Varsity Theatre

456 University Avenue,
Palo Alto, CA 94301

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Showing 1 - 25 of 30 comments

RonaldH on March 19, 2015 at 3:15 am

SAP launches tech cafe at historic Palo Alto theater. HanaHaus at Varsity Theatre prepares to serve up Blue Bottle Coffee to local innovators.

See for more details.

AndrewBarrett on April 24, 2014 at 6:45 pm

I hope they re-open this nice theatre at some point, but at least most of it is still there and in use in some fashion.

According to “The Encyclopedia of the American Theatre Organ” by David L. Junchen, pg. 628, the Varsity Theatre in Palo Alto, California, had a two manual, 7 rank Leathurby-Smith theatre pipe organ installed at some point. The book does not give a date or any further details on the instrument, and does not even say whether it was installed in the “old” (pre-1927) Varsity Theatre (probably, in my opinion), or the “new” (post-1927) Varsity Theatre (less likely, in my opinion).

Does anyone know what happened to this organ?

estellefarmer on May 9, 2013 at 3:14 pm

The New Varsity did not close because of complaints of noise. The family owned business found it too hard $ to keep operating. And it changed hands in the 80s. Landmark Theaters then invested in major plex plans never to be fully realised. The owner of the building then brought in Borders.

BoringHal on January 26, 2013 at 8:29 pm

For an impressionable teen-ager, this was a one-of-a-kind theater. A sizeable courtyard was situated between the ticket booth and the theater building itself. Just the physical layout was a captivating first-time experience. Many high school dates were wrapped around this movie house in the early to mid-‘50’s; including “The High and the Mighty”. Very unhappy to have seen its demise.

GaryParks on September 17, 2011 at 6:36 pm

I have just seen a brief news item online from what seems to be a substantial source that the Varsity’s next use is to be an Apple Store. If it is to continue as a retail space, this does make a lot of sense. The Apple Stores I’ve seen either in person or in articles tend to be open and spacious, which a former theatre is. I don’t think we need to fret about this use of the building causing significant, if any, compromise to the surviving original interior features.

kjb2012 on August 20, 2011 at 10:27 am

Maybe they should move the “retirement” community to an under ground bunker where they can have “peace and quiet”. The the rest of us can get on with real life. Sometimes real life makes noise. OMG!

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on August 15, 2011 at 3:25 am

The January 22, 1927, issue of Building and Engineering News said that the contract had been awarded for the construction of a new theater on University Avenue between Waverley and Cowper streets in Palo Alto. The project had been designed by San Francisco architectural firm Reid Brothers.

Ron Newman
Ron Newman on July 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Borders Books is going entirely out of business, starting a liquidation of all stores as early as this Friday. What will happen to this theatre then?

GenRipper on April 9, 2011 at 10:06 pm

I am moving back to Palo Alto after being gone for 18 years (in Seattle, WA since 1993). I am so sadden on the closing of the Varsity Theater. I spent many wonderful hours there tru-out the ‘80’s & early '90’s. I will truly miss it so (I can’t take my wife, whom I meet in Seattle, there now). Fortunatly the Stanford is still there and the Camera’s seem to be doing well.

And who know’s with Border’s on the rock’s…just maybe we can get a group together (and a little helper money from fellow Stanford Alumi"s) to buy it back and return it to what it should be…a MOVIE THEATER!!!!

CSWalczak on January 23, 2011 at 5:15 pm

Indeed; how could an art theater, as this was in in its last years, possibly have been a noise problem? Were they showing all their films in Sensurround?

HogGravynChitlins on January 23, 2011 at 3:56 pm

As I understand the theatre was doing fine financially but was shut down by the city because residents of a nearby retirement home continually complained of noise. Initially the restaurant seating in the courtyard was closed to placate them but it wasn’t enough, they demanded the entire theatre closed. Why retire in a downtown location if noise is that big a issue for you?

Bway on May 26, 2009 at 8:14 am

Great photos. It’s nice that this theater is at least preserved.

GaryParks on April 11, 2008 at 3:52 pm

Those of us who worked with the developer to urge the retention of as many historic details as possible tried to get the architect to place the stairway to the upper level at the far end of the former auditorium, to preserve a more open feeling. We were told this was impossible, as doing so would have jeopardized the integrity of the new structure inside. One of the conditions for allowing development of the site into a bookstore was that the second level have the ability to be removed without structural harm to the original theater fabric, should revival as a theater (likely live) ever be undertaken. The extended sections of the building running alongside the original sidewalls could be converted into subsidiary rooms to support the performance facility. Whether or not such an undertaking will ever come about is impossible to ascertain. There are no plans at this time to do so.

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on June 18, 2007 at 5:14 pm

I think it is great too. But if I were planning a bookstore, I would much rather have a big, open, rectangular space to work with. In this case they adapted a series of old spaces with various shape and size characterisitics. It seems clumsy from a design standpoint is all I am saying. It surprises me to see a big corporation go to such trouble. The only thing I can figure is that they really wanted the site and were willing to compromise with some sort of local preservaiton effort.

Bway on January 18, 2007 at 5:27 pm

Why? Because gutting the place would have destroyed the building. At least in this case, they get the store, and preserve an old historic building at the same time. I think it’s great!

Life's Too Short
Life's Too Short on October 30, 2006 at 8:19 pm

Obviously I am happy that they saved something. But it seems like a clumsy layout for Borders, sort of like the flea markets that have been set up in old theatres at times. I wonder why they opted for this design, instead of simply gutting the place?

paurei on October 30, 2006 at 12:21 pm

During the academic year 1976-77 I had the opportunity to visit the New Varsity thetare several times.
To bad it is not functioning ant more.
Hope it will revive.
Paul Reichberg

Nean024 on September 10, 2006 at 7:38 pm

I am writing an architectural history Masters thesis on California theatres with courtyard entrances, using LA’s Fox Florence, SB’s Arlington, and the Varsity Theatre as examples. Right now the discussion rests upon the convergence of Spanish Revival style trends and exotic theatre design in CA in the later ‘20s and early '30s, local architectural context, and practical conditions for the use of courtyards (ie to place auditoriums farther back on the lot, works with climate, etc.). Any insights into this seemingly rare typology would be welcomed.

Joe Vogel
Joe Vogel on March 21, 2006 at 1:42 am

The description for this theatre says that it was opened in 1912 and then renovated in 1927. But the page at Carthalia containing the old postcard (linked in the comment by TC above) contains text that reads “NB: The building is not identical with another "Varsity Theatre”, built 1912 at another site on University Avenue and later converted to a restaurant."

There is a photograph of that earlier Varsity Theatre at the web site of the Palo Alto Historical Association. Another photo of the first Varsity at the same web site has text indicating that it was located in the block west of Bryant Street. The Google map for the new Varsity shows its location as being a block and a half EAST of Bryant Street, and on the opposite side of University Avenue from the original Varsity Theatre.

So Carthalia is apparently correct, and the new Varsity was not a renovation of the earlier theatre, but an entirely new building in a different location.

kencmcintyre on December 29, 2005 at 4:17 pm

Here is an article from 1994 regarding the conversion:

View link

ElleryMatney on April 1, 2005 at 10:34 am

I was an usherette at the Varsity in 1943. My first job. I worked after school till I graduated, then for awhile longer untill moving to SF to go into war work during WWII. I liked working there, it was a neat theater. I’m doing scrapbooking on my life and decided to search the Varsity on the net. Was really surprised at the changes it went through, but was elated at finding so much about it. Its taken me back in time. A truly nostalgic feeling. Ellery