Monday, December 8, 2008

Cool Place to View Classic Films: Old Movie Palace in Palo Alto

If you love old films and live in or visit the San Francisco Bay Area, there is a great place for you. The old Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto has been restored, thanks to the David and Lucille Packard Foundation (of the Hewlett-Packard computer family). Within this beautiful space the Stanford Theatre Foundation schedules really fine programs of classic films.

Recent fare featured the films of Bette Davis with a special focus on the very first films she made when she came to Hollywood, in many of which she played small and supporting roles. You could even see her in the rarely seen CABIN IN THE COTTON in which she uttered the now famous line: “I’d love to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.”

Last summer the theater offered a collection of Jimmy Stewart classics in honor of his centennial, and this fall showed a really interesting program called “Gainsborough Melodramas and Other Rare Treasures of the British Cinema.” The theater had a special showing of VERTIGO in October, honoring the creepy Hitchcock classic’s 50th anniversary—especially appropriate since nearby San Francisco is practically a character in this film.

At present, the theater has been running a series honoring Humphrey Bogart. Even if you have seen any or all of these famous films it is so much more enjoyable to see them on a big screen in the kind of place they were shown when they were new. This is one of the goals of the theater’s founders: “The Stanford Theatre Foundation is dedicated to preserving films from Hollywood’s golden age, along with the theatrical environment in which people first saw these films. It would be tragic if future generations had to experience the cinema only through images on personal video screens.” I say Amen to that.

On weekends, a double feature (just $7.00) includes the surprise appearance of an organist rising on an elevated platform from the theater’s orchestra pit during intermission, playing music from the scores of old films. It is difficult to find time to make a rest stop (and the restrooms are gorgeous and immaculate) with the excellent program and the wonderful live music.

The Stanford Theatre is right on University Avenue, in Palo Alto, just across El Camino Real from Stanford University. During the school year this center of downtown Palo Alto is always jumping with the sounds, vistas, bars, restaurants, and the rowdy young people of a college town. It is noisy and fun in downtown Palo Alto and the theater just adds more spice to the stew.

This is not a place you’ll want to bring a pal who won’t leave his cell phone behind, or a friend who makes loud noises when she slurps her cola. This is a place to sit in comfortable seats and breathe in the air of Hollywood in its golden age. As the program puts it: “The Stanford Theatre is famous for its intelligent and respectful audiences. If people are talking or making noise with their food, it can ruin the movie for others. Enjoy the movie, but please allow other people to enjoy it too. While the organist is playing during the intermission, we suggest that you keep your conversation as quiet as possible as a courtesy to those listening to the music.” It is slightly scolding in tone, but it makes its point.

If this worries you, there is a gigantic and beautiful lobby where you can sit and talk with friends if you need a break from an overdose of cinema classics. The popcorn is made right there and slathered in real butter—if your cholesterol can take it—and costs just two dollars.

When I want to relax, I head for a Stanford double feature, buy a bucket of fresh popcorn, and sit in the darkness watching a world where men wore suits and women wore silk, where both sexes put on hats to go out, drove large, shiny sedans, and went dancing for fun. Where the good guys put the bad guys behind bars in the last reel. Where Bogey says goodbye to Bergman for all the right reasons, Jimmy Stewart makes friends with a six-foot-two-inch invisible rabbit, Bette Davis follows her lover to a leper colony to save him from yellow fever, and everybody does everything wearing really great clothes.

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