The Guild Theatre is no stranger to big names: For over 90 years, a steady parade of stars flickered across the screen of the Menlo Park movie palace. But now, the names that appear on the marquee will be performing live inside The Guild, which after an extensive renovation, will open on Feb. 25 as a rare, brand-new venue for live music on the Peninsula.
First among those names on the marquee will be jazz pianist and songwriter Robert Glasper on Feb. 25, kicking off an opening weekend that also features "psychedelic-soul" band Monophonics on Feb. 26 and funky blues and R&B with Eric Krasno and Son Little on Feb. 27.
A love of live music spurred the founding of the Peninsula Arts Guild, the nonprofit that operates The Guild Theatre, said Drew Dunlevie, the organization's president.
"I'm one of these people who goes to a lot of concerts. I really enjoy live music and I have for a long time. I have a group of friends and we hit a lot of shows," Dunlevie said, noting that with many bands on tour stopping in San Francisco, it's not always feasible to make the trip up the Peninsula for shows, especially mid-week.
"I would like to be able, on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, to see something close (to home),” he said
Dunlevie, a Menlo Park resident, founded the Peninsula Arts Guild with investor Pete Briger and entrepreneur Thomas Layton. The group broke ground on The Guild Theatre’s renovation in late 2019. The theater, at 949 El Camino Real, was built in the mid-1920s, according to the Menlo Park Historical Association, and showed films up until fall 2019. It was last operated as an art house by Landmark Theatres, which still runs Palo Alto’s Aquarius Theatre.
The Almanac toured The Guild Theatre a few days ahead of its Feb. 25 opening, as workers were putting finishing touches on a $35 million renovation. This publication also got a sneak peek of the venue under construction last November.
The venue’s opening, slated for early February, was delayed several times by pandemic-related issues.
“What was really difficult for us, and I'm sure anyone who tried to build anything during a pandemic, was that there were supply chain issues. We didn't know what parts were coming in,” said Tom Bailey, general manager of The Guild Theatre.
The stage curtain, for instance, is likely to arrive after the official opening night, but that won’t be much of an obstacle after a renovation that amounted to almost a full rebuild.
The theater was taken down to just two original walls. The renovation included digging out a full basement and adding a mezzanine level, installing a state-of-the-art sound system, a high-quality ventilation system and extensive soundproofing so as not to disturb neighbors.
The Guild’s stage was built to be significantly bigger than those typically found in small venues, in order to accommodate larger acts, Dunlevie said.
“If you're standing in the audience, or sitting upstairs or wherever you are inside the venue, you really feel like you're super close,” Bailey said
In fact, the audience's proximity to the stage is immediately obvious when stepping into the venue. The Guild's capacity is about 500 people standing and 200 seated, making for an intimately sized venue. (For comparison, The Warfield's capacity is about 2,250 and The Fillmore holds about 1,100, according to the venues' websites.)
Bailey knows his local venues — a Bay Area native and Stanford grad with strong roots in the local music scene, having worked for Bill Graham Presents, handling such places as The Warfield, The Fillmore and Shoreline Amphitheatre before moving to New York in the aughts, where he managed the Knitting Factory and the Blue Note. Most recently, he served as general manager for the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, before returning to the Bay Area in 2019 to take the reins at The Guild Theatre.
“I think one of the most important things about any concert venue — the thing that was great about (the Capitol Theatre) — is the vibe. And vibe is something that Fillmore has; vibe is something that I think all good venues have. And so we're trying to create a very unique vibe for this place in Menlo Park,” Bailey said.
As intangible as finding a "vibe" may seem, The Guild seems to be getting a good start in that regard, with the Peninsula Arts Guild enlisting designer Ken Fulk to give the space an upscale modern look with retro touches.
Polished wood, stone and unique tiling give a luxurious feeling to common areas such as the bar areas and bathrooms. But the interiors also embrace The Guild’s 1920s heritage in light fixtures and other details, perhaps most notably in an art deco chandelier salvaged from the theater that hangs over the ground-floor bar.
There are also echoes of its movie theater past in the lobby floor, finished with a colorful design reminiscent of vintage movie theater entrances — and the theater’s blade sign remains, refurbished with "Guild" spelled out in new neon lights, Dunlevie noted.
"It's going to be one of the fancier places to go see a concert you could even possibly imagine. It'll be a feast for the eyes — an amazing place for the patrons as well as the artists,” he said.
The Peninsula Arts Guild also made sure to pinpoint what amenities would make the space most comfortable and useful for musicians.
“We did a ton of research. We talked to artists themselves. We talked to production managers, we talked to tour managers,” Dunlevie said.
The basement, off limits to patrons, includes a literal green room (paneled in wood painted a deep shade of green), with plush couches and a kitchenette. Off of the green room are two dressing rooms with adjoining bathrooms, complete with showers. A washer and dryer, stashed neatly behind folding green doors, are surprisingly sought-after amenities, Dunlevie said, that not all venues offer.
The basement level also has a small kitchen that can provide musicians with meals designed by celebrity chef Michael Mina.
Though avoiding a “commute” to shows was a driving force in the venue’s creation, Peninsula Arts Guild's aim is not to compete with San Francisco, but when possible, offer a more local option for Peninsula music fans.
"We're really trying to make this a home-base kind of venue where people can stay close to home and don't have to drive an hour there and drive back. And with public transportation not being the most popular way to travel these days too, I think that there will be more regional attendance of concerts than there has been in the past,” Bailey said.
The Guild’s small size could actually complement larger venues in the region, as Dunlevie said one aim is to make The Guild Theatre attractive to big names on tour as a venue for charitable fundraising concerts.
Many well-established artists have causes that they support, he said, so a big-name act could play a larger Bay Area venue on their tour and then play The Guild to raise money for their cause.
This possibility is supported by the venue's nonprofit status, which means not having to maximize profit on every event they book.
"One of the most important parts about being involved in the 501(c)(3) is remembering that our goal is to present a variety, a wide range of music," Bailey said.
The model offers more flexibility in programming, including the ability to make the venue available to local groups and special events, such as book releases, talks and lectures or performances by school bands, he noted.
And booking-wise, the Guild's current schedule reflects an open approach, with diverse genres represented, at various ticket price points, as well. Upcoming dates include performances from folk-rock band Michigan Rattlers, rapper Lyrics Born, rock band Low Cut Connie and soul singer-songwriter Macy Gray.
"We've got a wide range of stuff. We're really gonna try a lot of different things and see what the community wants to see," Bailey said.
For more information and a full schedule of upcoming shows, visit guildtheatre.com.