Hollywood's unspoken stars shine again

Silent movie theater reopens again under the direction of a new enthusiast.


July 23, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

LOS ANGELES -- Charlie Lustman started out looking for lunch, but ended up championing the roots of Hollywood.

One day last year, 34-year-old Lustman recalls, he was driving down Fairfax Avenue, hungry for a falafel sandwich, when he noticed an abandoned building up for sale. Recently returned from Europe, the struggling songwriter was working on the vague notion of setting up an artists' studio. Maybe, he thought, this could be that place. So he stopped at a pay phone and called the real estate agent, who hurried over and gave him a tour.

What he saw that day was the inside of the Silent Movie Theatre, a small West Hollywood cinema that had long been the only one in the country devoted primarily to the silents. The building had been dark for more than two years and seemed destined to become either a warehouse or a parking lot.

But then the ghosts of silent movies past, the ones staring down at him from the theater walls, began to speak. Lustman listened and was hooked. Last November, he reopened Silent Movie with a sold-out showing of Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times."

"I walked into the theater, and I was blown away," recalls Lustman, seated on a couch in the refurbished theater's second-floor coffee bar, just inches from the hypnotic visage of silent-movie vamp Theda Bara. "The gold curtain was up, and the portraits were on the wall. I just looked around, and all these portraits looked back at me. Their eyes are staring straight ahead, so wherever you walk, they're all looking at you. And I'm like, 'Hey, what are you all looking at? I'm going to build an artists' loft.' And they're like, 'No, you're not. You're opening back up the Silent Movie Theatre.' "

First opened in 1942

For more than 50 years, those ghosts had been a welcome presence at Silent Movie. It was opened in 1942 by film buff John Hampton, who wanted a place where he could watch the silent films he remembered from his youth in Oklahoma City. The theater had lain dormant once before, from 1979 to 1991. Then, one of Hampton's proteges, Laurence Austin, persuaded Hampton's widow (John Hampton had died in 1990) to let him reopen the place. The 224-seat theater quickly became a favorite haunt of film buffs who wanted to see what it was like in the days before movies learned to talk.

That chapter of Silent Movie's history ended tragically on the evening of Jan. 17, 1997, when Austin was murdered during what appeared to be a robbery attempt, but would later turn out to be a murder-for-hire initiated by Silent Movie projectionist James Van Sickle, the victim's business partner, lover and apparent heir.

Nearly three years of court wrangling followed, and Hollywood was without a showcase for the silent films that had first made it famous. Lustman's first job in reopening that showcase was to get two other investors to help him raise $650,000 to purchase the property.

"I had to convince these investors that this single-tenant-use building, that had been empty for three years, with a murder history in it, had some value. It was a tough sell."

But Lustman, who comes across as much a showman as an entrepreneur, proved up to the task.

"I said, 'I'll reopen the Silent Movie theater. It's the only one of its kind. It'll be this magical place, seen all over the world as a unique, art deco theater showing silent films.' "

Convincing the investors, however, proved easy, compared with what followed: seven months of extensive renovations. "Everything was rotten," Lustman says. "Austin had redone the theater when he took it over, but everything was just makeup. You wipe away the powder, and you've got rotten walls, ceilings, electrical, plumbing, floors. There was no air-conditioning system."

Besides generally sprucing up the place, Lustman has made several changes to Silent Movie, including the addition of a brightly lighted marquee to the theater's facade -- a first for the building. He's also added the second-floor coffee bar (where Austin used to have an apartment) and turned a back patio into a reception area complete with performing stage.

Crowds steady

Since November's reopening, the crowds have kept coming -- not overwhelmingly, but steadily. A recent screening of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in "Flesh and the Devil," introduced by Gilbert's granddaughter, saw the theater about half-full. And on weekends, which are devoted to silent comedies, "we pack the place," Lustman says.

"I'm sure a lot of the audience that Austin had has disappeared for different reasons, one being that they were used to Austin, were close to Austin, and they're just kind of spooked by the whole thing," he adds. A tribute to Austin, held on the third anniversary of his murder -- F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," the scheduled film on that fateful evening -- met with resistance from some of the man's friends, who maintained the whole thing was in bad taste.

"The date of Laurence's death was going to come," one of Austin's friends told the Los Angeles Times, "and we had to mark the occasion somehow."

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