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October 08, 2011
Letter to the Editor, Varsity Theater

Here's my letter to the editor that ran in the Palo Alto Daily Post today.

(This sounds so much like a classic Fusco Brothers comic: Oooh! I'm so mad I'm going to write a letter to the editor! How do you spell "persnickety"?)

A little background: The historic Varsity Theater on University Avenue in Palo Alto has been a Border's Bookstore for, oh, about a decade or so. Borders has since gone bankrupt and closed all their stores, including this one, so there has been a discussion about what to do with the building. Some would like it to be office space, some would like it back as a theater, some would like it to be retail.

One of the local newspapers, the Palo Alto Daily Post, ran an article and an editorial this week suggesting that those who want to see the Varsity back as a theater should give up because the owner of the building has, correctly, pointed out that the cinima business is not too good right now and there's lots of competition nearby.

So here's my response. The version that was published in the newspaper was edited substantially.

In Monday's article "City keeping theater idea alive", and Tuesday's editorial, "Theater-seekers ignoring landlord", Ryan Riddle notes that the owner of the Varsity Theater, Chop Keenan, recommends against its use a movie theater because he does not think it would be financially viable. And sure enough, the revenue would not be large and there are already three other screens within just a few blocks of the place.

But what about another kind of theater, a music venue? I could easily imagine a privately owned, for profit, music venue serving up jazz, folk, fusion, blues, improv, rock, bluegrass, experimental, poetry slams and comedy. Get some investors together; the place is already theater-shaped.

Location is very important for a music venue, and downtown P'Alto is perfect in that regard. Close to a major Caltrain station, numerous buses, freeways, free parking, shopping, etc. And close to Stanford's 15,000 students, so there's a substantial customer base right there. And there are opportunities for symbiotic business operations in the courtyard, like a cafe, pub, pizza, desserts, gallery, whatever. And the city council would probably be helpful considering the cultural, historical and commerce benefits.

The closest music venue is the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, which is certainly a nice place, but there's basically nothing south of there. Nothing from Menlo Park down to San Jose, and nothing on the East Bay south of Oakland. That's pretty sad.

And that's especially unfortunate considering that Palo Alto has been so vitally important to our musical culture: the Kingston Trio started here, as did the Grateful Dead. Joan Baez and Grace Slick grew up here (both Paly High, class of '58). Guitarist William Ackerman grew up here (Amherst Street), and founded Windham Hill Records here (High Street). Ackerman also discovered guitarist Michael Hedges here, playing at... wait for it... the Varsity Theater. Oh, and the Donna's.

So I believe that the Varsity would be a remarkable opportunity for a music venue business.

Don Tillman, Palo Alto

Posted by DonTillman at October 8, 2011 04:48 PM

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