Varsity Theatre

456 University Avenue,
Palo Alto, CA 94301

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The Varsity Theatre (Official)

Additional Info

Previously operated by: Fox West Coast Theatres, Peninsula Theatres Company

Architects: James Reid, Merritt Reid

Firms: Reid Brothers

Functions: Café

Styles: Mission Revival

Previous Names: Fox Varsity Theatre

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News About This Theater

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The Varsity Theatre opened on September 26, 1927 with Mary Astor in “Rose of the Golden West”. It was operated by the Peninsula Theatres Company chain. It replaced an earlier 1912 Varsity Theatre, which had been located further along University Avenue on the opposite side of the street of the current theatre.

After fifty years of showing first run movies, the Varsity Theatre switched to art house fare in 1987 and, sadly, closed in 1994.

A preservation effort was launched to save the historic theatre, but unfortunately it did not succeed.

After the sale, the theatre was converted into a retail outlet for the Borders booksellers chain. Due to its historical status, the theatre was left somewhat intact and could perhaps be reopened one day as a theatre. In March 2015 it was converted into a coffee house.

Contributed by Ross Melnick

Recent comments (view all 30 comments)

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!!!!

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?

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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