Before the cineplex
New book recalls the drive-ins, nickelodeons and elegant movie palaces that once proliferated on the Peninsula
When Gary Lee Parks looks at a photo of an old movie theater, he focuses on the visual details: etched-glass chandeliers, Art Deco patterns, gilded plaster scrolls.
Jack Tillmany sees the theaters and films as more of a sociology lesson. Viewers can glimpse the days when movies were the hottest entertainment around, or when tail-finned tanks packed the drive-in. Then there are the moments of wry humor when a movie shot 80 years ago still rings true.
"I was just watching 'Gentlemen Are Born,' which was made in 1934," Tillmany said. "All these people graduating from college with high hopes and then they can't get a job. Does that sound familiar?"
Parks and Tillmany have combined their different viewpoints into a photo-rich book: "Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula." The 128-page volume was just released by South Carolina-based Arcadia Publishing as part of its ongoing series of local and regional history books.
Through black-and-white photos and captions, Parks and Tillmany trace a trajectory of Bay Area cinematic history from storefront nickelodeons to cineplexes, from Daly City to Sunnyvale. Photos range from faded shots from the turn of the 20th century to contemporary images.
Most of the stories don't have Hollywood endings. Over and over, shoebox screens and elaborate movie palaces alike get delapidated, abandoned, revamped or demolished. They're victims of television's success, changing tastes or business decisions. (Who remembers the Festival Cinema on Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto, where '70s moviegoers could sit on beanbags?)
Theaters that survive and thrive are few, with Palo Alto's downtown Stanford Theatre one of the book's stars.
"The Stanford has been gloriously preserved by David Packard," Tillmany said. "It's unique because he goes to incredible lengths to keep the theater in pristine condition and show vintage films, and bring in silent films with the Wurlitzer organ."
Photos in Tillmany's and Parks' book follow the Stanford from its 1925 opening at 221 University Ave. (at a cost of $300,000). The theater showed off a "colorful blend of Greek and Assyrian styles" thanks to the Robert E. Powers Studio and architects Charles Weeks and William Day, the book states. Vintage photos show the terracotta floor in the lobby, the orchestra pit, the balcony.
In a street shot of the theater and its environs in 1941, University Avenue is lined with cars sporting big round fenders, and the Joan Crawford flick "When Ladies Meet" is showing. In a 1950s photo, fluttering flags, an enlarged marquee and moving neon arrows announce Marilyn Monroe in "Bus Stop," with red Bevelite letters shouting, "It's sensational!"
On the book's facing page is a contemporary photo, in which the Stanford Theatre doesn't look all that different. After it housed a last run of first-run movies in the 1980s, Packard purchased and restored the theater, and has devoted it to showing classic movies since 1989.
Another of the movie palaces that has lasted, albeit as a home of live entertainment, is the Fox Theatre in Redwood City.
The Fox is the performance home of the Broadway by the Bay theater group, and also hosts concerts and other events. A photo in the book shows the venue at its 1929 opening as the Sequoia Theatre, when it "was quite modern in its almost skyscraper-like use of vertical lines." Ushers stand tall in bow ties and neatly pressed uniforms.
The Sequoia suffered a downturn during the Depression, and in 1950 the ceiling came down — literally — during a showing of the Gregory Peck flick "The Gunfighter," injuring 27 patrons. But the theater was reopened and rechristened as the Fox a few months later. Today, the Fox retains its grandeur with a similar marquee, elegant lobby and vaulted ceilings.
Most of the book's images came from the 2,000-photo collection of Tillmany, who once managed movie houses and has assembled photos and memorabilia from San Francisco-area theaters for years.
Parks contributed many contemporary photos, along with his knowledge and connections. He's on the board of the Theatre Historical Society of America, and his father was an animator for Disney and Hanna-Barbera.
Parks also brought his visual-arts skills. As a muralist and stained-glass designer, he's worked not only on documenting theaters in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz and Monterey areas, but on restoring them.
