The Park Theatre at 1275 El Camino Real was once a glittering landmark of Menlo Park’s downtown. Its well-lit marquee beckoned hundreds of enthusiastic movie-goers to exchange their dollars for tickets at the old-fashioned box office booth.
Couples, families and friends loved to sink into the 668 comfortable seats that filled the classic, art-deco theatre inside, to enjoy their popcorn and candy while taking in the latest in mainstream, independent and foreign-language flicks.
Just a block or two from the downtown strip of Santa Cruz Avenue, the Park Theatre’s retro design was a treat for its faithful customers.
Now, it is something of an eyesore.
Closed for several years now, the Park Theatre has been stripped of its once-beautiful marquee and neon letter sign and, for the past several years, has been all but abandoned.
It sits—barren, boarded up and broken. Waiting for a savior.
The Theatre’s Beginnings
According to website CinemaTreasures.com, which catalogs old, historic theatres across the country, the Park Theatre opened in 1947, exactly where it sits today. It was designed by architect Otto A. Deichmann in the classic art-deco style.
In its early days, the Park was an old vaudeville theater, presenting live stage shows and plays. A few years later, it was converted to a movie theatre, and was quite a popular one at that—it was the site of the Bay Area premiere of Singin’ in the Rain in 1952.
The theatre went on to enjoy several decades of prosperity, and was even presented with a special plaque in 1998 for adding to the area’s historic preservation. The Park enjoyed another few years of business after that, but in 2002, it was all over. The company who leased the Park Theatre, Landmark Theaters, chose not to renew its lease of the building in 2002 when it expired.
For years since, the building has stood empty, a ghost of its former self. The doors are boarded up and chained shut; the neon lettering has been removed, and the marquee is cracked, disabled and dark.
Efforts to Restore the Park Theatre
According to documents on file with the City of Menlo Park’s Building Department, the Park Theatre is currently owned by local resident Howard Crittenden, who has owned it for quite some time.
In 2001, while Landmark Theaters still operated the movie theater, Crittenden began exploring alternative uses for his building and the space. In 2004, after the building had been sitting empty for a while, the City of Menlo Park began discussing what could be done to restore the theater to its former status, including using city funds to help with renovations. When nothing happened to move that along, Crittenden submitted a permit request to convert the old theatre to office spaces in 2006.
Kelly Fergusson, a current member who was mayor at the time, couldn’t bear to see the once-majestic theatre turned into offices. She decided to use all of her resources to reach out to investors and developers in the area, including writing an article that ran in The Almanac, calling out to anyone who might be able to help.
“I was looking for ways to try and bring the building back to life,” Fergusson said.
Fergusson made contact with local businessman Andy Duncan. A longtime staple of the community, Duncan was receptive to Fergusson’s ideas, especially since his mother’s dance company, the , was looking for a new home at the time.
“He was looking to relocate his mother’s dance company. They were looking for a new home, and that building would have just really fit the ticket,” she said. “And, he had the private funds to restore it.”
So, Fergusson and Duncan decided to bring the idea to the city council.
In January of 2007, Duncan approached the council with the idea of striking up a partnership with the City—if the City purchased the Park Theatre from Crittenden, and then leased it to the Academy of Dance, Duncan would then use a combination of his private funds plus a bank loan to restore the building, and convert it into a studio and stage for the Academy of Dance.
According to documents on the City’s website, under the terms of the agreement, the City would invest $1.4 million from its General Fund reserves toward the purchase of the theatre and land. The City would then lease the land to the Academy of Dance, which is owned by Duncan’s mother. Duncan proposed the deal be for 55 years—in the first 24 years, revenue from the dance company would be used to pay back the bank loan and Duncan’s personal investment. Beginning in year 25, the City would begin receiving annual payments of $70,000. Beginning in year 11, the City would have the opportunity to buy the land and building back from Duncan, with the presumed intention of returning it back from a dance studio into a theatre.
Fergusson was excited about the proposal’s potential.
“I thought, wow—we have all this money in our General Fund, so I thought it would be a good investment for the city that would net a big return,” she said. “Plus, then it would no longer be an eyesore, and it would ensure the Academy of Dance would have a home, since it is a treasured city business.”
Reactions in the community were mixed. A petition to restore the town's theater was turned into the with with 140 signatures on it. But, others felt the City would be investing taxpayer money in support of a private venture, the .
Some felt so strongly against the proposal, they called for the ousting of Mayor Fergusson and other council members who were in favor of it, even building websites to launch campaigns in favor of their dismissal from the council.
Despite the feelings of some in the community, the council moved forward with Duncan’s proposal, and formed a Park Theatre Sub-Committee, consisting of then-council member Richard Cline—now the mayor of Menlo Park—and fellow council member Heyward Robinson. The committee was tasked with negotiating the deal with Duncan.
The plan hit a few snags.
Though Duncan had “hard numbers” for proposed costs when he first approached the council in January, 2007, as he proceeded to draft up detailed plans and price out materials, costs proved to be more than he expected, rising from his original expectation of $1.2 million, to $2 million, which was more than Duncan could afford.
“We had the plan, we had the funding, and then as we got further into the project, we found that there were more and more requirements being placed upon us that increased the cost,” Duncan explained. “Basically, the project price went beyond our funding capability.”
Once Duncan realized he could no longer afford the restoration costs between his personal funds and the bank loan, he approached the City to see if it could cover the difference as part of its investment.
After much back and forth discussion, the city council and Park Theatre sub-committee were unsure the investment was a wise one for the City of Menlo Park. Then, as if to add to the uncertainty, a new player entered the game.
Another potential developer, Tom Hilligoss, came forward and proposed using private funds to help purchase the land and building and restore the Park Theatre.
The idea was certainly attractive to the city council, since it would mean no monetary contribution would be needed from the city, at all.
In order to entertain Hilligoss’ proposal, the City put Duncan’s proposal on hold. However, the old saying proved true--if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
In the end, Hilligoss ended up withdrawing his proposal; and by then, it was just too late to secure Duncan. The found another home, and both the Hilligoss and Duncan deals fell through.
“Well, these things are always complicated. The deal fell through because of several things, including a lack of support from the city, a lack of available funding, and a increase in restoration costs based upon local code issues that needed to be brought up to speed,” Duncan explained.
Menlo Park Mayor Richard Cline was not available to comment.
What Will Happen to the Park Theatre Now?
Howard Crittenden is still the owner of the building, which continues to sit, deteriorating, on El Camino Real.
“I’m still looking at my options right now,” Crittenden said. “I wish I could tell you anything, but there’s nothing to report. I can’t really discuss it until I get some things clarified.”
What the options are that Crittenden is exploring for the building, he would not say.
Fergusson said she is sad the building has been left to deteriorate, and wishes someone would step forward with an idea for restoring it.
“I still dream about what might have been [if the deal with Andy Duncan had gone through],” said Fergusson. “It was really envisioned as a community theater – music and dance and theater, where the community could be a part of it.”