Palo Alto’s Stanford Theatre

Photo by Charles Russo

Located on University Avenue in Palo Alto’s charming downtown is the Stanford Theatre, a mainstay for almost a century. This independent movie house immortalizes the golden age of Hollywood by screening black and white classic films made between the 1920s and 1960s.

The theatre opened on June 9, 1925 and premiered I’ll Show You The Town, a comedy starring Reginald Denny and Marian Nixon. The Stanford as its lovingly called, served as Palo Alto’s leading film house for decades, with most classic movies debuting on its screen.

In 1988, the theatre was lackluster and showing its 63 years. Attendance was down and a For Sale sign appeared in its window. David Wooley Packard, son of David (Hewlett Packard co-founder) and Lucile Packard, decided to rent the venue and held a Fred Astaire Film Festival in honor of the actor’s recent passing. The theatre held 1,175 people and was sold out nightly. Upon the conclusion of the festival, Packard convinced his parents to purchase the theatre through the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The venue was restored to its original splendor and today, it is operated by the Stanford Theatre Foundation, led by President David Wooley Packard and managed by Cyndi Mortensen.

In a 2018 feature article about the movie house, Mortensen explains that she’d read an article about the venue being purchased by the Foundation. Her lifelong passion for classical films had her contacting David in 1988 and volunteering for him in 1990. “He invited me to come and work full time for him and I have worked for him since then. I have always been incredibly interested in and passionate about classic films and the importance of film preservation, because film doesn’t last forever. I am very lucky—I get to work with the UCLA Film Archive, the Library of Congress, the George Eastman Museum, the Academe Film Archive. It’s particularly important now because everyone is going digital. We are committed to the 35mm experience as some of these films become increasingly rare. Sometimes you can’t get them from the studios or the studio vaults. I am very fortunate to be able to get these films from the archives. We are very blessed—very lucky—that we are able to do that.”

The Stanford’s refurbished Persian and Moorish grand neoclassical architecture dates back to an age when movie-going was truly an experience. Originally costing $300,000 to build, (which translates to well over $4 million today) the perfectly preserved theatre welcomes visitors in its palatial lobby and is adorned in reds and golds, including the quintessential red velvet curtain and plush seating. A Wurlitzer organ plays during intermissions before and after the 7:30pm show as well as provides a musical complement to all silent films.

Its illustrious legacy as a cinematic treasure restored, The Stanford attracts 25% of all classic film attendance in the United States. More people watched the 1992 50th anniversary showing of Casablanca at The Stanford than at any other film house in the US.

Since the theatre reopened its doors, David Wooley Packard has been intimately involved in all of the theatre’s programming, having his finger firmly on the pulse of what the viewing public will appreciate. The films he chooses often feature a specific genre, director, timeframe or theme. During the holiday season, classics like It’s a Wonderful Life (showing on December 24th) and Miracle on 34th Street may grace the screen. Currently, The Stanford is featuring the Films of 1939, which include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

If you are a classic film aficionado, a visit to the Stanford Theatre provides the glitz and glamour of old time Hollywood. Enjoy popcorn and a soda as you sink into your seat, waiting for the velvet curtain to part and transport you back in time.

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Stanford Theatre
221 University Avenue, Palo Alto
Tickets are available at the box office on the day of the show.
$7 for adults, $5 for senior and under 18.
Cash and checks only-no debit or credit cards (neither are very Golden Age)