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
"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
"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
"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