Curtain falls on cinema era at Guild Theatre

Cars zoom by Landmark's Guild Theatre in Menlo Park before the monthly midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show on April 6. The Peninsula Arts Guild plans to transform the theater into a live music venue. (Photo by Magali Gauthier/The Almanac.)

The Guild Theatre, Menlo Park's longest-running movie theater, closed Sept. 26 after its final screening of the evening, a 7:05 p.m. showing of "Official Secrets."

According to the theater operator, Landmark Theatres, it will "continue showcasing our signature variety of quality films paired with a top-tier entertainment experience at the Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto."

The Guild was constructed in 1924 and began offering "moving pictures" around 1925, according to a historical report by Bonnie Bamburg, excerpted on the Imagine Menlo website.

According to the report, the theater, initially called The Menlo, started out showing silent films accompanied by a live organist, but by 1929 had upgraded its sound system to offer "Movie-Phone" sound. The lobby was forcibly shortened by about 30 feet in 1942 when El Camino Real was widened. The theater changed names to the Guild when a newer theater in town took the name "The Menlo."

Ownership changed hands several times. In the late 1980s, the theater was remodeled in the Art Deco style, and it developed into its current niche in the local theater-scape as an art house theater, the report explains.

In recent years, it's hosted monthly midnight screenings of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" with a live cast.

The new Guild

The Menlo Park City Council approved plans in May 2018 to transform the vintage movie theater into a nonprofit live music venue.

The initiative is led by the Peninsula Arts Guild, made up of Menlo Park resident Drew Dunlevie and backed by two affluent locals: investor Pete Briger and entrepreneur Thomas Layton.

As to the current status of the project, Dunlevie explained in an email to The Almanac on Monday, Sept. 23, "We're (hopefully) close to getting permits from City of Menlo Park so we can get started in earnest."

Dunlevie said he is in conversations with the theater operator to have some additional final film screenings.

He said he thinks they're close to completing all of the steps necessary to get permits from the city of Menlo Park, but acknowledges that it's been a complex process. "I don't want to jinx it," he said.

According to the preliminary plans for the new Guild, the project would convert the single-screen theater into a three-level venue with a main viewing area on the ground floor, a second-story mezzanine, and a basement with a "green room" and a comfortable area where performers can shower and relax prior to shows.

The organization plans to operate the venue as a nonprofit, Dunlevie said. It would charge for admission to cover the costs of operations and paying the musicians, and would funnel any extra revenue back into the venue's programming, and offering discounted tickets.

The new Guild would be about 11,000 square feet, with a maximum height of 34 feet and a capacity of about 150 to 200 seats, or about 500 people at a standing-room-only show.

Nostalgia and memories

At a special event held Sept. 25 to celebrate the theater's last days as a movie house, Peninsula cinephiles shared some of their memories and recollections with The Almanac while waiting in line for popcorn and concessions in advance of a special screening of the 1988 film classic, "Cinema Paradiso," organized at the last minute with the support of Menlo Park resident Judy Adams, who ran a "Save the Guild" campaign to collect signatures to protect the theatre.

Though most attendees were aware of the new plans for the theatre, many were still nostalgic about their experiences at the long-standing movie house over the years.

"I've been coming here since the '70s," said Joan Singer of Belmont. That was back when Kepler's was closer and on the same side of El Camino Real, she said. The "Cinema Paradiso" screening, she said, feels "so appropriate."

"I probably saw it here first," she added.

Doug Felt, a 40-year resident of Menlo Park, said he appreciated the way that the theater's ushers would come out front before the movies started. It felt personal and friendly.

"It's not trying to be glitzy," he added.

The Guild is the latest in a slow trickle of many of his favorite haunts in Palo Alto and Menlo Park that have been disappearing, he says. "It makes you feel old."

Rohit Khare of Menlo Park said he hopes that the new theater will incorporate some of the older décor, like the chandeliers and the marquee, the way there have been efforts to do something similar at Foster's Freeze by keeping the signs to incorporate into a future snack shack at Burgess Park.

Larry Dahl, a longtime Menlo Park resident, recalled the days when the city had multiple theaters that offered double features, films that changed twice a week, and, in the pre-#MeToo era, a Woody Allen film festival that circulated through the theaters in town. Now, he says, there will be no movie theaters in Menlo Park.

Marian Sanders of East Palo Alto said she liked the Guild for its single screen and the small, old-fashioned atmosphere. She didn't mind that it lacked ultra-plush seats like many newer theaters offer, she added.

Menlo Park resident Steve Walton said that the theater has "been here longer than I've been here. I hate to see it go."

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