Small, Sweet Bay Area Theaters Reopen Just in Time for Final Summer Days

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Black-and-white image of four people in theater seats with special viewfinders over eyes
Just like Cary Grant and Phyllis Brooks in 1939, you can take in movies at small-screen, drive-in and unconventional locations as venues reopen. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Summer brings some much-needed good news about several of the Bay Area’s most delightful movie theaters. By now, the “bad news” theme has become redundant, every story about a beloved venue uniquely terrible in the specifics. COVID-19 caused a number of screens to close in the past few years, including Landmark’s Embarcadero Cinema and West Portal’s CinéArts at the Empire. The pandemic spurred the elimination of the SFMOMA’s film programming, while the Castro Theatre’s future is uncertain.

The venues that survive have navigated rocky paths. While some cinemas reverted to standard procedures a while ago—and some barely closed at all, except when mandated by local governments in the first months of the pandemic—other Bay Area movie theaters have only recently resumed programming. Against the current trend of packing summer theater schedules with action hero franchise flicks, many of these enduring institutions focus on vintage fare and the opportunity to see movies in a particularly charming context with others—spaced out on an enormous lawn, for example.

At this stage of the pandemic, there are numerous options for moviegoers: indoor screenings, with and without masks mandated; free outdoor shows; and even a drive-in for loved ones and pods to take in a Friday night film in one vehicle.

Angled up view of marquee advertising old films
The marquee for the Stanford Theatre on University Avenue, Palo Alto in 2016. (Photo via Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Palo Alto’s movie palace is back

Closed since March 1, 2020, the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto reopened in July with a new ventilation and air-conditioning system added to the 1925 building. Little else has changed for the red velvet curtain cinema, where a live organist plays the house Wurlitzer between classic double features, which cost just $7 ($5 for youth and seniors). If stars like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are favorites—or you want to get acquainted with any of them—you likely either already love this Peninsula movie palace or need to make plans to pay a visit.

Even before the cinema added central air, summer has been a delightful time to disappear into an afternoon double bill. A favorite golden age pairing back in July 2017 had me snagging front-row seats—literally—to take in The Desk Set as a matinee, followed by a live music intermission before The African Queen.


The cinema stays affordable thanks to being entirely sustained by the Packard Humanities Institute, the nonprofit foundation founded by David Woodley Packard, an accomplished academic, tireless film preservationist, and the son of Hewlett-Packard’s co-founder.

The Stanford Theatre schedule is planned out through September, and available to view online. Tickets at the formerly all-cash box office can now be purchased with a credit or debit card, but this decidedly throwback theater still does only in-person ticket sales, and seating is first come, first serve.

Black-and-white image of movie set, men on horses and lights above
Filming a Broncho Billy movie at Essanay Studios in Chicago, circa 1915. Broncho Billy, America's first cowboy hero of the silver screen, is the second figure from the left, wearing chaps and a white hat. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

Shh! No talking during the movie

Tucked away in the Fremont district of Niles, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum reopened in July after a two-year COVID closure. Its first 2022 in-person event, its annual Charlie Chaplin Days, paid homage to the icon who joined the Essanay motion picture studio at the end of 1914, months before his dramatic rise to worldwide fame the following year.

Founded in Chicago in 1907, the Essanay studio relocated to the enclave of Niles in 1912, seeking reprieve from the harsh Midwestern winters. Today, the company is best known for its enduring silent comedies, including the prolific work of the production studio’s co-founder, Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson, who wrote, acted in, and edited many of the studio’s early films such as Mr. Flip.

Rena Azevedo Kiehn, who directs the museum’s special programs and numerous community partnerships, notes that the silent film museum is reopening slowly, with no concessions at this time and COVID protections maintained for all. “We’re being respectful of the fact that a lot of our patrons and docents are seniors,” she said. Requiring masks and proof of vaccination for weekend-long lineups of talks and screenings, like last weekend’s Broncho Billy Days, keeps the programming accessible.

Depending on how the next few months unfold, the museum tentatively plans to continue special programs, like Halloween screenings, and ramp back up to regular weekly events by 2023. “We’d love to have more volunteers, which would allow us to do even more,” Kiehn added.

Three women in red, yellow and orange dresses dance expressively on the street outside a bodega.
A scene from Steven Spielberg's 2021 'West Side Story' with Ariana DeBose (center) as Anita. (20th Century Studios)

An encore for Marin’s drive-in

Larkspur’s Lark Theater is once again running its summertime drive-in. Presented in a Corte Madera parking lot between the marsh and shopping center, the naturally distanced Friday-night screenings include family-friendly features like Home Alone and the new West Side Story, and animated movies such as Shrek and Ratatouille.

Tickets for the drive-in are only sold online, with prices at $17 or $30 per vehicle depending on the number of occupants. Screenings begin shortly after sundown, with the start times after 8pm staggered through the end of the season as the summer days shorten. Be on time! Latecomers may be denied entry.

More—free!—moviegoing options

The San Francisco Parks Alliance continues its annual SF-centric Sundown Cinema series with free outdoor screenings at various city parks through the fall. The season finale, Addams Family Values, screens at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in John McLaren Park on Friday, Oct. 21.

The Berkeley Arts Museum and Pacific Film Archive will host three free screenings in August on its huge outdoor LED screen at Addison and Oxford Streets. If you’re craving even more silent film viewings, the lineup includes Charlie Chaplin in 1925’s The Gold Rush, as well as modern classics directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Spike Lee.

Even travelers passing through SFO’s international terminal have the opportunity to pause for some respite with moving images. The SFO Museum’s Video Arts screening area shows contemporary short films for free in a much-needed oasis now open again, 7am–10pm daily.

Four years ago, pausing in the Video Arts cinema before a flight, I was captivated by the short film The Monolith, about the changing view from New York painter Gwyneth Leech’s studio windows. Her artistic response to the unfolding construction—a rumination on transitions—was especially evocative to me. There I was, transiting between my current and former home, watching a film by chance in a microcinema. Even under pre-COVID circumstances, travel often makes me anxious and ill, as much as it delights me. But the screening room muffled the noise from the nearby security checkpoint, allowing me to relax and hyper-focus on the film.


That afternoon, what could’ve been a forgettable waystation became a definitively memorable experience. Films seen in unique locales tend to stay with us, whether seen in historic theaters, parking lots or busy airports. We need only give ourselves over to a curator’s choice.