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The Big Picture: Stories of the Stanford Theatre

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At the best of times, Palo Alto doesn’t feel like a town in touch with its past. A walk down University Avenue reveals a scene typical of the South Bay: streets lined with Teslas and glassy tech storefronts, where the cafes look like Apple stores and the parlors make their ice cream with buffalo milk. It’s an odd place to find the marbled columns and marquees of an art deco cinema. Palo Alto’s main street has two; as if to correct for this intrusion of culture, one of them has been hollowed out, its trappings preserved only to add personality to the shell of an upmarket coffeehouse. The other one is the Stanford Theatre.

Understanding the Stanford Theatre’s setting helps one appreciate the cinema’s undertaking: to preserve, even in the heart of Silicon Valley, the decidedly unmodern experience of a night at the movies in cinema’s Golden Age. It is a meticulously designed endeavor. When I arrive to see Katherine Hepburn’s 1933 rendition of “Little Women,” I’m eased away from the streets of Palo Alto by the baseball-style cursive of the theater’s logo and the low-watt light bulbs studding its marquee. An $8 ticket — cash only — takes me into a candelabra-lit foyer, decorated with hand-drawn posters of Shirley Temple and Audrey Hepburn. Inside the auditorium, rich velvet curtains and ornate columns create a church-like sanctity. Under the warm hues of the theater’s projector, they seem to flicker with the imperfections of the film reel. And like the Hitchcock thrillers that hold court here, the theater saves its best for last. At each film’s end, an enormous Wurlitzer organ rises into view from the orchestra pit, organist in mid-song, to fill the interval between shows with operatic music. 

When I share my experience with theater manager Cyndi Mortensen, she nods with a knowing smile. “It’s kind of a magical place,” she says. “The magic of the theatre that never goes away is going into the auditorium, and the red curtains part and then you’re watching ‘Gone with the Wind,’ or ‘The Maltese Falcon,’ and you’re transported back in time.” 

Mortensen and I are sitting in her office, a small room tucked away by the theater’s balcony entrance on the second floor. It’s messy and a little cramped. I’ve interrupted a busy day of program scheduling and renovation, and someone stops by to discuss construction work on the roof as we talk. 

Keeping an artistic tradition from almost a century ago alive today is a continual, and sometimes arduous, challenge. And there seems to be little relief on the horizon as the gamut of arthouses, networks and streaming services competing for cinephiles’ attention continues to grow. Listening to Mortensen, however, leaves little doubt about the passion that has kept the Stanford Theatre in the mix.

“I’ve been here since around 1990,” Mortensen says. “So I’ve been here for a long time, and the movie-going world has changed dramatically in those, what is it, 30 years now? When I was growing up, I had access to old movies on TV, so I grew up watching ‘King Kong’ and the Shirley Temple movies and the Warner Brothers movies and things from the 30s and 40s. And that was how I developed a love and a fascination for classic film. Now, in this day and age, young people don’t have that outlet… [the Stanford Theatre] is their introduction to classic film. As time goes by, it’s going to be even more important to have that.”

There’s an earnest pride about Mortensen as she describes her work and the theater’s history. 

“The theater was built in 1925,” she says. “When the Packard Foundation purchased it in 1988, David [Packard] wanted to recreate exactly how it was in 1925. He worked with some of the original architects, he tracked down the records about what it looked like… he was able to track down the original people that painted the theater, and the son of the man who actually did it was able to get some of the original artwork and patterns and recreate [them].”

Though she wasn’t present for the renovation of the theater, Mortensen is no less involved in its commitment to authenticity. Even on a day-to-day basis, a deep sense of responsibility towards the history of cinema seems to pervade the Stanford Theatre’s operation. Mortensen’s job requires her to be both part historian, part detective to scour the globe for the best preserved film reels to screen at the theater. 

“You know, it’s really exciting,” she says. “I love it when I can find something that’s not really well known or an odd title. A couple years ago we did a Gene Kelly festival and I was determined to do “The Young Girls of Rochefort,” which is a Jacques Perrin film and the last film that Gene Kelly did where he actually did a little singing and dancing. It’s this beautiful kind of early 1960s film, pop colors, and it’s all in French. I couldn’t find a print of it anywhere. And I finally tracked down a print in Paris, at the French cultural society or something. I was able to get the only print!” 

