[Best of the Santa Clara Valley 1997]

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Best of Palo Alto

Stanford Theater

Best Vintage Star-Gazing
A decade ago, David Packard Jr. restored this old movie palace to its original splendor, fitting for the celestial pantheon of stars from the "golden age" of movies who appear, larger than life, as perhaps they were, on the Stanford Theater's screen. Jewel tones and gilt in rich Moorish-inspired designs adorn the walls and ceiling; a pipe organ serenades the audience before and after movies and plays along with the silent antics of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. And proving that old stars really do never fade, the line to get in the theater often stretches around the block.
221 University Ave., Palo Alto (650/324-3701)

Best One-Stop Kid Culture
Maybe even Peninsula culture maven Lucie Stern--sometimes called the godmother of Palo Alto--didn't know the extent of the legacy she left when she built the theater and community center that now bears her name. Young dilettantes can dabble in some diverse cultural activities that are all within a block of the Lucie Stern Community Center, whether it's attending or performing in a play at the Palo Alto Children's Theatre, wandering through the library's arcadian maze of gardens with a special book, or participating in some hands-on exhibits and making friends with rabbits, reptiles and the other animals who live at the zoo.
Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo, 1451 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto (650/329-2111)
Palo Alto Children's Library, 1276 Harriet St., Palo Alto (650/329-2134)
Palo Alto Children's Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto (650/329-2651)

Barbie Museum
Myth America: The Barbie Museum isn't just a tribute to a plastic plaything but a catalog of 20th-century pop culture.

Best Place to Be 11 1/2 Inches Tall
The multitude of molded plastic denizens of the Barbie Doll Hall of Fame may all be less than a foot in height, but the many incarnations of Barbie through the decades loom large here, almost as large as the near life-size renderings of Barbie and Ken who guard the aisles. An army and then some of the pint-sized fashion plates from the '50s to the '90s line the walls. But, as founder Evelyn Burkhalter can attest, this museum is more than just a tribute to a plastic plaything--there's a half-century of pop-culture history here, from 1965's Fraternity Dance Barbie or 1969's Flower Power Barbie to the '90s-era Got Milk Barbie. Other contemporary dolls include Dr. Barbie and Astronaut Barbie--who's sure to avoid alien abduction with her blazing pink spacesuit.
433 Waverley St., Palo Alto (650/326-5841)

Best Place to Get a Groove On
Off University's main drag at Groovesmith, a hip-hop head's dream collection awaits, with old-school artists, rare jazz, burgeoning trip-hop, and here today, gone tomorrow collectibles. The jazz selection is as thick as the rap selection--a tell-tale sign of a good hip-hop record store. A listening bar is set up for test driving CDs, and a pair of turntable decks wait for spinning wax. The super-knowledgeable staff cares deeply about all genres and treats each customer with respect. Just another reason to buy records from someone who cares about music, instead of a part-time tattoo artist or a faceless "10 CDs for a Dollar" Music Club.
400 Florence Ave., Palo Alto (415/328-5463)

Frenchman's Tower
Sealed With a Brick: The 18th-century Frenchman's Tower in Palo Alto still awaits a clever sleuth to unlock its mystery.

Best Spot to Solve a Local Mystery
Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Society says that whoever finally figures out the original purpose of Frenchman's Tower will get their 15 minutes of fame--at least in Palo Alto. This approximately two-story brick tower looks a lot like a displaced castle turret, except that its gothic-arched windows are all bricked over. Reportedly built in the late 18th century by the Peninsula's celebrated French pioneer, Peter Coutts, the tower now stands guard right off of Old Page Mill Road. A barbed-wire fence and "Private Property" sign encourages would-be puzzle-solvers to keeping their hypothesizing to the public side of the fence--as if the clump of poison oak clinging to the tower wasn't incentive enough.
Old Page Mill Road, a quarter-mile off the Page Mill Road exit from Highway 280, Palo Alto

Best New Silicon Valley Sci Fi
Set mostly in cyberspace, but also in Palo Alto, Exegesis--a first novel by Astro Teller (the grandson of hydrogen-bomb scientist Edward Teller)--consists entirely of the imagined email correspondence between a Stanford grad student and "Edgar," an Artificial Intelligence program that she created. Edgar develops a will of his own, bolts from his domain and begins to wreak havoc on the information highway. This forces his inventor to deal with the Big Questions: What is the ultimate meaning of consciousness? What is the source of morality? And what do you do when Daddy cuts you off for not finishing that thesis while the National Security Agency is on your trail?
Exegesis, by Astro Teller; Vintage Contemporaries, 1997, paperback

Best Garden to Make
Martha Stewart Jealous
On a peaceful corner just off bustling Embarcadero Road, in the Elizabeth F. Gamble Garden Center, community volunteers and the Garden Club of Palo Alto have cultivated a flowery oasis that would make that infamous diva of domesticity herself Kelly green with envy--or at least a nice shade of pistachio. A spectacular formal garden covers much of the grounds around the 1902 Gamble house, which include a tea house and wisteria garden, carriage house, fountain and gazebo. But this garden isn't only for show; it also hosts a number of classes and projects in the "working" portion of the garden. And it's an easy bet that even Martha's squirrels don't look as content as the ones here.
1431 Waverley St., Palo Alto (650/329-1356)

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From the Sept. 18-24, 1997 issue of Metro.

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