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Silence Is Golden:
Exploring Early Cinema in Present-Day Hollywood

By Joya Balfour


There is something magical about seeing an old black-and-white film on the big screen. The characters seem larger than life, the narratives are richly woven and lasting impressions are not dependent on special effects. Many of us can name our favorite Bogart/Bacall or Grant/Hepburn film, but fewer of us, for example, would list Harold Lloyd, Gloria Swanson or Charlie Chase in the same breath. Not because we don't appreciate their work, but simply because we don't know it all.

These artists belong to the silent film era, spanning from the turn of the 20th century to the late 1920s. Once the first talkie was introduced in 1927, these actors and directors were largely overlooked-their work deemed passť and unfashionable. Some did survive: Rudolph Valentino, buoyed by his irresistible charm, good looks and tragic death; the comic genius of Buster Keaton; and the couple who almost single-handedly built the Hollywood film industry, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. But there are dozens more whose names are now forgotten, save by film preservationists and diehard cinephiles.

There is a small 224-seat theatre in Hollywood whose sole mission is to bring these remarkable artists back to life for a fresh new audience. The only theatre of its kind in the United States and one of two in the world (the other in Melbourne, Australia), the Silent Movie Theatre first opened in 1942 on Fairfax Avenue and has remained there ever since. Opened by John and Dorothy Hampton, a young couple from Oklahoma whose goal it was to preserve these silent classics, the moviehouse struggled for 30 years before floundering in 1979. The Hamptons continued to live in the small upstairs apartment of the building until John's death in 1990, at which point the upkeep of the empty theatre was entrusted to family friend Laurence Austin. Austin reopened the theatre in 1991 and hired James Van Sickle to help with the extensive renovations. Van Sickle eventually became Austin's live-in companion and the theatre's projectionist. Tragically, in January 1997, as the evening's screening was to begin, a teenage gunman walked into the lobby and murdered Austin. It was discovered that Van Sickle, who stood to inherit the theatre from Austin, had hired a hitman to commit the murder. Both men received life sentences, and the theatre closed once again, many thought this time for good.

But In 1999, Charlie Lustman, a songwriter from Santa Monica, bought the theatre on a whim and raised close to $1 million dollars to restore the decaying, graffiti-ridden building to its present exquisite condition.

"I was looking for a place I could build an artist's colony. But when I walked in here and saw the main room with these portraits on the walls, and everything was falling apart, I knew that I'd have to continue the traditions set before me," Lustman explains.

The Silent Movie Theatre reopened on November 5, 1999, with the screening of the first film it showed in 1942, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Hollywood celebrities turned out for the event in droves, and press coverage spanned the globe. The roster of silent films played to packed houses, and even now the theatre draws a steady legion of devotees and those looking for broaden their cinematic experience.

"Over the last 11 months, it's been an incredible ride," says Lustman. "We've shown classic pictures with live music and had great tributes to stars. Lots of celebrities come to watch the films...We re-premiered an old Valentino picture that hadn't been seen in 80 years, so we're really putting ourselves out there as the only silent cinema in this part of the world."

The theatre has not been without controversy, however. This past January, in memory of Laurence Austin and to mark the closing of the theatre in 1997, Lustman chose to screen Sunrise, the 1927 classic by F.W. Murnau scheduled to be shown the night Austin was murdered. Lustman hoped the screening would help close the chapter on the Hollywood tragedy, but some felt that it was distasteful and insensitive to feature Sunrise on what was basically the anniversary of the crime. Others who were in the theatre the night of the murder returned to view the picture tragically cut short three years ago. Sunrise played that night to a full house.

In another controversial move, Lustman scheduled a week's worth of politically themed films during the recent Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, including D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic Birth of a Nation, infamous for its blatant racism and historical ignorance of African-Americans.

"I thought it was an important picture to run. I agree that is has historical significance. It's one of the most important movies ever made. It just turns out that it's also one of the most racist movies ever made, and though I was aware of it I didn't think anyone was going to threaten me. I was going to show it with scholars and educate the people as to how far we've come in cinema, away from stereotypes."

Members of the NAACP, who had been invited to participate on a panel discussion following the screening , instead chose to protest the film. Lustman backed down, saying that he could choose to screen it or not screen anything, despite opposing backlash from the president of Cinecon (a national cinephile organization), who felt he had a moral obligation to do so.

Despite the odd snafu, the theatre's theme weeks have been very popular, and Lustman freely admits he chooses his programming carefully in order to make news and draw audiences in.

"I create programming that has a story behind it so that the writers find an interest [there]. I depend a lot on the writers in L.A. so that they'll write about what I'm showing and I can get the word out."

Horror, Sci-Fi, and Western weeks have already proved popular, along with director's series and artist tributes. Complete film listings are posted online, and a monthly newsletter goes out to subscribers. Lustman is also preparing to launch a national tour of The Silent Movie Theatre, taking the films to universities and small theatres across the country.

"I'm not getting rich, but it is starting to pay itself off again. For us, it was more about building up an audience for this lost art form. We've been marketing to a younger crowd, 25-45, and they're really getting turned on by it. People in their 40s and 50s are bringing their kids, and grandparents come and are reliving the days when they were children, so there's something for everyone. That's what makes it really special."

The Silent Movie Theatre will be running 3-D classics all through October (admission includes glasses!), as well as their weekly fare of Talkie Tuesdays, mid-week silent dramas and weekend silent comedies with live musical accompaniment. Address: 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, Hollywood CA. Box Office: (323) 655-2520. http://www.silentmovietheatre.com

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