Mortensen leans forward with more stories still to tell. As she shares tales of tracking down a film collector in England on a collector’s website to buy the prints for an elusive Doris Day picture, or working with the UCLA Film Archive to produce new film reels from archived negatives, I begin to understand the forces that have kept the Stanford Theatre standing in Palo Alto since its restoration. Mortensen’s passion is infectious, as is the grin when I ask her what the best part of her job is.

“The best part is sitting in the auditorium when we have a film [like] that Gene Kelly film, ‘The Young Girls of Rochefort,’” Mortensen laughs. “Just being there, and having the curtains open and thinking, I did it. I found this film! If it wasn’t for me, it wouldn’t be here.”

Mortensen’s passion and pride in her work becomes a familiar script as I work my way through the Stanford Theatre’s supporting cast. I’m ushered past the backmost rows of the theater balcony to meet projectionist Phil Krikau. The theater’s projection room has the air of a steam engine cab. Walls of buttons and dials surround the boilerplate steel of two hulking film projectors arranged in parallel. It’s an ungainly, haphazard nerve center worlds away from the stately auditorium it overlooks, but Krikau talks about it with the eye of a craftsman. I see dashes of character tucked between the panels and machinery — novelty posters and newspaper clippings tacked onto a corkboard, a child’s drawing hung on the far wall.

“The booth has taken on my personality,” Krikau says. “It’s kind of like a second home for me. I probably spend more time here than I do at home.”

The homely confines of the projection booth bely the intensity with which Krikau approaches his craft. Crouching between the projectors, he launches unprompted into a breakdown of the projection process. Amid the clicks of apertures adjusting and motors revving, his voice pinches with focus. 

“The lighting comes from here,” Phil explains as he swings open a thick hatch in the bowels of the projector. “It’s a very obsolete, traditional form of light called carbon arc that was used quite often until 1970.” He pauses. “It still is in some small venues, but we’re the only ones that do it on a full-time basis.”

Krikau’s fierce pride in his projection booth is the culmination of a life spent working around film. “I’ve always been enamored with going to movie palaces,” he reflects. “I decided that I wanted to be a projectionist because that was what I did as a kid in my basement — I set up a little projector with 8 millimeter films and I would show them to the kids on the block and sell popcorn.”

Krikau took an apprenticeship as a projectionist to pay his way through the University of Wisconsin and enjoyed it so much that he dropped out of college altogether. Forty-two years later, at the controls of a projection booth he’s made his own, there’s a satisfying completeness to his story. It’s almost easy to forget that film projection is hardly the bustling trade it used to be outside of the Stanford Theatre’s ornate walls. 

“I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, and I’ve kind of weathered the storm of the craft itself,” Krikau reminds me. “Back in the 90s I thought I was going to have to change careers because there was no work in this at all.”

If Krikau is wearied from the changing tides of his craft, he doesn’t show it. But he is quick to point out the sacrifice that comes with his work. “It’s not for anybody,” he cautions. “I get a lot of people who come up here and they want me to train them, they look at this as a romantic thing. You know, I get to see a lot of movies, but you’re always busy doing something. It’s a noisy environment, you’re looking out through portholes… a lot of people ask me, ‘What’s the film about?’ and I can’t tell them!”

“It’s not an easy job,” Krikau continues. “But I’m doing something that I enjoyed doing as a kid. Who would’ve thought? How many people get to say they’re making a living from something that they did as a kid, in their parents’ basement?”

Clearly, the movie-loving kid from Milwaukee won out. Hearing the same shades of excitement across both his and Mortensen’s recounts, it seems only fitting that Krikau settled in Palo Alto with the Stanford Theatre. He seems to think as much — as he finishes his story, Krikau’s normally sharp tone warms to one of contentment. “I have to say luck has been on my side — coming to the Stanford [Theater] in 1991 was just one of the strokes of luck I’ve encountered in my life.”

Looking out over the theater’s auditorium from Krikau’s lofty perch, it’s hard to argue with that. “For 29 years I’ve been here,” he says. “This is my longest standing tenure in a theater. It’s the pinnacle of my career.”

I have to travel further afield to track down the final architect of the Stanford Theatre’s experience. A short drive from University Avenue, Stanford’s newly-built Redwood City campus might just epitomize the gentrified aesthetic that blankets the South Bay: a slick assembly of palm trees, angles and smooth surfaces of glass and steel. By day, Jerry Nagano works here as an administrator for Stanford University’s IT department. But the sterile surroundings of his open-plan office don’t do him justice. In the evenings, it is Nagano who rises from the depths of the Stanford Theatre to man the Wurlitzer organ and apply the final, musical flourish to the theater’s time capsule.

