Midpeninsula Post

Stanford Theatre brings classic movies to the peninsula 

Stanford Theatre in September 2023. (Eason Dong)

Amid the busy streets of downtown Palo Alto, the nostalgic memory of classic cinematic movies lives on with Stanford Theatre. The theater, which closed in November last year for repairs, reopened its doors this summer with newly installed air conditioning, heating and ventilation systems, inviting movie enthusiasts back in time to the 1900s.

Every few months or so, Stanford Theatre holds themed film festivals. The theater is currently hosting “The Best of Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock,” featuring films starring actress Cary Grant as well as pictures directed by Alfred Hitchcock. It all started in 1988, when David Woodly Packard bought and restored Stanford Theatre.

Packard, a noted philanthropist and former professor, “fell in love with old movies,” Theater Manager Cynthia Mortensen said. But around the 1950s, as television started becoming popular and viewers increasingly consumed content from the comfort of their own homes, Stanford Theatre’s business began to decline.

By the 1970s, Mortensen recalled that the theater was “falling into disrepair.”

During this time, Woodley rented out the theater from its original owners for two weeks to run the Fred Astaire Festival, which celebrated movies featuring actor Fred Astaire. To Woodley’s surprise and delight, Mortensen said, every night was sold out with over 1,000 people coming to every show for two weeks straight.

Following the festival’s success, Woodley and his father decided to purchase the theater. The Packards recognized Stanford Theatre’s historical and architectural importance, according to Mortensen, and believed owning a classic movie theater was a viable business.

Creating a classic movie experience
From then on, Woodley worked on Stanford Theatre’s first big construction job: restoring and recreating the theater to the looks of its first opening, and preserving the moviegoing experience of the 20s and 30s.

The theater serves as an outlet for people to enjoy older movies, providing a unique ambiance with its vintage movie posters and opera-style movie seating. A movie lover herself, Mortensen decided to work at Stanford Theatre because she said the theater has a “comforting feeling.”

“It’s not something you get all the time, especially now,” Mortensen said. “When I was growing up these films were on TV all the time, they were easy [to watch]. They’re not anymore.”

Why older movies?
A common assumption for early 1900s movies is that they are harder to watch because they’re in black and white and on a smaller screen, Mortensen said. But many come out of the theater “blown away.”

“Sometimes I will be selling tickets and somebody will come and say, ‘Oh, this is in black and white. I can’t watch a black and white movie,’” Mortensen said. “And I will always say ‘I want you to go in and watch the movie. Don’t pay, just go in for free.’ I’ve never had somebody that didn’t like the movie.”

Employee Alisa Turner, who has worked at Stanford Theater for four years, is also there for her love of old movies, which “have their own energy to them.” Turner said the experience Stanford Theater provides can’t compare to today’s modern movie theaters.

“Movies are very beautiful here,” Turner said. “It’s just an amazing experience because you get to kind of watch them how they were made and meant to be watched. … They’re not really meant to be watched on a small computer screen.”

First-time visitor Terri Mead said she admires the different styles and structures older movies have, which give them a “nostalgic” feel.

“There’s something about the pacing that’s fun, the humor, the cinematography,” Mead said. “It’s just from a different time.”

Stanford Theatre employee Cal Currier added that, unlike modern movies, old movies aren’t specifically aimed at giving viewers the most amount of dopamine and entertainment. Instead, it’s the movie’s genuine authenticity that draws viewers in.

For regular visitor Elsa Angelich and her family, who have been going to see movies at Stanford Theatre once or twice a month for roughly 30 years, the best part is the movies’ storyline.

“Many of the older movies focus a lot on the wars going on at the time,” Angelich said. “Back then, seeing stories from the war would have hit harder versus now.”

Even as times have changed, Mortensen said she’s grateful Stanford Theatre has remained a central outlet for those wanting to appreciate older movies, and hopes the theater will continue to house the spirit of 1900s movies.

“It’s very encouraging to see all these people coming in and watching classic movies at our theater,” Mortensen said. “I have a lot of hope that people are going to think of this as even more of … a special experience that you can’t get anywhere else.”

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