Before the cineplex | September 2, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - September 2, 2011

Before the cineplex

New book recalls the drive-ins, nickelodeons and elegant movie palaces that once proliferated on the Peninsula

by Rebecca Wallace

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.

This story contains 1478 words.

Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.

If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.

Log in     Subscribe


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm

In describing the details of the glory of the past grandeur of movie theaters, it is also worth reminding ourselves that going to a movie in a theater (as opposed to a drive-in) was an occasion worth dressing up for. It was an event that needed a certain standard of attire which is also something that has gone the way of the dodo bird.

Perhaps if we can reclaim the glory of the Varsity we can also reclaim the glory of dressing for an evening out.

Like this comment
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 3, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Why no mention of the Fine Arts on California?

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 5, 2011 at 10:39 pm

Oh .... I never knew that Menlo Park had a big theater ... I wish I had gotten to see it. I do remember the ... theater on Santa Cruz Ave ... but not so well I guess since I cannot think of the name ... the Menlo?

Like this comment
Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Sep 6, 2011 at 8:50 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comment was moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of the Barron Park neighborhood, on Sept. 3, 2011 at 9 a.m.:

Great story, Rebecca. And thanks for tying it into the recent debate about The Varsity. I am anxious to meet Gary Parks in person and try to bring him further into the effort to save 456 University, an initiative I call "The Last Picture Waltz" or "TLPW 456" (others have t-shirts that read THE VARSITY REVIVAL).

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Lee Parks
a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2011 at 11:51 am

In response to Norman Beamer's comment above: Our book does include the Fine Arts Theatre on California Ave., with two vintage pictures of it when it was called the Mayfield, with its original Spanish style front, and a third image which shows its more-familiar, present facade, taken in the 80s.
And in response to Mark Weiss' comment above: At this point in time my schedule is too full to get involved in another preservation effort--though I certainly wish it success. However, at such time as the Varsity might be secured for live acts and specialty film presentations again, I would be happy to contribute input regarding aesthetic issues of the building itself--bringing back as much of the original decorative scheme as is practical. There is a complete, mostly intact original color scheme hidden under subsequent layers of paint in the lobby and other parts of the building.

Like this comment
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 6, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Well the Varsity will be office space if people don't speak up.

Like this comment
Posted by Karen Colizzi Noonan
a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2011 at 5:56 pm

The Theatre Historical Society of America ( proud of Gary and Jack's efforts to chronical the local history of the Great American Movie Palace! Congratulations on a job well done, guys! Our archive and museum in Elmnurst IL has information on over 15,000 theaters from every era all across America and we welcome you to visit our website.

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Lee Parks
a resident of another community
on Sep 6, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Two more comments: 1) To the anonymous Crescent Park neighborhood poster--Yes, the theatre on Santa Cruz Ave. was the Menlo, converted from a former bank building, from the info we could find. It has long been a restaurant since then. It is pictured in the book. 2) Just some clarification to Mark Weiss: By stating my inability/unwillingness to at present be involved with "Save the Varsity--The Sequel, 2011," I do by no means wish to imply that I don't think it's a good idea, only that I learned during my involvement in 1994 that politics is not my strong point--at best I am at the lower end of the Mediocrity spectrum in that department, in my judgement. Should the Varsity become some kind of performance space again, I can bring solid professional knowledge to the table in the realm of historic theatre decor, and can point the project toward craftsmanship resources in areas where I personally may not be able to contribute. Also, in 1994 ("Save the Varsity, Part I") I was gainfully/steadily employed with a day job, and had plenty of free time after hours. Neither are luxuries I have at this time.

Like this comment
Posted by Susan Stienstra
a resident of another community
on Sep 8, 2011 at 9:45 am

If you would like to meet the authors Gary Lee Parks and Jack Tillmany, they will be at the History Museum in downtown Redwood City on Oct. 22 from 12 - 2 pm to sign copies of their new book, "Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula".

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Lee Parks
a resident of another community
on Sep 12, 2011 at 8:57 pm

Just wanted to thank the many, many wonderful folks who showed up at the Stanford Theatre Friday Night to attend the silent film double feature, and to so many of you who bought copies of Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula. Jack and I enjoyed meeting you, and signing books for each and all. We also enjoyed getting a chance to talk with two members of the Save the Varsity group, and I was able to impart a little knowledge, and offer to advise when I can via email.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 13, 2011 at 12:06 am

Did anyone mention the Bijou, or the Paris theaters in Palo Alto.
It has been so long now ... I think the Bijou was the name of the
current Gordon Biersch restaurant, and the Paris was torn down at
some point I think in the late 70's.

I got to walk through the Paris just once and it seemed like at
one time it must have been a very nice theater. The Bijou was
not an old theater and I am not sure the building was built as a
theater either, it was just a big box with a screen at the far end.

Like this comment
Posted by Gary Lee Parks
a resident of another community
on Sep 16, 2011 at 7:32 pm

In response to the comment immediately previous: We did include the Bijou in the book. The theater was built within an existing 1920s era commercial structure. It opened with "Dr. Strangelove," and lasted well into the 1980s. I only went there once, to see "Round Midnight," a film about Charlie Parker. The Bijou closed soon thereafter. You are correct--Gordon Biersch occupies that exact space today. About the Paris: We were aware of it, but could not find any photos of it. This does not mean images do not exist of it somewhere, it's just that there were a few cases where we located potential sources for photos, but our requests came to naught.

1 person likes this
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 17, 2011 at 1:48 am

>> About the Paris: We were aware of it, but could not find any photos of it.

I find this so amazing. I remember seeing the Paris once and recalling it as a very nice old theater ... that at the time had pretty much gone to seed ... it was an adult movie house at that time, but one could see that it had been a rather nice place.

In general it is such a shame that as things change we do not take pictures and keep track of how things change.

So many things I remember from when we moved to the area in 1969.

In Palo Alto the old Paly buildings were very nice. It seems so odd that they old buildings are in about the same shape they were in the 70's while the "new"building s are old and worn looking. Also, from El Camino there were bushes so dense you could not see into the Paly parking lot at all.

I also seem to remember that Palo Alto had a drive in movie theater, but that is very dim so I am not so sure. The Century Mtn. View theaters used to be a drive in.

Town and Country was full of oak trees.

Whiskey Gulch area was the first thing you would see of Palo Alto when you came off 101 from SF.

The Baylands seemed to me to be in better shape that it is today.

Downtown had so many businesses that have come and gone that it is hard to even recall. I remember Win-zit Burger, University Creamery, Pizza A-Go-Go, Macheesmo Mouse, Andales, 31 Flavors, House of Pies, Good Earth.

Also the area in Mountain View where El Camino and El Monte intersected was a dirt road with vegetable stands, and on the other side of the street was a bunch of redwood trees with a little restaurant called I think Copper Penny. Up the road was the drive in that people use to rave about but I never went there Linda's. Le-Omlette, and other big restaurants.

Then there were working A&W Root Beer places, and Foster's Freezes!

I remember opening my first bank account in the Bank of America near the Stanford Theater.

Also there were numerous water towers in the area.

There was a lot of old stuff that was really great or at least interesting sometimes not so great.. It is a shame that there is not a program that went around and took pictures of buildings and businesses. No way to remember all the things that have been before.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.