Nagano plays the organ with a virtuoso-like abandon, arms rolling across the tiered keyboards like a dance. Sitting at his desk at work, he cuts a quieter figure. Still, Nagano speaks with a familiar enthusiasm and is just as eager to discuss his work as Mortensen and Krikau. Even removed from the velvet stage of the theater, he narrates with the energy of a showman. 

“The first time I heard a theater organ was as an accompaniment to a silent film,” Nagano says. “There was a motion picture being played in Los Angeles. By chance, the silent movie organist also was the organist for the Lakers. I would go to the Laker games and I would sit up in the general seating area, which is next to where the organ console was. My dad and his buddies would go down, get more expensive seats, but I was perfectly happy to watch basketball and watch him play the organ.”

“And one day, my mom said there’s a movie going to be played at the theater downtown. When the lights come down, very much like at the Stanford Theatre, the spotlight turns on and you see this big console rising out of the pit in the center of the floor — and I had never seen or heard anything like it.”

A musician from youth, Nagano followed through with his childhood fascination and played the organ for auditoriums, restaurants and theaters across California. “My working career has been just all over the map,” he admits. “It’s never been a straight line. I have my degree in, of all things, economics.”

A strikingly different image of the Bay Area emerges from Nagano’s California-hopping career — one filled with picture houses, auditoriums and ‘pizza and pipes’ restaurants, alive with the chimes and chords of organ music. 

“I’ve heard long time Bay Area people say that the organ has always been popular in the area, back to the Second World War when they would use them in the old movie theaters in San Francisco,” Nagano says. “In the early 60s, they actually had a series of concerts where people paid money to hear the organ play at midnight. And going on to pizza and pipes, that would have been my generation of people that would have heard organs in pizza parlors. So there’s always been a tradition.”

Like Krikau, though, Nagano’s seen that tradition can only take a craft so far. He recounts a familiar story about the organ’s decline in recent years: “When I started playing the organ, the big thing was to have a solo organ concert. You’d come and hear the organ for a couple of hours! That’s no longer the thing — if you want to play the organ a lot, you’re going to have to have a special venue like the Stanford [Theatre].”

It’s easy to see why the Stanford Theatre keeps Nagano around. “I always like to think that the organ is the prelude to the film,” he smiles. “It puts you into the right type of mood, it gets you used to a certain era of music… [the organ] eases you into the time machine, and then after the film, it eases you back out again.”

As with Mortensen and Krikau, history factors heavily into Nagano’s work. His music carries a heavy responsibility in establishing a period-appropriate ambiance for the theater’s films. Naturally, he’s well prepared. “I have a book that lists all the hits — the top 40, the hit parade — and they go back to the beginning of 1900, they list every year,” Nagano says. “For a 1939 film, I would choose hits from 1939 or 1938, because you most likely would have heard something like that at the theater.” 

It’s yet another dimension of the subtlety and effort that underlies the Stanford Theatre’s operation, hidden behind the construction of the theater’s historical authenticity. Nagano’s attention to detail, cataloging music by the year to pair with the theater’s films like a sommelier, seems particularly hard to notice. Nagano doesn’t seem to mind, brimming with pride as he describes the decades-old genres he works through. Playing to the crowd, he explains, is its own reward.

“I remember my boss’s boss, when I first interviewed here at Stanford asked me: where in your life do you get acknowledgment for the good things that you do? I get mine from playing the organ. The feedback is instant. I know when my playing is good – you can hear it and you can feel it from the audience.”

Putting faces to the various facets of the Stanford Theatre’s experience has only made it even harder to square away the theater with its surroundings. In the heart of Silicon Valley, even as the trends of time and a restless culture continue to erode at the traditions and craft of traditional cinema, the Stanford Theatre hardly feels like a relic on the brink. It has managed to shelter a team of knowledgeable, defiant and endlessly passionate artists and carve out a rare space for them to continue the crafts that have shaped their lives. And on those weekend nights, when Nagano’s melodies echo through the room and the picture flickers ever so slightly as Krikau changes a reel, it reminds us of the wonder it preserves.

“I’m just hoping that we continue on our mission,” says Mortensen. “And that people will continue to appreciate it, and sit in the dark, and be enchanted by what they see.”

Contact Daniel Wu at dwu21 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Daniel Wu '21 is a Desk Editor for News, and also contributes to Sports, Arts & Life and The Daily's Graphics team. Contact him at dwu21 'at' stanford.edu.