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Bernice Baeza, Driving Force Behind Theater Renovations, Fondly Recalled

The community gathers at the historic Lark Theater to honor Baeza, who died in July while leading a campaign to restore the long-closed Novato Theater.

Bernice Baeza Day in Larkspur was a chance for everyone to celebrate the gifts left behind by the woman who spearheaded the renovation of the Lark Theater and was well on her way to rescuing another dusty relic in Novato.

Bernice Arlene Dickstein Capozzi Baeza died July 21 at age 69. Just months earlier, she was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer that had metastasized to her liver, bones and brain. She had been receiving treatment in Los Angeles and reportedly was doing well until she contracted pneumonia. Baeza, as committed as she was to the and her efforts to restore the Novato Theater, continued working until three days before she lost her battle.

"She loved the Lark, she loved the community and all she was able to do for Larkspur," said Baeza's youngest daughter, Jenna Capozzi-Rutgersson.

Going through Baeza's memorabilia, her daughters found completed screenplays and even a novel she had written, but hadn't shared with anyone. Baeza kept her private affairs close but opened her heart to her community and the Lark Theater.

Baeza, saddened to see the once-glorious theater shuttered, enlisted a group of volunteers to restore the circa-1936 movie house on Magnolia Avenue. 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 through a nonprofit organization in 2011. 

Starting in 2009, Baeza started to help volunteers in Novato make progress in raising funds to restore a downtown movie house that opened in 1945 and closed in 1991. Baeza recruited people dedicated to give the Novato Theater a similar but more extensive physical makeover and reopen it as a performing arts and film center. Baeza's group raised $750,000 in donations, enough to allow the city goverment to sell the theater to the upstart nonprofit for $50,000. Fundraising is ongoing as renovation plans continue to progress.

As Baeza's daughters and friends spoke at the memorial, they occasionally looked up and spoke to Baeza. Her spirit is alive and well at the theater, almost as a guardian angel looking over the community and the Lark, according to some.

Larkspur Vice-Mayor Dan Hillmer and District 5 County Supervisor Judy Arnold joined Baeza's friends and family in a private memorial Saturday morning at the art deco theater she helped rescue. A public memorial was held later in the day.

"She was a terrific person and an inspiration to us all," Hillmer said. "Bernice has made Larkspur a better place to live by her inspired actions and support of our community."

The Larkspur City Council declared Aug. 25 to be Bernice Baeza Day and will adjourn the next City Council meeting in her memory.

The Lark Theater stands as a monument to the spirit of volunteerism and the passion for the arts that she instilled in her daughters, Alana Capozzi and Jenna Capozzi-Rutgersson, and grandchildren Nicole, Gabriel, Logan, as well as everyone with whom she came into contact.

The memorial included a video tribute to Baeza that prompted a flow of tears. The tribute included a video from her sister Judith and brother-in-law, Grammy Award-winning musician John Hendricks. It also included photos of Baeza throughout her life, from a smiling baby girl in New York City to a joyous community activist in Larkspur.

Baeza was born May 6, 1943. She was the youngest of three children in a family of Russian immigrants but also a child of the theater. Her parents met on the vaudeville stage, according to Rutgersson, and although they were poor, they had love.

Baeza met her first husband, Dominic Capozzi, at age 18 and spent time holding hands on dates at the movie theater. The two married and moved to Southern California in the '60s. Following his death in an accident, she moved to Larkspur with her daughters and threw herself into the arts scene.

Rutgersson remembered her mother always had an arts and crafts project going on the kitchen table. She shared Baeza's love of film and now has a production studio in Los Angeles.

Rutgersson and Baeza once went to the Telluride Film Festival, where they met director Michael Moore. Rutgersson recalled how in awe Moore was of everything Baeza was able to accomplish with the Lark Theater.

"She restored it a a community gathering place and destination in our historic downtown for all those who love film," Hillmer said. "Her work to save the Lark Theater is an inspiration to all our community."

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