LA’s Silent Movie Theatre Reopens

silentmovietheatre4b.jpgIts silent program has been reduced to one day a week (Wednesdays), but the Silent Movie Theatre on N. Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles is back in the business of regularly showing movies. The theatre was recently purchased by Cinefamily, a partnership between Cinefile owner Hadrian Belove and Family Bookstore owners Sammy and Dan Harkham.

In an article in the LA Times, Belove explains: “I want the programming to be like a mix tape…Like when you’re trying to impress someone you have a crush on, you throw in a couple of things they know, but you also surprise them with things they’ve never heard.” Highlights of the upcoming eclectic repertory mix include Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel cycle, animation from Jan Svankmajer and a selection of Toho monster films.

The theatre was originally opened in 1942 by John Hampton who ran a continuous program of silent films for nearly 40 years until illness caused him to close the theatre. The space lay dormant for 12 years and fell into disrepair.

silentmovietheatre2.jpg
SMT in good times… (POV Online)
silentmovietheatre3.jpg
…and bad. (LA Public Library)

The property was purchased in 1991 by Laurence Austin and the silent program continued, this time with live organ accompaniment. At the time it was the only theatre in the country dedicated to regularly showing silent movies.

In a tragic turn in 1997, Austin was murdered in the theatre lobby in an apparent robbery attempt. It would turn out that James Leslie Van Sickle, the theatre’s projectionist hired a hit man to kill Austin in a bid for the aging theatre owner’s $1 million estate. Both the gunman and Van Sickle are currently serving life sentences.

In 1999 the theatre was purchased by Charlie Lustman who continued the silent program once again, but as the years wore on, the screenings became fewer and farther between. Eventually they were outnumbered by private parties that rented the space for weddings and Bar mitzvahs.


SMT in more recent years. (Image by Annika Barranti)

Cinefamily purchased the theatre in 2006 and began screening movies for the public on October 25, 2007. They still apparently plan to rent the space for private functions.

The theatre is located at 611 N. Fairfax Ave., just south of Melrose (and just north of Canter’s Deli, home of a kickass corned beef reuben sandwich since forever). Tickets are 10 bucks per movie or you can buy a monthly pass for 25 clams. The pass will admit you to every regular screening, occasional member’s only screenings plus a bucket of popcorn. In a town with few bargains, that my friend is a Bargain.

(Top photo by Bob Meza, found at Cinema Treasures)

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9 thoughts on “LA’s Silent Movie Theatre Reopens

  1. Now this is interesting. I’m not exactly sure what the range of proposed offerings will be, but this theater could become successful as the place to go for films not accessible elsewhere. This could include documentaries (features and shorts) and animated features and shorts. Older films with a following could also draw crowds. Los Angeles is the natural location for a theater like this. Hell, AMPAS should help by providing funding — but that’s a can of worms.

    Hope it works.

  2. I guess my first sentence was a little roundabout. That’s the thing, it’s a little frustrating because they’re only showing silent movies once a week now, but it’s better than nothing and the rest of their program looks interesting.

    The fact that it isn’t a Starbucks or a Pink Berry or one of those chain Italian restaurants or a Crate and Barrell is a good thing. And Cinefile is an awesome video store so there is hope for continued interesting programming.

    The New Beverly which isn’t so far away always seems to be on the ropes so it’ll be interesting to see how this one flies. It’s a nicer space and they can continue to rent it out for parties for extra income.

    So far it seems to be carving out a slightly different niche than TNB, aiming a little more at a younger, tatooed crowd…cinema literates who wouldn’t look out of place around the corner on Melrose.

  3. Yeah, considering how rough the New Beverly has had it lately I’m surprised that someone else would jump into that arena so readily.

    Anyway, I wish them the best of luck, I’ll be sure to check some upcoming movies out. Here’s hoping the service is a little friendlier and less attitudinal than it is at Cinefile.

  4. I’ve mainly managed to avoid the ‘tude of Cinefile, but then it’s not in my neighborhood so I only go there when I’m looking for something I can’t get at Eddie Brandt’s.

    I’ll take movie snobbery over Blockbustery any day, but I totally see what you mean. I could do without it.

  5. Craig, over at AD you asked what I thought of the Castro.

    As you correctly recalled, it was our first visit there. I would have gone sooner but getting to the Castro from the East Bay takes a little effort. I think a movie theater connoisseur like you would approve of it. Despite the long running time for LTbB I wasn’t shifting uncomfortably on my seat, and there was sufficient room for my longish legs. The screen is big – sometimes accommodates 70mm projections. The floor angle seemed to give everyone an unimpeded view. The side walls feature matching faux classical decorative designs of the kind found in grand old movie theaters. These were as tasteful and understated as one finds. The most striking and pleasing decorative feature is a large circular centerpiece on the ceiling that looks like the upside of a Moorish tent.

    We were all happily entertained during the long wait between first seating and the screening by an accomplished organist who played classical film and pop tunes. In a nice touch, the platform holding the organ and its player is elevated above floor level for the performance.

    We had pizza and soda during the long queuing process so I can’t offer any comment on the Castro’s refreshments.

    How are you going to write your Movie Theaters of California guide without touring the provinces?

  6. I made a pilgrimage to The Castro on my first visit to SF. Didn’t have time the last trip up. I asked because I remember it as being aged but quite nice and I think Pierre had said it was a little run down. I wonder if it has been spruced up since Pierre’s last visit.

    As far as Movie Theaters of California goes…there are several in LA I still haven’t been to. Sad but true.

    Every year the LA Conservancy opens up a few of the big old downtown theaters that are no longer in regular operation and schedules period screenings and every year I forget until the last minute. This year I’m going for sure.

  7. It did seem a little faded, but not particularly rundown.

    That’s a terrific initiative to open up a few old downtown LA theaters for a limited time every year.

  8. The biggest problem I’ve had with the Castro is the old and uncomfortable seats, many of which are broken. Although some get replaced on a piecemail basis, I’ve heard the owners won’t spend (or don’t have) the money to replace them all. Yes, the rest of the theater is faded. The carpeting is older than Aladdain (last time I was there), and the magnificent walls and ceiling would benefit greatly from cleaning and refurbishing. There’s a lot of cigarette residue dulling down the magnificence of that gem.

    The Paramount in Oakland is my favorite — an art deco jewel — though I’m not sure they ever show films there as all I can remember are concerts and stuff.

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