A theater's deafening silence Bad blood may have killed the nation's last silent-movie theater, and apathy may keep it closed forever.

Film

May 03, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

HOLLYWOOD -- Silence. It's what made Hollywood. But these days, it's all but disappeared from the town it helped build.

For six years, Lawrence Austin operated the Silent Movie theater, probably the last motion-picture house in the nation devoted exclusively to silent films. Local film fans loved it, and tourists who wanted a taste of Hollywood history had to look no further than the unassuming stucco structure on Fairfax Avenue. It was as though the calendar had stopped in 1927, "The Jazz Singer" had never been released and Mary Pickford was still America's sweetheart.

"It was my favorite place," Susan Kurtz, a sound editor and silent-movie buff, says of the 250-seat theater. "It was a place to see movies I couldn't see anywhere else."

The kind of place Hollywood ought to have. But now it's gone - probably for good.

On Jan. 17, 1997, as some short subjects were playing on the screen, Austin handed over the evening's box-office receipts to a man holding a gun. For his trouble, Austin was shot - first in the face, then, as he lay dying on the floor behind the candy counter, in the stomach. A woman working behind the counter also was shot but survived.

The Silent Movie has been closed ever since, its ownership the subject of court debate. And despite an initial frenzy to ensure a new venue for the silent-film legacy Austin helped perpetuate - the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even held a forum on the subject - prospects appear dim.

"The enthusiasm never really caught on," says Diana McIntyre, whose Silents Majority Web page (http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms) serves as a clearinghouse for news and information about silent films.

Austin reveled in his position as a guardian of Hollywood's past. His mentor, John Hampton, had opened the theater in 1942, expressly to show the silent films he had fallen in love with growing up in Oklahoma City. Austin, who lived near the theater and was a film lover himself, soon befriended the older man and his wife, Dorothy. The three of them devoted much of their lives to preserving silent films.

The Hamptons closed their movie house in 1979; John Hampton died in May 1990. Despite pleas from her relatives to sell the building, Dorothy Hampton resisted, giving her blessing to Austin's plan to spruce up the old theater and reopen it. She also let Austin handle her financial affairs; eventually, she deeded the theater to him.

In 1991, he re-opened the theater. Three evenings a week, Austin would march down the theater aisle (with "Pomp and Circumstance" playing over the theater's sound system) to introduce the evening's fare. Dressed in suits that were usually at least two decades out of fashion, with a mop of hair that sometimes looked more sculpted than combed, Austin became the subject of gentle ridicule to some, a larger-than-life figure to others. But few doubted his love of silent film.

Since his death, Austin's reputation has come under fire. While he loved regaling visitors with tales of how his father was silent-film star William Austin and his mother worked as a dressmaker for Cecil B. DeMille, the truth was apparently far less cinematic. An article in the New Times, a Los Angeles alternative newspaper, revealed that his father was a gardener and former Navy man named Ervin.

His relationship with Dorothy Hampton, now 84 and living in a Los Angeles nursing home, is being investigated by Los Angeles county officials. They suspect he may have taken advantage of her ill health - she suffers from Alzheimer's - by taking possession of the theater and much of the film memorabilia she and her husband collected.

Even worse, perhaps, is what police investigators say is the story behind his death. Police believe Austin did not fall victim to an overzealous robber, but rather was killed by a paid hit man, Christian Rodriguez, 19. His alleged client: James Van Sickle, 34, the theater's projectionist, Austin's reputed lover and apparent heir. Rodriguez and Van Sickle are awaiting trial on murder charges.

Meanwhile, Silent Movie has gone truly silent, its entrance blocked by a black iron gate, a "For Sale" sign hanging from the second story. And even as interest in silent films continues throughout the country - locally, about 150 people showed up for a screening of Paul Robeson in "Body and Soul" at the Baltimore Museum of Art last month, and the venerable Senator Theatre is planning a silents festival this month - there remains no theater devoted to silent film in the Movie Capital of the World.

"Americans have a very short memory on lots of things, especially for their own history," says Randy Haberkamp, founder of the Silent Society, which sponsors monthly silent-film screenings at the Hollywood Studio Museum, a turn-of-the-century barn that, in 1913, served as Hollywood's first movie studio.

A study of the tourists who stop by, Haberkamp says, suggests why the silents are having a tough go of it in L.A.

"Ironically, they end up being mostly European and Japanese," he explains. "There's a real interest in film history there, whereas most Americans who come to Los Angeles want to go to Disneyland or Universal Studios. When the barn was open and people came in, you could tell where they were from. Almost TTC always, the Europeans would say, 'Achh, I've found Hollywood.' That's what they were looking for."

Pub Date: 5/03/98

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