Sue Richardson.

“Our patrons love it,” she said. “Champagne and popcorn served with real butter is quite the winning combination.”

Before the Riverbank vote, police chiefs in Nevada and Washington cities with Galaxy cineplexes said they have generated no more calls for law enforcement since the company began serving beer and wine.

Riverbank Planning Commissioner Patricia Hughes voted against the idea, but Commissioners Joan Stewart, John Degele and Carlos Villapudua voted “yes.” Galaxy’s separate application to remodel does not require a commission or City Council vote; planning staff is reviewing the request and could issue a decision in a few weeks, senior community development specialist Janet Smallen said.

Galaxy recently launched beer and wine sales in Atascadero and persuaded planning commissioners in Tulare to grant permission, although its state application for Tulare sales is pending.

Modesto Planning Manager Patrick Kelly said his department has not been approached with such a request from theaters in Modesto. A use permit requiring Planning Commission approval probably would not be needed for cineplexes that aren’t adjacent to residential neighborhoods, he said.

Theaters in Turlock, Manteca and Merced have not applied to sell alcohol, a Riverbank survey found.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

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