Since first opening its doors the day after Christmas in 1956, Livermore's Vine Cinema has undergone several transitions and has thrived in spite of obstacles like new competition arriving in town over the past six decades.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is a new and unexpected challenge that poses a threat to the future of the two-screen film theater and alehouse in downtown.
"When (COVID-19) was mostly still overseas and there were reports that all movie theaters in China were closed by the Chinese government, I was like, 'There's just no way in my wildest dreams that would ever happen in a million years in the United States.' And then less than two months later, it happened," said Vine owner and operator Kenny Way, adding that the experience has been "mind-blowing."
The Vine, located at 1722 First St. in downtown Livermore, has been closed since March 16.
Best known throughout the Tri-Valley for offering a unique movie-going experience, the Vine normally serves food, beer and wine delivered directly to guests' table or couch inside one of two auditoriums where independent or classic films are usually shown, or live sporting events.
The theater transitioned to this format and added "Alehouse" to its name in 2009 in an effort to set itself apart from the larger Livermore 13 Cinema that opened up less than a mile away from the Vine in 2006 -- which had been the boutique theater's most difficult challenge, prior to the coronavirus that is, according to Way.
In the past six months, with movie theaters shut down, the Vine has had to develop creative ways to stay afloat, including selling popcorn and carnival treats on the weekends like cotton candy slushies and chocolate-dipped cheesecake on a stick.
"When we first started doing curbside popcorn sales, I thought we might get about 10 orders over about a five-hour period. But the event went from being something that I thought would bring in a couple hundred dollars to making $15,000 over the first weekend," Way said. "I was blown away."
Way said the treat sales have not remained as high since then, though there is still an outpouring of community support for the effort.
However, that alone isn't sustainable enough for the theater to survive, which is what led to the creation of a GoFundMe campaign benefiting Vine Cinema in early August. Organized by a team of six, including Way, the ongoing campaign has raised nearly $100,000 to date -- already exceeding its initial goal.
"In about 50 hours, so just a little over two days worth, we passed our $65,000 goal. And that was 100% social media," Way said. "We got this amazing $40,000 in the first 24 hours, and then it was up to like $61,000 after exactly two days, and then after another two hours it passed our goal."
Way added that the success of the campaign wasn't attributed to incredibly large donations made by a handful of wealthy donors, but rather a culmination of small donations ranging from $20 to $1,000.
"It was completely amazing and so humbling to see the large number of people support us," he said.
Due to the uncertainty of when he will be able to open the Vine's doors again, Way plans to keep the GoFundMe campaign going as long as contributions continue to roll in. Donations, he said, will go mostly toward paying rent, utilities, insurance, equipment maintenance and other expenses to sustain the business and create a financial cushion.
"Once we do open up, we've already been told that we're going to be subject to a 25% capacity, so we're not going to be profitable for the first six to 10 months after we open up because of the fact that we can't really maximize our seating capacity," Way said.
A Livermore native, Way has been involved with the Vine since 1989 when he was hired on as a 16-year-old student at Granada High School. He continued to work at the Vine even while pursuing a degree in business administration at San Jose State University, and later purchased the theater in 2000.
Under Way's leadership, the Vine underwent an extensive remodel, which included replacing the old and tarnished marquee with the updated, more elaborate sign that exists today and usually bears currently playing movie titles but is now being used to promote positive messages and is being rented by community members who want to share greetings for special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries.
In addition to showing films and sports, the Vine hosts popular community events when it is open, including an annual Oscar party where there's a red carpet, guests dress in formal attire and the Academy Awards show is shown on a theater screen.
"We've been doing that for about 11 years now, and we were lucky enough to do it this year before COVID hit," Way said.
He has also allowed people to rent out the theater to host events of their own, including marriage proposals. "I think there have been about eight or nine proposals through the years where we show like a three- or four-minute video on the screen and then afterwards they propose," he said. "It was always fun to be a part of that."
Wayne and Peggy Coleman are one of the couples who got engaged at the Vine, in 2010, six years after having their first date there.
The couple live in Livermore and runs Hands On Chiropractic in Pleasanton. They are longtime movie buffs, so getting engaged in a theater was fitting.
"When the Vine is open, we see almost every movie that's there," Wayne Coleman said, adding that prior to COVID-19, they would typically see about two to five movies a week.
When it came time to propose, Wayne rented out one of the auditoriums for three hours and filled it with their closest friends and family members. Since he owns a local business, he created a short video ad to promote his practice and convinced his soon-to-be fiancee that there was a reception for new advertisers taking place at the Vine.
Theater employees also got involved with the plan. "When we walked in, they asked 'are you with the advertising group?' They even had a sign that said 'advertising' on the marquee," Peggy said.
When the couple arrived, the lights had been dimmed so that she wouldn't recognize everyone in the seats. When their advertisement played, there was a surprise message at the end.
"At the very end of it, it was just me on the screen and I said something along the lines of, 'I want to thank you all for coming and finding out about Hands On Chiropractic. We at Hands On Chiropractic really care for our patients but the one we care for more is Peggy. Peggy, will you marry me?'" Wayne recounted, holding back tears.
Still convinced that she was at an advertising reception, Peggy said she was confused and thought he had disrupted the event. After accepting the proposal, she said she felt a tap on her shoulder and was shocked to turn around and see it was her daughter. As the lights were turned back on and she looked around the theater, she realized the room was filled with their loved ones, not advertisers.
"And they've been really good to us," Peggy said of the staff at the Vine. "Almost every year that we've gone there on our anniversary, they comp us anniversary tickets since we got engaged there."
The Colemans recently contributed to the GoFundMe campaign in an effort to help save the Vine and be able share more memories at their favorite theater.
"I would be really heartbroken if it went away because that's our relationship, where it all started," Peggy Coleman said. "We've seen some fabulous movies there. If (Way) opened the Vine today, we would be there today."