Palo Alto Centennial
Publication Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994

The golden decade of silver screens

by Diane Sussman

With four movie theaters, including the reborn Stanford Theatre, Palo Alto is a great place for movie buffs. But in terms of number of movie houses, the current selection still pales in comparison to what the city offered in the '70s.

In those bygone days, Palo Alto boasted 10 theaters, the bulk of them small, independent movie houses, the kind with worn-out seats, frayed movie posters, popcorn with real butter and good deals on double features.

University Avenue alone had three independent movie houses: the Stanford Music Hall, the New Varsity and the adults-only Paris Theater. Within walking distance were four more, the Aquarius and the Bijou--now the site of the Gordon Biersch Brewery--on Emerson Street, the Biograph on Bryant Street and the Festival on Hamilton Avenue.

The California Avenue area, Palo Alto's "other downtown," added two more: the Fine Arts on California Avenue and the newly built, split-screen Palo Alto Square.

Even Menlo Park was more of a movie town then. Now down to two theaters, the city used to have three, until the Menlo on Santa Cruz Avenue closed its doors in the early '80s.

Perhaps the funkiest of the old independent movie houses was the Festival, a revival house with a mishmash of beanbag chairs and mattresses strewn on the floor in front of the screen.

But no theater epitomized the popularity of the Palo Alto movie scene in the '70s better than the New Varsity, which offered a literate, countercultural blend of double features, live music, a bar, live theater, erotic and independent film festivals, and a string of benefits for political and human rights causes. It was not uncommon to find celebrities like Jane Fonda, Burt Lancaster or Joan Baez stumping for a better world at the Varsity.

The owners added a restaurant and bar and offered music, often performed by such Windham Hill artists as Tuck & Patti and Michael Hedges.

"There was always the community aspect," said Randy Lutge, former Varsity general manager. "Where else in Palo Alto could you sit outside under a full moon and sway to the music of Corpo Santo?"