I am a member of The Varsity Revival Project; a group of people who are concerned about the fate of downtown Palo Alto's iconic historic landmark, The Varsity Theater. The Varsity maintained a long standing role in this community beginning with it's 1927 Grand Opening and it's strong presence continued for 84 long years, until NOW. The recent demise of the Varsity's last tenants, Borders Books and Music has left the Varsity vacant. The bright lights and neon from it's marquee no longer shine upon the city street.
The Varsity is a truly beautiful, iconic structure of historical significance; The building is Landmark category 1- the most important in historic inventory of the city and considered a major building at the regional or state level. This status promises that the integrity of the structure's most basic features- the framing and courtyard, as well as it's many unique aesthetics embellishments are protected by Federal Law which overrides even the private owner of the property in it's authority. This protection does not extend it's limitations in terms of purpose and intended use for the structure. The iconic gathering spot where people of all ages experienced and exchanged culture and ideas, shared generations of live music, and the arts that colored the spectrum and in this way, the Varsity facilitated our sense of community and heritage. The Varsity acted as a magnet, attracting from all corners of the Peninsula, and beyond, in every incarnation; as a single show movie house, to bar and restaurant, to live afternoon music in the courtyard from the likes of Tuck and Patti to Michael Hedges, to sold out live shows featuring local bands along with the most influential rock bands of the punk generation and beyond. The movie schedule was as eclectic as the patrons; bringing to it's doors disney loving youngsters, indie foreign fans, and Rocky Horror fanatics- all beneath one roof in an atmosphere of acceptance and acknowledgment. This unique structure, that by design, allowed the crossing of paths of spirits as diverse as can be: the creative, the innovative, the artists and the observers of art, the youth and the young adults, parents of up and coming generations, and the generations who preceded remained in attendance.
The legends that color our city were, in this way, born and that gave life to the Spirit of Community that became a beacon for all the world to see; drawing into Palo Alto the true makers of today: the first creators of the high tech, dot com generation. What better depicts the values that attracted this generation of brilliant, young, creative, individualist, the pushers of technology and culture than the diverse, open minded, accepting, globally and locally active and aware folks that gathered at the Varsity? There has not been, nor is there now, any place in or around downtown Palo Alto that welcomed equally, paying patrons and non- paying company who gathered together regularly in the courtyard as well as indoors, depending upon seating accommodations (which changed with eras). This welcoming practice propagated an ambiance of inclusiveness and gave inertia to lines of open communication and the exchanging of ideas and values.
The City of Palo Alto has received plans submitted by the owner of the Varsity that will transform two thirds of the existing space into offices. This will forever change the flow of pedestrian traffic through the building, and put an end to what remained true to the *spirit of the Varsity Theater and remained as such even in (it's final generation) as a) retail store. The culture of Palo Alto will be a reflection of the homogenized, high rent, establishments that populate University Avenue.It is truly a sad day for this once diverse, innovative, and welcoming city.
My personal vision for the Varsity is simply having the structure revived if not restored and the theater active as a venue for more than just films, but also for live performance, community speakers and interactions, for Ted-Talks and for children's poetry slams...I see endless possibilities for the theater...The restaurant/bar/cafe would allow the beauty and unique historical significance that exists in the courtyard to really shine as the crown jewel of University Ave- taking the spotlight off the gaudy, ostentatious, enormity that is the current structure of note on University- the Cheesecake Factory. I think there would be an enormous draw for all sects of the community in opening the courtyard allowing a welcoming of diverse patrons by making whatever the retail spin on services provided have a inclusive scope. Serve coffee with free refills, along with pricey polenta or what have you... I don't know how to put my thoughts into business terms- but I hope you understand my point. Given that atmosphere of a cultural arts magnet, and a place to spend time within the means of both poles of economic states I believe the community will have a gift, a serendipitous new option for how and where they spend time. Whether this is a for profit business is not even a question, it must be. That is the only choice just in terms of gaining access to the building! The idea of using space for office space or meeting space is doesn't bother me. The fact is a profit must be made. Any additional ways to use the site for profit would help support the less financially stable but more community oriented retail uses. I had some thoughts on renting space upstairs to groups of self publishing authors, maybe providing computers in the office space. There are, again, endless possibilities for that aspect. The truth is I just want to see the building protected from being further defaced and to be open for use as it was intended to be, that is my agenda.
A Palo Alto resident and native