By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The Garys, as they were known, founded the now-defunct Filmex, L.A.'s first film festival, in the early '70s. In 1984, they launched the Cinematheque, hiring the staff of programmers and administrators, including Smith, which remains much the same today. They found temporary quarters for the Cinematheque on studio backlots, first at DGA, then at Raleigh, where each weekend they screened what Smith calls "minifestivals." And they created the Moving Picture Ball, an annual fund-raising event that drew the Hollywood glitterati for an evening and paid the bills all year. What they had not managed to do before their deaths, just weeks apart in 1992 from complications of AIDS, was fulfill their ultimate goal: finding the Cinematheque a permanent home.
Just before their deaths, Essert and Abrahams were approached by the city about taking over the Egyptian, then shuttered and threatened with demolition. The city had purchased the building to save it from destruction. The Garys, put off by the size of the theater and the desperate conditions on the boulevard, were hesitant. But to Smith, who later assumed the Cinematheque's directorship, the idea of an autonomous project designed solely for the nonprofit was immensely appealing. In early 1993, she began negotiating with the city, which initially planned to renovate the Egyptian and lease it to the organization.
Then the 1994 earthquake hit, tearing holes in the ceiling and loosing huge chunks of the hollow clay tiles that lined the theater walls. Hundreds of transients moved in, trashing the projectors and making off with everything of value. There was no electricity, and rain poured in through unplugged leaks. But in early 1996, when the city offered the Cinematheque $5 million in loans and grants and the deed to the Egyptian for $1, Smith didn't hesitate. "We had invested so much energy in this project that I don't think we really had a choice," Smith says. "We were so committed to just going forward."
SMITH, WHO HAS A MASTER'S DEGREE IN COMMUNICATIONS and deep ties to the Cinematheque, has lived and breathed the Egyptian project from its inception more than six years ago. She has labored alongside the same 11-member staff throughout, preferring to wade through the contracting and development morass on her own rather than hire experts to lead her. "You hire somebody, and then you have to tell that person everything, and then you're paying them when you're the one telling them what to do," she says. "For us, it generally works better just to do it ourselves."
By taking over the theater, the Cinematheque -- and by extension Smith -- became for the first time a major-property owner, developer and restorer. The burden was enormous. Smith, accustomed to working with a few staff members and film lovers and operating with an annual budget of about $750,000, found herself dealing with architects, preservationists and city functionaries. There was, she says, "an astounding amount of paperwork and bureaucracy" and "endless, endless historic review."
It soon became clear, however, that the $13 million projected budget would not cover the constant -- and costly -- unanticipated challenges. "The earthquake was flashy damage," Smith says. "But we didn't realize the extent of the water damage that had accumulated over the years. You would touch the plaster and it would turn to dust." The renovated theater, which includes the main 618-seat theater, a balcony and a second 75-seat theater, left no room for office space. So the Cinematheque ended up spending $300,000 on a slipshod house behind the Egyptian. A replica of the original 1920s neon Egyptian sign alone cost $100,000.
After renovations were well under way, workers digging near the screen discovered an underground oil tank that had been used to fuel the theater's original heating system. Extensive tests had to be performed to determine that oil hadn't leaked into the soil, and the tank then had to be removed. When workers found an original, intricately painted ceiling in the women's restroom, Smith decided to preserve it. "We could have covered it back up, which would have cost $50," Smith says. "Instead we restored it, which cost something like $15,000." In the end, Smith says, the restoration budget crept up to $15 million.
It was a tense time for the staff, which had to deal with threats from creditors. Brian Garrido, a public affairs officer for the UCLA Television and Film Archives, calls the two years he did marketing and publicity for the Cinematheque, until mid-1997, "a tumultuous period. Even Barbara was saying things might close down. You never knew if you were going to walk into a job the next day."
EVERYONE ASSOCIATED WITH THE CINEMATHEQUE praises Smith for her leading role in getting the Egyptian open, but some board members say they are now concerned about paying off the debt. "Barbara did a brilliant job of bringing it to penultimate fruition," says Charles Champlin, a former L.A. Times film critic who has been on the Cinematheque board for six years. "Now we immediately need to get that 2 million bucks."
The first inclination of both Smith and the board members is to blame the debt on a stinginess among industry types, especially when it comes to forking over cash for organizations such as the Cinematheque. "It has, I don't want to say a stigma, but it's probably sexier to go to a Gucci fashion show than a friend's film retrospective," says Cinematheque president Sigurjon "Joni" Sighvatsson. But when questioned more closely, even board members identified as active fund-raisers admit they have done little to fulfill their obligation.
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