The Silent Movie Theatre
by Jon Bastian
Unique movie palace makes a comeback after tragedy nearly closed its doors forever.
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LOS ANGELES — January 17, 1997. As a sell-out crowd laughs at the flickering images of comedian Larry Semon onstage, one young man in the back row isn’t watching the movie. He gets up and sneaks to the lobby where theatre owner Larry Austin is counting the receipts with another staff member. The young man pulls a gun and shoots Austin fatally, grabs the money and runs back out through the theatre, firing at least one shot into the wall on the way. Austin dies in this apparent armed robbery, but things don’t add up for the LA detectives on the case. In less than two weeks, they have discovered that this incident was a murder for hire, instigated by Austin’s lover and business partner, James Van Sickle, in an attempt to get his hands on Austin’s money, the theatre and its collection of rare silent films. The murder turned up sordid details like earthworms in a Sam Spade full of dirt. Austin probably bilked the former theatre owner out of her property and her films, and everyone involved seemed to be a little bit of a con artist. The real victim through it all was the business itself. In January, 1997, Silent Movie closed its doors. At the time, it seemed like that closure would be forever.
I had the great pleasure of attending Silent Movie many times in the Larry Austin days. Definitely the only regularly operating silent film venue in Los Angeles, and probably the world, the place drew huge crowds, many of them regulars, along with a good number of celebrities. I once saw Robert Downey, Jr. there, preparing for his role in Chaplin. Like other famous attendees, he was just part of the crowd, hanging out and enjoying the common bond of experiencing cinema history. Larry Austin did a lot to foster that bond. He would greet the audience at the door personally, introduce the shows with trivia about the evening’s films and frequently host special guests. Silent Movie was always an experience one hundred and eighty degrees away from multiplex madness. Going there felt like an evening out with a few hundred friends to watch a film in someone’s living room. Sure, some of the seats were on the verge of collapse, the carpet was ratty, the ceiling was water-stained and the long-promised rear patio and cappuccino bar never materialized, but that didn’t matter. We were there for the movies that we couldn’t see on a big screen anywhere else and, for the several hours we sat in the dark watching, the audience members were not strangers. They were almost family.
Then, a misguided plot and someone’s greed ended it all. It looked like the property was going to be sold off by Los Angeles County, probably torn down and turned into a mini-mall, the film collection auctioned off into private collections to never be seen again.
Cue music, enter hero on white horse. Charlie Lustman, a local musician and songwriter, while out to grab a falafel at his favorite place on Fairfax, saw the “For Sale” sign on the building. Less than a month later, Silent Movie was his and, in November 1999, the place re-opened, to the gratitude of its many, many fans.
Silent Movie is back, and with a vengeance.
For starters, the place has been refurbished. No longer a slightly tacky, musty room, the carpets, walls and seats have all been re-done. The long promised but never delivered outside patio and upstairs cappuccino bar are open, and the new marquee outside is large and brightly lit, beckoning to the crowds to come in. All these little details hint that Charlie cares about the place. Attending a performance proves it.
In the old days, Larry Austin’s presence and intros gave a homey feel to the experience. Charlie has carried on the tradition, but he’s much hipper than Larry ever was, and he’s also quite a showman. At a recent performance I attended, he took the stage, introduced himself, then held up a sign to triumphantly declare that the performance was sold out. (This is not uncommon at Silent Movie, and I do recommend arriving early.) He also did intermission schtick as a typical hunchbacked assistant, in keeping with the Silent Horror theme of the week. Before the first film, we were treated to a short routine by a magician decked out and made-up just like Conrad Veidt in the evening’s feature, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (reviewed elsewhere here).
