Palo Alto History. Org

The Festival Cinema: Bogie, Bacall and Beanbags

When talking with the 40-something generation about days past in Palo Alto, there is one place that never fails to be mentioned --- the old movie theatre on Hamilton Avenue known as The Festival.  It seems everyone has a story of this grizzled movie house that stood in a converted office building from 1974 to 1985.  But the loyalty that people have to the Festival’s memory certainly wasn’t based on its appearance.  
Reading descriptions of the old place, it clearly wasn’t much --- a glorified screening room really --- with an aging 16mm projector, a seating capacity of just 114 and a screen about the size of some modern-day home plasmas.  Plus without an angled floor, Festival-goers were always wise to look for a seat behind someone a little shorter in stature.  Despite such deficiencies, however, there was always something authentic, down-to-earth and certainly a bit funky about the Festival --- and it has allowed the theatre to remain large in the memories of a generation of Palo Altans.

Due to its intimacy, the Festival offered a sense of community that today’s behemoth cineplexes can’t possibly achieve.  As Palo Alto lovers of the Hollywood classics congregated at the Festival each evening, it became more community living room than theatre --- a place where strangers reminisced with Garbo, Bogie, Hepburn and all the old-time stars. And nothing was more “living room” than what the Festival is best
remembered for --- the carpeted section under the screen filled with beanbags and pillows.  If you didn’t care for the hardback folding chairs set up to view the film (and who would, really?), you could stretch out on the floor and watch your movie from a more reclined position.  

The concession stand was also rather homespun.  Instead of Goobers and Snow Caps under a glass display, Festival munchies were more like what you might find at intermission scrounging around your kitchen --- popcorn with wheat germ, bagels with cream cheese and chocolate chip cookies were usually on hand.  And if you wanted to bring Fluffy along to curl up on one of those bean bags --- no problem, pets were allowed too.

Loyalty to the Festival both at the time (it was reasonably profitable during its tenure) and in the community’s collective memory bank, also had a lot to do with the cinema’s dedication to movies.  During its entire tenure the Festival always operated as a revival house --- from its 1974 opening as the Academy Cinema, when it began with “The Ziegfeld Follies” and billed itself “The Home of the Classics” to its ‘80s run as the place for “Movie masterpieces from the Golden Age of Cinema.”  For a time, there was even a suggestion box where you could actually submit a request for a film and usually find it on the schedule a couple weeks later.

And the Festival’s devotion to great cinema continued when a couple of thirty-something movie buffs rescued the closing cinema almost on a whim in 1982.  The two saviors were not likely candidates for the job of movie theatre owners.  Brain Duckworth had pursued careers as a lawyer and rotor blade manufacturing engineer and Stanley Dudek was an aeronautical designer who had taught Chinese at De Anza College.  But they were both big-time movie fans.  Duckworth said owning a theatre was “a good excuse to see old movies” and Dudek had fallen in love with movies during a bout with depression.  He told the San Jose Mercury-News that during one week of intense dejection, he had gone to “an old revival theatre and watched every Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields movie there is…as a kind of therapy.”  Happy to be full-time movie watchers, the boys helped the Festival diversify its lineup, adding more foreign fare classics like “Black Orpheus” and “King of Hearts,” as well as the films of less heralded cinematic masters like Preston Sturges.

But the end was not so far away.  On April 18, 1985, The Festival rolled the credits for the final time.  As with many of Palo Alto’s timeworn theaters --- The Biograph, the Bijou, the Fine Arts, the Varsity --- the Festival was no longer economically sustainable given the soaring property values in Palo Alto’s new economic climate.  Except for the Stanford 
which was saved by the one-man fundraising show of David Packard, it was the end of an era for the old reps.  

Of course, these days there are plenty of movie theatres around.  A trip on the freeway will take you to half a dozen 16 or 20 movie megaplexes.  But something was lost with the closing of the old single-screeners like The Festival.  I mean, just try going down to the AMC and asking for a beanbag for your head or some wheat germ on your popcorn. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

"The theater was very rustic and obviously cobbled together. As I
recall, it was on the second floor of the building, and there was a
small lobby with the ticket counter and snack bar in the space.  The
regular seats consisted of standard folding chairs, not at all comfortable.

One time when I attended late for a double bill, an employee came out
before the second film and asked if anyone needed to see it, as
employees were invited to a party in progress. Some, including
myself, said this would be OK if we could just see the part we missed
in the earlier screening. Can you imagine such compromises at the

I know that this doesn't sound impressive, but I very much miss the
funky venues that existed in the area during the 70s!"


This was a cool place. When I was in high school around 74-75 we
would go their almost every week to catch a real movie. I first saw the
African Queen there and it changed my life. I saw many Bogart films for
the first time at the Festival. There were couches and bean bag chairs
in the front rows and we always tried to get in early enough to snag
these seats!


Send Us Your Memory!

The Festival on Hamilton Avenue. (PAHA)

Stanley Dudek, co-owner of the Festival beginning in 1982.

Brian Duckworth, former lawyer and cinema owner.