Manager Cyndi Mortensen discusses the venue’s mission, and its magic.

Story by Caitlin Wolf / Photos by Charles Russo

Built in 1925, The Stanford Theatre was given new life 30 years ago when it came under the stewardship of David Woodley Packard. (Photo by Charles Russo)

I don’t know when I first visited the Stanford Theatre or what movie I first saw there. What I do remember is sitting with my grandmother and great-grandmother sharing a tub of popcorn and a large Coke between the three of us. Every time we went to The Stanford they made a point of telling me how lucky we were to have the theater in our town, and how grateful I should be that Mr. Packard had preserved the building to continue showing these films. I didn’t really know who this Mr. Packard was, but I listened, and then angled for a box of candy to go with our popcorn and Coke.

In the years since, I have seen many films at the Stanford Theatre: well-known classics (Casablanca), personal favorites (Gigi), silent films (The Mark of Zorro), talkies; some in black and white (Rebecca), others in Technicolor (The Wizard of Oz). For me, the Stanford Theatre is what tells me I am in Palo Alto, that I am home. For seven bucks I can sit in the same seat as my great-grandmother when she was my age and be transported to a different time, to a different Palo Alto. If that isn’t movie magic, I don’t know what is.

Theater manager Cyndi Mortensen sitting in one of the venue’s 1175 seats, prior to showtime. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Opened on June 9th, 1925, the Stanford Theatre premiered its first film — I’ll Show You The Town — and quickly established itself as an illustrious venue in downtown Palo Alto. Built in the neoclassical style with Persian and Moorish influence, the theater originally cost $300,000 to build (this would be approximately $4,274,982 in today’s dollars, not taking into account the current real estate market).

In the 1920s attending the theater included taking in the News of the World, a comic short, a vaudeville act or two, and (as they were silent films) an organist.

By the 1980s the Stanford Theatre’s glory had waned in both popularity and polish. Things looked grim as a ‘For Sale’ sign graced the marquee. Thankfully, David Woodley Packard (son of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard) stepped in to preserve the venue and its legacy.

Looking to find out more about this quintessential Palo Alto location, I tracked down Cyndi Mortensen, the manager of the Stanford Theatre, to discuss the venue, its benefactor, and the exceptional programming. We caught up with Mortensen during the day as the theater sat empty, waiting for the patrons to fill the seats and experience that movie magic.

Film reels of Cecil B Demille’s 1934 film Cleopatra. (Photo by Charles Russo)

What were the circumstances of the theater’s preservation 30 years ago?

In 1988 the Stanford Theatre was for sale and David Woodley Packard convinced his father and the Foundation to purchase the theater [because] it was a worthwhile effort to restore this theater and show classic films here. And part of what convinced Mr. Packard that this was a good argument was that Fred Astaire had died that year and David Woodley decided he would rent this theater and show all of Fred Astaire’s films. This theater seats 1,175 people and almost every night it was completely sold out. So that was a really good argument for Mr. Packard that this was a valid thing to do.

Looking out towards University Ave from the lobby of the Stanford Theatre. (Photo by Charles Russo)

The Packard Foundation nonprofit purchased the venue and set up a non-operating foundation for the Stanford Theatre, with David Woodley Packard as the president. (He is also the president of the Packard Humanities Institute, which sort of go hand in hand.) He was in charge of the complete restoration of the theater, and what you see now is the best representation of what this theater looked like in 1925 when it first opened. He did a lot of work and was very exacting in what needed to be done. It’s gorgeous and our mission is to continue that vision, continue to keep the theater looking exactly like it did and to give the average theater goer the experience of what it was like to go to the movies in 1930. We have a Wurlitzer organ that has been completely restored … and it plays every night before and after our main feature. When we have silent films it’s always accompanied by an organist. It’s quite an exciting experience.

The Stanford’s fully-restored Wurlizter, which rises from the orchestra pit to be played by the theater’s organist before each film. (Photo by Charles Russo)

How did you become involved with the Stanford Theatre?

I read that the Packard Foundation had purchased the theater with the intention of it being a classic film venue. 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.

I had written a letter to David back in ’88 … and started volunteering for him around ’90. He invited me to come and work full time for him and I have worked for him since then.

Some of the many vintage movie posters on display at the Stanford Theatre. (Photos by Charles Russo)

How do you create the programing?

David Woodley Packard does the programing. He usually has a pretty good idea about what he wants to do and what the public will respond to. He has great instincts. For instance, right now we are doing a series starting tonight: Paramount Pictures 1930–1935. So he’ll give me a list of what he thinks is very interesting and if I’m lucky he’ll say, “What do you think? What do you think is interesting what do you think should be included? I will start working on finding out if we can get 35mm prints, I’ll do my researching into the titles — which ones sound interesting. I usually know which ones are classic or something that people will like. We just go from there. He’ll pick out what he wants and we’ll put them together and get the calendar written. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of work.

Design details—from floor to ceiling—within the theatre. (Photos by Charles Russo)

And he’s done that since the very beginning?

Yes, absolutely, and he hasn’t steered us wrong. Like I said, he has really good instincts in the films. When I first started working here there were things I hadn’t seen before. Like the Lubitsch, Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. I remember the first time I saw them, I think it was 1989 or something. I was so charmed, just so excited. Over the years since working here I’ve seen so many things. I’ve been introduced to things or I’ve been able seen things I love on the big screen it’s magic here, it’s a magical experience.

Detail images of analog equipment within the theater’s projection room. (Photos by Charles Russo)

That’s awesome.

It is. That is the most important thing to me—preserving this art form and having this venue to watch it. I’ve been here forever, longer than I’d like to say, and to sit here in the dark with the curtains rising … it just doesn’t get old.

What is that—Size negative 4?: The original dress from Cecil B. Demille’s Cleopatra. (Photo by Charles Russo)

When we visited the Stanford Theatre they were setting up for Cleopatra (1935) and The Sign of the Cross (1932) double feature. On display that evening was the original gold dress Claudette Colbert wore in her starring role as Cleopatra.

For the latest on the Stanford Theatre’s current film schedule, click here. Through April 1st programing is all about Paramount Pictures from 1930–1935. Be sure to see Shanghai Express (1932), Merrily We Go To Hell (1932), and She Done Him Wrong (1933) with the incomparable Mae West.

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