Historical Report on Guild Theatre

Excerpted with permission from:

Historical and Architectural Evaluation, The Guild Theater, 949 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

Prepared by: Bonnie Bamburg

Date: June 23, 2014

2. 2. HISTORY OF THE PROPERTY AT 949 EL CAMINO REAL, MENLO PARK (“Guild Theater”)

The Guild Theater has been a part of the Menlo Park community, in various forms, since 1924 when the Menlo Park Recorder reported the start of construction of the theater—the first building to be constructed on the parcel.(6)  In 1925 the Menlo Park Sanborn map lists “moving pictures” at the site.(7) It was originally called the Menlo Theater. It still has only one screen. In its early years it played silent films accompanied by a live organist.(8) It was originally owned and operated by Boyd Braden. The opening feature, on May 7, 1926, was “King of the Turf,” accompanied by organist Philip Zenovich. The building cost $35,000 to build and an additional $10,000 for the organ alone. This tremendous investment promised local entertainment and a boon for the local economy. In 1930 the census reports that population of Menlo Park as only 2254—a population so small that the theater could host every single citizen within 5 showings. But Braden’s large investment proved wise. He knew that the growing town needed some entertainment and he had faith—a faith that endeared him to the population of Menlo Park—that the town would continue to grow and prosper.(9) The Menlo was the only theater in Menlo Park for over fifteen years. After the third theater was built in Menlo Park and named The Menlo, the old Menlo was renamed the Guild. In 1942, due to the widening of El Camino Real by two lanes, the theater was forced to remove 30 feet from its large lobby and construct a new front façade. Many other buildings on the west side of the highway were moved or demolished. With the advent of several theaters in the area, the Guild changed its format to sustain a different clientele offering different types of films.

The local paper described the theater on opening night as having a “Venetian Garden motif.” There was onyx work on the walls and trellises and “greenery” on the ceiling. The large lobby was apparently finished in “Egyptian mud.” The walls of the theater were painted with ornate, Venetian style murals.(10) At that time the theater also housed a large, expensive organ for live accompaniment. The theater could reportedly seat 500. By Sept. 1, 1929 The Film Daily reported The Menlo, had upgraded its sound system with new technology, and was wired for “Movie-Phone” sound. (11) Presumably, the organ was removed and sold. According to the county assessor, the theater replaced its marquee, curtain, and seats in 1936.(12)

In 1942, while the theater was owned by Bessie Niclson, El Camino Real was widened by two lanes on the west side of the road to accommodate more traffic due to population increase etc.(13) Several of the buildings in surrounding blocks from the theater were demolished to make room for the expansion. The brick Duff &Doyle building was demolished, while many of the smaller buildings were moved. The Menlo was too big to feasibly move so, instead of demolishing it, the owners decided to simply remove almost thirty feet of the building, sell the property to the state, and rebuild a much simpler façade. The building went from 120 to 85 ft. long.(14) In 1955 the sign was replaced.(15) In 1989 the Guild and Park theaters were owned by West Side Valley Theaters and leased to Bel Mateo Theaters Inc., . December 2, 1980 the theater was sub-leased to a new management company Renaissance Rialto Inc.. It was this company, whose president was Allen Michaan, that undertook a major remodeling of the theater. The then 320 seat theater was remodeled with Art Deco lighting and trimmings.(16) According to Allen Michaan, the striking gold wings and swirls framing the screen were salvaged from the Fox Theater in Richmond (stored in a warehouse and were next used in 1972 in the Rialto Theater in Berkeley)(17) and added to the Guild Theater. Renaissance Rialto Inc., also added red fabric wall covers and art deco ceiling lights that were salvaged when the Uptown Theater in San Francisco closed. The late1980s remodeling created an theater auditorium that is very different from its original appearance. Now, its interior is decorated in more standard fare for independent, low budget theaters. It’s decorated in an art deco/art modern style typical for independent theaters in the bay area. The seats have been replaced with more modern style seats complete with cupholders. They were reportedly salvaged from Act 1 and 2 theaters in Berkeley.(18) Now, the theater seats only 265. Landmark Theaters became the operator after Renaissance Rialto Inc. it specializes in independent and foreign film. Unfortunately

Landmark Theaters declared bankruptcy in the late 1990s. Since then, the operator has been Silver Cinema Acquisition Company. In 1998, West Side Valley Theaters sold the building to Howard Crittenden III, the current owner. Unfortunately, the original murals are gone and the walls are covered with fabric curtains. The roof was replaced in 1994 changing the profile.(19) The building is in the same location and has a similar, though truncated, footprint, but few, if any, of the theater’s original design elements or features remain. The Guild, unlike its Palo Alto cousin The Stanford, was neither built nor operated as a movie palace – a precious piece of art for the sake of art. It was meant to serve the more utilitarian needs of the community as its changing form reflects.

