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March 19, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 19, 2004

A woman for all seasons A woman for all seasons (March 19, 2004)

Winter Dellenbach fights to save the Park Theatre

by Robyn Israel

W inter Dellenbach has fond memories of growing up during the 1940s and 1950s in the southern California town of Pomona. Situated at the foot of the San Bernardino Mountains, with more orange and lemon trees than people, the town offered an idyllic existence.

Going to see movies at one of the town's three movie theaters was a part of Dellenbach's life. On hot summer afternoons, she'd go with a friend, buy jujubes and sit in the balcony. "Lost World" gave her nightmares, she recalled, while "South Pacific" and "West Side Story" made her cry. Double features cost under a dollar back then, and everyone knew people in the industry -- or were in it themselves. A classmate was cast as Timmy in "Lassie Come Home."

Given such roots, it's not surprising that Dellenbach is taking a leading role in the campaign to save the Park Theatre in Menlo Park. Since the movie house closed in August, 2002, she has participated in demonstrations, circulated petitions, organized meetings and helped rally others around the cause.

"Films make us more human," she said. "They touch people -- that's what a good film does. It even changes people. In this world, we need as much of that as possible.

Ten days after the Park closed, Dellenbach was driving on El Camino Real when she noticed that theatre's sign was being pulled down -- illegally. At that time, Menlo Park was still awaiting a historical assessment of the building to determine its historical significance. Removal of the exterior facade was a violation of municipal code. Dellenbach, along with other members of the Save the Park Theatre group, succeeded in serving owner Howard Crittenden with a cease-and-desist order.

"He tried to get a demolition permit," Dellenbach added. "I believe but for our involvement, he might have done it. We pointed out that state law protected it from demolition."

Today, the circumstances of the situation have changed, and Dellenbach and company are taking a less adversarial approach. With the property vacant for the last year and a half -- despite Crittenden's efforts to create office space -- there is now talk of Landmark reoccupying the building.

"She's very focused and very committed to this project, and it's her own time she's devoted to this," said Michael Collier, Landmark's district manager for northern California. "And I think that's amazing."

For Dellenbach, the 57-year-old Park is more than an old movie theatre -- it is a valuable piece of art deco architecture worth saving.

"I like old buildings and I resent it when people don't value them," she said. "This is not a movie palace. It's not a drop-dead 'oh my God' theatre. It's not like the Fox Theatre that was torn down in San Francisco. (But) this is a really, really, really good example of what they were building in the '40s, when the country was so crazy about film. It's astounding it's still intact."

Dellenbach recently had the opportunity to peek inside the theatre, and was thrilled to discover it was still basically intact. What she saw amazed her: decorative copper on the wall behind the concession stand; maroon-colored tiles etched with philodendron leaves on the ticket booth; the complete set of letters for the marquee; custom-made doors stored in the back-stage area.

"All of this goes to the historic significance of the building," she said. "(Nearly) two years after being closed, there's still stuff in this theater to discover, as far as its sweetness."

She added that in 2002, the Bay Area Art Deco Society intended to confer its annual award for the best art-deco neon sign to the Park. But the theatre's closing forced the society to recognize the Cocktail Lounge in San Carlos instead.

According to Crittenden, Landmark has offered to pay nearly double the rent it had paid previously. It has also agreed to contribute an additional $500,000 for a $1 million dollar upgrade on the building. Now all that is needed is an additional $500,000.

"We want to come back to the Park," Collier said. "If there were a dozen more screens on the Peninsula, we'd snap them up."

The issue of the Park Theatre was the subject of a Menlo Park City Council study session on March 2.

"This is the first time in the last two years where we're seeing this convergence of factors, from the city, the owner, Landmark and us," Dellenbach said. "Howard is making a good faith effort, to see if he can get the money he desires to reopen the theatre. He should be thanked and congratulated. Somehow supporting the owner and the city seems like the right thing to do.

"But the window of opportunity can close again, so I hope the city is serious about the role they can play. They can be heroes and they can do it in an extremely financially responsible way. And if the theatre opens up, it will be an economic benefit to the community."

Dellenbach is no stranger to local protests. Ten years ago, she was involved in the fight to save Palo Alto's historic Varsity Theatre. Unfortunately, she ended up on the losing end -- partly because of an ineffective Palo Alto City Council, she said.

"There was no comprehension on that council of the value of the theatre or the impact of a chain bookstore on the community," she said. "A few years later there was a change. People understood these film theatres were of great value, and when the issue of the Palo Alto Square came up, we had the council ready to go to bat -- that made all the difference."

Dellenbach has fond memories of attending the San Francisco and Cinequest Film Festivals at the 700-seat Park Theatre. At the latter event, she recalled seeing Charlotte Rampling.

"There she was, for a question-and-answer with the audience. Hanging out with Charlotte -- it was fabulous!"

One of the last films to screen at the Park Theatre was "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which Dellenbach saw twice.

"I was absolutely amazed -- the audience was chock full of non-English speaking Latinos, who were there to enjoy a wonderful film. It's one of the best mediums for getting people together from different cultures, who speak different languages. It's a wonderful thing for a community, where this kind of thing can take place.

"We always talk about fostering diversity and welcoming other cultures. I think we're sincere in that, but here's a way where it can happen organically."

Dellenbach's first stabs at social protest came about during the Vietnam War. Her first husband, Bill Garaway, was a draft-resistance supporter. When the FBI and plain-clothes agents started following them 24 hours a day (part of Nixon's COINTELPRO, a counter-intelligence program), the couple relocated from Los Angeles to the remote Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona.

In 1970, they moved to the Bay Area, partially motivated by the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, an organization started by David Harris, Joan Baez's husband. For 23 years, she lived on The Land, a commune on Page Mill Road, where she adopted the name Winter (her real name is Karen).

"It was at times unbelievably fun , and other times unbelievably awful. Pretty anarchistic. We didn't have utilities. We carried water from the spring. We had wonderful gardens. We ate extremely well. We came into town once a week, so we didn't have to pay for much gas. We could live an absolutely wonderful quality of life for very little money. We didn't have to work a lot."

In her mid-'30s, Dellenbach decided to study public-interest law. For the last 10 years of her career, she worked for the Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing, where she addressed housing discrimination in Palo Alto. Her clients included mentally disabled people.

Retired for the last three years, Dellenbach is busier than ever. She recently coordinated the "No on C" campaign, which tried to stop the redevelopment of the 800 block of High Street. She also prunes people's roses, travels, works for world peace, and enjoys spending time with her son and grandson, as well as her husband of eight years, Gerry Masteller, whom she first met in Arizona in 1969.

"He's the original nice guy," Dellenbach said. "He takes my jagged edges off."

And she still loves going to movies -- her favorite film of 2003 was "The Station Agent," which she saw at the Guild. She recommended it to Crittenden, who owns that theatre. Though not a big movie-goer (on average he sees one film a year, he said), Crittenden admitted that he would like to see the Park Theatre reopened.

"I think she's a very effective person, and I hope with her efforts and those of other residents in the community, we can find a solution," he said.
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