In Menlo Park, he worked on the now 64-year-old Park Theatre on El Camino Real when it was still showing films. (The Park has been sitting empty since 2002, when building owner Howard Crittenden evicted Landmark Theatres.)
Behind a boarded-up area in the box office is some of Parks' glass work, he said. Panels from the 1940s, elaborately detailed with fleur-de-lys and leaf patterns, had been damaged, and Parks replaced two of them. Inside the theater, he replicated an old etched-glass sign for the men's room.
A photo in the book shows the Park in earlier days, with the neon sign aglow and its letters spelling out: "The Importance of Being Earnest / A bit Wilde."
Parks was also active in the campaign to save Palo Alto's Varsity Theatre at 456 University Ave., another venue in the book that hasn't fared as well as the Stanford and the Fox. It closed in 1994, to be replaced by a Borders bookstore.
Parks was part of the long preservation battle over the Varsity. "A few of us, after we lost the fight to keep the theater, worked with the developer to see as much saved as possible," he said. A lot was. A recent photo shows the marquee, which was kept along with the courtyard, lobby, auditorium ceiling and other features.
Older pictures show the Varsity's original 1927 arch-shaped front sign, a 1942 "Victory Hut" selling war bonds in front of the theater, and the 1950s snack bar, gleaming with etched aluminum. The book also notes that the Varsity housed folk, jazz and rock concerts by the '70s.
With Borders now bankrupt, the old theater site's future is now in question. Some have suggested that it once more house the performing arts, which Parks thinks is a great idea. "Borders added side spaces that could be used as dressing rooms," he mused.
Parks and Tillmany teamed up to write "Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula" after earlier experiences with Arcadia Publishing. Parks, a Sunnyvale resident, wrote "Theatres of San Jose." Tillmany, who lives in Walnut Creek, wrote "Theatres of San Francisco" and then "Theatres of Oakland" with Jennifer Dowling.
While the books are centered on historic photos, Tillmany said he and his co-authors have always tried to include as many pieces of factual information and dates as possible, for future historians. They contacted historical societies and museums for help.
The book focuses on movie houses, with a few performing-arts theaters here and there. Menlo Park's old Burgess Theatre, where the Menlo Players Guild and a young TheatreWorks performed, makes an appearance. The theater was demolished in 2002 after structural damage was found.
Some long-lost movie theaters in the book will be a revelation for readers, especially younger people who have never seen drive-ins. "We got some dynamite aerial views of them that really showed how much acreage they took up," Tillmany said.
Several pages are devoted to the Redwood Drive-in, which opened at 557 E. Bayshore Blvd. in 1961. It had space for 1,300 cars and a screen that was 90 feet high and 130 feet wide, allegedly the tallest outdoor movie screen in the world, according to the book. The theater had expanded to four screens by the mid-1970s, with a playground and a huge snack bar. An aerial shot shows its sweeping space next to Highway 101.
With its popularity ebbing, the Redwood Drive-in closed in 1987 and was replaced in 1991 by the Century Park 12 theater — which was shuttered in 2006.
Theaters and films come and go, but Tillmany remains steadfast in his love of the cinematic past. He said he doesn't see current movies at all, as they're too close to modern, often disturbing issues.
"I grew up during World War II. They (the films) depicted the war from a safe distance, and also were an escape from the realities of the war, which people needed," he said. "At any given time, that's always been their function, to escape reality."
As for Parks, he has a confession to make: "We watch more Netflix now than going out to movies."
However, he notes, he and his wife watch films at home in 1927 theater chairs from the old Harding Theatre in San Francisco, with cast-iron housings and carved wooden armrests.
Info: Jack Tillmany and Gary Lee Parks are scheduled to sign copies of "Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula" on Friday, Sept. 9, at the Stanford Theatre, 221 University Ave., Palo Alto. Books will be for sale at the candy counter, and the pair will be doing signings before the 7:30 p.m. Buster Keaton double feature, and in between the two films.
For more about the event, go to stanfordtheatre.org ; for more about the book, go to arcadiapublishing.com .