The Guild Theater managed to survive through the depression, economic booms, the age of multiplexes, multiple owners and management companies, and WWII. It did so by remaining responsive to the changing needs of movie goers. In august 1927, the theater was sold to A. Blanco. In October of that year, the Film Daily features a bit of advice from an F. Blanco in a column called “Exploit-O-Grams; Daily tips which mean dollars for showmen.” To advertise for the film “The Fire brigade,” Blanco says he posted two banners, one in front of the theater and the other across from the RR station. The lobby was transformed into an exhibit of firefighting instruments. The outreach included a short lecture on the film to local schoolchildren. Best of all, on opening night the local fire department band, which included ten musicians, performed in front of the theater.(20) At that time, the Menlo was not simply a business endeavor. The community rallied around it as an icon for fun and entertainment. Locals recall that in the 1930s and ‘40s on the weekends the Menlo would show Westerns and cartoons all day. Admission for the day cost ten cents. It was a popular weekly social event for many local kids.(21) During the hard times of the 1930s, the theater strove to remain a part of local social life. To bring additional value to the admission prices, the theater reportedly raffled off turkeys to the audience members and even had an event called “Country Store” wherein the theater gave away dishes to female attendees.(22)

In the early days, the Menlo faced competition from the nearby Stanford and Varsity theaters in Palo Alto as well as larger theaters and entertainments in San Francisco. The Guild tried to position itself as local entertainment. Menlo Park grew around its railroad station. Access to the city was imperative for its development. In 1927 the opening of the Dumbarton Bridge and, just a few years later, the Bayshore Highway offered even more access to the city. As a result, Menlo Park and its population grew steadily. In 1947 Al Lauice, then owner of the Menlo, opened and ran a second theater, the Park, just two blocks north on El Camino Real.(23) The Park was a 700-seat theater with movie selections that complemented those of the Guild. Soon after, a third theater was built in Menlo Park on Santa Cruz Avenue. It was called the Menlo and the old Menlo became the Guild. The Menlo closed in the early 1980s and The Park in 2002. As more theaters came to Menlo Park, the Guild had more competition, but also more support. At any given time at least several nearby theaters, including the Park, were operated by the same management company. This meant that the theaters could be run collaboratively rather than competitively. It also meant that the management companies had more influence over film distribution and therefore more bargaining power with film companies. Once the Park and the new Menlo were built and larger megaplexes predominated nearby cities, the Guild found a new niche as an art house theater. Its independent and foreign fare existed as an alternative to the newer megaplexes playing mainstream blockbusters. The theater is a vestige of an era of small, local theaters. Now it has a stripped façade, minimal lobby, and a small, but dedicated clientele many of whom are not Menlo Park residents.

As it stands, the theater is, both literally and figuratively, a collection of pieces of other theaters it has outlived. The building and, more impressively, the business, has survived from the original development of El Camino, through the widening of El Camino Real, the population boom of the 1950s, and the proliferation of multi-screen theaters. It is remarkable. However, its survival is due to its adaptability, which has resulted in a theater dissimilar to the original in all but location.

Footnotes

[6] Sanborn Map Company 1891, deed 1923

[7] Sanborn Map Company, 1925. Menlo Park. New York.

[8] “Theatre to Open Tonight in Menlo Park,” Palo Alto Times, May 7 (continued 8), 1926.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Alan Sissenwein, “Can single-screen theaters like the Guild survive in the age of the multiplex?” The Almanac, May 2, 2001. www.almanacnews.com/morgue/2001/2001_05_02.guild.html.

[11] The Film Daily, September 1, 1929, pg 541, Onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbing/serial?id=filmdaily. Urban Programmers June 15, 2014

[12] William Henry, The Country Almanac

[13] Jym Clandenin, “Then and now: El Camino Real moves west in Menlo Park,” InMenlo, April 11, 2013, Inmenlo.com/2013/04/11/then-and-now-el-camino-real-moves-west-in-menlo-park/

[14] William Henry, The Country Almanac

[15] Building permit

[16] “Menlo Park theaters Bought Out,” Peninsula Times Tribune, December 1, 1989.

[17] William Henry, The Country Almanac

[18] Linda Hubbard Gulker, “Guild Theatre: Bringing movies to Menlo for 85 years,” InMenlo, April 3, 2011, Inmenlo.com/2011/04/03/guild-theatre-bringing-movies-to-menlo-for-85-years/

[19] Building permit

[20] The Film Daily, October 11, 1927, pg 866, Onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/webbing/serial?id=filmdaily.

[21] Alan Sissenwein, the Almanac.

[22] Linda Hubbard Gulker, InMenlo.

[23] Bonnie Eslinger, “Park Theater in Menlo Park a step closer to demolition” San Jose Mercury News, September 6, 2013, www.mercurynews.com/peninsula/ci_24037394/this-time-it-may-be-curtains-park-theater

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