Bernice Baeza, Leader of Lark Theater Renovation, Dies of Cancer

With other volunteers, Baeza saved a movie house that was bound for demolition and turned it into a community gem.

Bernice Baeza, the driving force behind the restoration effort and eventual success of the nonprofit , as well as the driver of the efforts to restore the long-shutteredNovato Theater, died Saturday of lung cancer. She was 69.

The word of Baeza's passing was distributed by volunteers of the nonprofit theater renovation campaign through contacts at the Lark Theater, where Baeza served as executive director.

Baeza died at 3:34 p.m. Saturday with her family by her side, according to a memo from the Lark Theater board of directors.

With a core group of volunteers, Baeza took on the task of dusting off the Lark Theater, a circa-1936 movie house on Magnolia Avenue in downtown Larkspur that was abandoned and threatened with demolition. In 2004, Baeza and other volunteers started a campaign to reopen the theater mostly for film and public events. She also helped secure donations from more than 800 people to ultimately buy the building.  

"Working day and night, Bernice put the Lark on the cultural map as an innovator, and under her inspired direction, the theater went beyond popular cinema," the Lark board said in a statement. "Her vision was that the Lark should be a "community cultural center" providing entertainment for all ages."

The board called "Bernice's tenacity for saving the Lark from demolition to what it is today" a "work of genius," vowing to keep the theater alive and thriving now that she's passed.

"Although Bernice will no longer be standing at the door greeting the public, nor announcing from the stage the many upcoming events while encouraging all to become members, it would have been her wish that THE SHOW MUST GO ON!" the board said. 

In the past two years, Baeza also focused on restoring the Novato Theater on Grant Avenue in that city's Old Town area and turning it into a thriving arts center with live performances, films, speaking engagements and other events.

Baeza started from scratch with her knowledge about Novato and in making contacts as she tackled the challenge of creating a nonprofit, purchasing the old movie house from the city and laying out plans for redesigns and retrofits. She spent two years on the effort and celebrated the success of buying the theater from the city for $50,000 after raising about $800,000 in donated and pledged funds from private residents and other contributors.

With her declining health, Baeza had not been actively involved with the Novato fundraising efforts. She moved to Los Angeles in March for what is now understood to be intensive treatments for her medical condition, according to Susan Bell-Warner, who handled marketing for the theater renovation.

Plans are being made for a memorial service. Baeza is survived by her brother and sister, Richard Dickstein and Judith Hendricks; her daughters, Alana Capozzi and Jenna Capozzi-Rutgersson; and her three grandchildren, Nicole Nogueras, Gabriel Nogueras and Logan Rutgersson.

Would you like to share your memories of Bernice Baeza? Leave a comment below.

Karen Wagner July 25, 2012 at 04:53 AM
My kids and I are crushed to hear of Bernice's passing. She always made my preteen and my teen feel so welcome at the Met HD Live opera productions at the Lark Theater. Bernice impressed us with her love of films and her generosity in giving time to make the Lark such a hit. We will always remember her warm smile, her tips on films and fun, her cool outfits and of course the wonderful treats she made sure to have ready for her guests. Bernice and her family are in our prayers. Karen, Lorin & Elena Wagner, Novato
Pat Ravasio July 26, 2012 at 12:16 AM
I am devastated to return home to this sad, sad news. Bernice was the spark plug that got so many good things happening in Larkspur!!! I find it hard to believe she is gone! She was always so strong, and so concerned about what projects were next. She never even mentioned her illness to me. I saw her often. Our office is right next door to the theatre that she re-created from the ground up! There she always was, greeting people, making sure everything was just right for her movie goers. This is such sad news for our little town! I loved this amazing woman. She will be missed.
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