Stanford Theatre shines in the night

The Stanford Theatre: Reliving Hollywood’s Golden Era

5 mins read

With red velvet curtains, patterned carpets sprinkled with popcorn kernels, and a dazzling marquee, University Avenue’s Stanford Theatre is a timeless relic of culture and history.

The Theatre opened in 1925, enthusiastically titled the ‘New Stanford Theatre.’ Construction had begun a year earlier in the style of a Neoclassical movie palace—an architectural trend that sought to engross audiences in not only the films themselves but in a complete moviegoing experience.

On top of live performances, the Theatre played films as they were released in the early 20th century and to this day exclusively shows classics released between roughly 1920 and 1960. Black-and-white or even silent films are typical for its selections, and the lack of saturation or special effects makes the quality of the films’ stories all the more impressive. 

Curtain view from the balcony at Stanford Theatre
Curtain view from the balcony

However, in the 1960’s, the building fell into disrepair as it was overshadowed by modern movie theaters. In 1987, David Woodley Packard rented the Theatre out for a Fred Astaire film festival and fell in love with the Theatre’s architecture and concept. Packard, the son of Hewlett-Packard Company founder David Packard, decided to purchase the fifteen-hundred seat auditorium through his Packard Foundation. The non-profit Stanford Theatre Foundation was established to manage it. In total, Packard spent over $6 million renovating the Theatre—much more than its original cost in 1925 of $250,000.

The interior was restored back to its initial appearance with shocking accuracy, down to the Greek-Assyrian ceiling paintings. Highlights of the renovation process include a wild goose chase through over 5,000 sketches to find color palettes that match with black-and-white photographs, the work of six organ experts, and contributions from countless other specialists. A grand reopening in 1989 was paired with a showing of the iconic classic The Wizard of Oz

“Packard transformed [the Theatre] into a singular cinematic vision of bringing people back into feeling the golden age of Hollywood,” said Charlie Dickey, an assistant manager who has worked at the Theatre for nine years. Employees wear collared shirts and welcoming smiles, contributing to the Theatre’s warm atmosphere even outside of the auditorium itself. Hollywood’s “golden age” refers to 1939, when 80 million movie tickets were sold nationwide, and classics like Wuthering Heights and Gone With the Wind reached audiences for the first time. “Now [the Theatre] is kind of a temple to that idea,” Dickey said. 

Chandelier-lit gallery room

Authentic movie posters chosen from both current programming and past favorites are arranged throughout the Theatre’s halls. However, most memorabilia is concentrated inside an adjacent gallery room. Some of the material is purchased at auctions from estates or collectors. Glass cases enclose curated newspaper clippings from the Theatre’s history, including original 1925 articles from the Palo Alto Daily, along with preserved advertisements and movie decor. 

The cost of day-to-day operations are covered by ticket and concession sales, which go as low as $1 for a small drink or bucket of popcorn and $3 for a large; wildly atypical from modern cinema prices. “When the Theatre needs upgrades, the Stanford Theatre Foundation receives assistance through grants from the Packard Humanities Institute,” explained manager Cyndi Mortensen. 

The Theatre does it all—a hallmark is the live ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’ organ performances that take place before and after the 7:30 p.m. show. An organist ascends on a rising platform immediately following the end of a film and descends in dramatic fashion just as the next one begins. David Hegarty, one of the two organists, has been playing around the Bay Area for nearly 50 years, most notably at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. “I’m kind of a movie buff, particularly with classic movies, and that ties in with my main interest as a concert organist and arranger,” said Hegarty, who has a master’s degree in organ performance. 

Hegarty said, “If a movie has very specific music, I try to play some of it. If the movie doesn’t have songs, I often can play the main title track. I try to pick songs from the era of the movie.”

'Might Wurlitzer' organ at the Stanford Theatre
The decades-old ‘Might Wurlitzer’ organ

He continued, “Mr. Packard prefers the last piece we play when we bring the organ down to be ‘Isn’t It Romantic.’ I remember him saying that it’s his wife’s favorite song, so it’s kind of the Theatre’s theme song.”

Hegarty’s method in orchestrating movie themes has evolved with the Theatre. He explained, “Back before YouTube, I would go to a video store in San Francisco called Le Video and rent the upcoming movie for free because they had a partnership with the Castro Theater. Then I would watch it and jot down the music so that I could play what the audience hears when the movie comes. I’ve got a really thick notebook filled with themes from all these movies.”

All the movies shown on the singular large screen are handpicked by Packard and organized in a ‘festival’ format that runs films featuring certain actors, directors, or seasonal themes for a few weekends at a time. These festivals can include homages to Alfred Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, Shirley Temple, or occasions like Halloween. 

“We don’t go eight months without showing Roman Holiday because people will see it every time we play it,” Dickey said. Fan-favorite films make frequent appearances on the program, most notably the popular Christmas Eve showing of It’s A Wonderful Life. “The place gets absolutely bouncing in here on Christmas Eve,” Dickey added.

Though the Theatre has been renovated to adapt to the modern day, films are still played in their original formats. Dickey said, “It all has to do with where we can source archival 35 millimeter prints, meaning that our selection of titles is not as broad as other cinemas.”

Lobby and snack bar

Hegarty explained, “[Packard] doesn’t want anything that drives people into the present. Everywhere else, I use an iPad to read music off of, but I have to go old school here. If I’m going to read music, I have to use paper because the Theatre’s integrity dictates that we keep everything within its era.”

The Theatre was one of the first businesses in Palo Alto to close at the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, and waited until the summer of 2022 for a limited reopening. Its attraction of elderly audiences, who are more prone to immunocompromisation, was an important consideration for the immediate closure. Floor staffer Ramiro Benitez, who has been with the Theatre for roughly four years, said, “We shut down even before there was any government order for it. Even the idea of [the pandemic] brought us down.”

Despite the prolonged closure, employees came in during the pandemic to maintain the Theatre and assist with renovations. The reopening came with a new heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system, as well as credit card readers, drawing in new audience members.

The Theatre has prevailed through nearly a century of history, becoming possibly the last movie palace to exclusively feature classical movies. “My favorite thing about the Theatre is its low barrier to access—a maximum of seven bucks for two movies,” said Dickey. Even decades after Hollywood’s arguable peak, the Stanford Theatre continues to welcome audiences to the simple and accessible charm of a moviegoing experience. 

“I like that people will very frequently enter this place skeptical and come out astonished in ways that they hadn’t anticipated,” Dickey concluded. Find the Theatre’s most up-to-date programming here.

Allegra Hoddie is a junior in her first year of journalism. She enjoys covering current events and the arts. She also makes Instagram posts, drinks lattes, and copyedits.

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