Everyone at Silent Movie gets into the routine. The theatre staff help to ensure that everyone finds a seat and that couples attending get to stay that way. When they ask if people sitting between empty seats can move over to accommodate, everyone gladly does; it’s just that kind of friendly atmosphere. On the night I attended, the staff searched for a seat for a late-arriving woman. Finding none, an usher announced in dramatic tones, “Then we shall give her a pillow, and she shall sit where she pleases…” By the way, the show doesn’t start until everyone is inside and in their seats. If it takes fifteen minutes to manage this, so be it. The result is a very relaxed, unrushed experience.
Then, it’s time for the show to begin — but not the main event. The program at Silent Movie usually starts with a few surprises, rare silent shorts that you’re not going to see anywhere else. Like the main feature, they are accompanied by live music from piano or organ, a necessity for silent films and definitely an essential atmosphere builder.
The night I attended, the first item on the bill was Winsor McCay’s 1921 cartoon, The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (also known as The Pet). McCay, newspaper cartoonist turned film animator, is best known for his character Little Nemo. While the story in Rarebit Fiend is slight, the animation is gorgeous, using intricately detailed backgrounds that look engraved, and meticulous character animation. I thought at first that the human characters in the film were rotoscoped — that is, live action footage was hand-traced to create the animation. In fact, they were not. McCay just took that much time and care in his work to give his little humans such reality. The result is a charming and funny story, recounting the dream that our titular fiend has after consuming the also titular rarebit. In case you’ve never heard of rarebit, it’s a cholesterol-laden concoction made of eggs, cheese, butter, beer, ham and toast. No wonder it causes nightmares. In this particular episode, the nightmare involves a cute and perky little… um… puppy-like thing that wanders into the house one day. The wife is enthralled, the husband, our dreamer, isn’t. The puppy, or whatever it is, proceeds to eat. And grow. And eat. And grow. Eventually, it’s terrorizing the city Godzilla style, munching on streetcars and buildings until a fleet of biplanes literally drops the bomb — long before the famous King Kong finale. What makes the film is the strange new pet, which frolics around the place with such gleeful abandon that it’s infectious. If you’re interested in seeing all surviving Winsor McCay films, they’re available on video and DVD.
The other pre-show feature came from Germany. Called, I think, “Die Überthaler,” it’s a very moody, atmospheric, weird piece about a coin that seems to be cursed and the man who finds it in the street. Eventually, he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Pursued by a street thug intent on robbing him, our hero takes refuge in a prostitute’s parlor, only to soon learn that she and her pimp are also intent on assault and theft. The editing, pacing and choice of camera angles in this grim little tale struck me as very modern, with ample use of close-ups, quick cutting, point of view and the like.
But, I do digress…the two short flicks were the pre-intermission entertainment. During intermission, I checked out the patio and cappuccino bar, and both are great places for hanging out. The patio is large and open, but be aware that it’s the haven for the nicotine hounds in attendance, a rarity, since smoking is now banned almost everywhere in Los Angeles. The cappuccino bar is a cozy upstairs room and, the night I was there hosted to a mini-exhibit of figures from famous horror movies courtesy of the Creature Features bookstore in Burbank. Creature Features also provided the post-intermission raffle give-away goodies. Yes, goodies.
Like I said, an evening at Silent Movie is always full of surprises. Whether you live in LA or you plan to visit, a trip to the place is essential. When you’ve gone once, you just have to go again… and again… and again. Don’t be surprised if you start preferring trips to this place over the latest release down at the cineplex.
And don’t be surprised if Charlie Lustman keeps this landmark going for decades. With his enthusiasm and showmanship, the real nickelodeon survives, a living reminder of exactly what it was about movies that made them the medium of the twentieth century.
Silent Movie is located at 611 North Fairfax Avenue, one half block south of Melrose. (Recommendation: try to park on the south side of Melrose, west of Fairfax, and walk down to the theatre). For recorded program information, call (323) 655-2520. `Movies start every night at eight except Mondays, when the theatre is closed. Currently, Tuesdays are classic talkie night, and there are matinees on Saturday and Sunday at one p.m.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles, and a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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