”I know nothing about silent films,“ says Charlie Lustman. ”I know nothing about theaters, nor do I know anything about renovating. So who am I? I’m the guy who sat on the beach smoking joints and writing songs on my guitar for the last 15 years.“ He‘s also the guy who has taken on the resurrection of the Silent Movie Theatre. Re-opening on November 7 after invitation-only galas on the 5th and 6th, the beloved silent-picture house has stood quiet for the three years since its second keeper, Laurence Austin, was killed in a sordid murder-for-hire orchestrated by Austin’s reputed lover, James Van Sickle, who was convicted last spring.
Home only a few months after several years working as a songwriter in Copenhagen, Lustman, 34, was driving down Fairfax on a falafel run when he turned his head just in time to see the vacant building‘s ”for sale“ sign. ”I wanted to open up a club or a microbrewery or something I thought would be cool,“ he says. ”So I walk into the main theater and I’m like, whoa, this is cool, maybe I should open this up as a movie theater, the way it was.“
Lustman pitched the theater to some wealthy aquaintances (who will remain anonymous until the opening) as an investment in what he sees as a burgeoning Fairfax district: They bid on the property while it was still in probate. Escrow closed on May 23, the same day the estate‘s film collection, compiled by the theater’s original owner, John Hampton, was auctioned off at Butterfield & Butterfield. After being outbid by private collectors on everything but a collection of 13 Douglas Fairbanks features, Lustman was informed that the films he‘d recovered had been Hampton’s favorites, a discovery that has him convinced Hampton is guiding the theater‘s rebirth.
Lustman may not be a silent-movie maven, but his commercial instincts seem sound. With a spiffy new paint job, a comfortable upstairs coffee bar and gallery of rare, silent-era photos, and — the piece de resistance — a beautiful purple, gold and green neon marquee, the theater has never looked better. Tours of the space are to begin in January, and there have already been inquiries about booking it for private functions, including a wedding. It’s all part of a plan to market the theater not just as a movie house, but as the only silent-movie theater in the country, a tourist attraction and valuable Hollywood landmark.
Which is probably wise, given that the expenditure — which includes paying the musical accompanists who will be an integral part of the theater‘s programming — is significant, the audience for silent filmmaking limited and the competition stiff. Randy Haberkamp is chairman of the Silent Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to the preservation of Hollywood culture, and one of the many (in addition to restoration expert and former USC prof David Shephard, and historian-filmmaker Kevin Brownlow) who have aided and advised Lustman. Haberkamp points out that while the Silent Society screenings, held on the UCLA campus, garner respectable audiences of around 150, a silent screening elsewhere on the same night will splinter that core. ”When you’re dealing with audiences of that size,“ says Haberkamp, ”the 15 or so people that don‘t show up in favor of another screening can really make a difference.“ It’s said that, while he was alive, the notoriously cranky Laurence Austin viewed the Silent Society as archrivals for audience attention. Haberkamp is all for the new theater, and has recommended that Lustman stick to comedies and lighter fare in order to draw audiences outside the city‘s esoteric silent-film clique.
That’s exactly what Lustman plans to do. Relying on collectors, studios and distribution houses for prints, Lustman is planning an inaugural program of comedy classics, including such standbys as The Kid, City Lights, The Thief of Bagdad and the Mary Pickford picture My Best Girl. ”I want them to laugh,“ says Lustman, ”to have a great time and come back. But if they come here and catch Broken Blossoms or Way Down East, a heavy Griffith tearjerker, they won‘t come back.“ When I suggest to Lustman that some people are extraordinarily fond of Broken Blossoms, he’s quick to mollify. ”I can‘t wait to run the film,“ he rejoins, ”but the first few months, I gotta win over everybody with lighthearted, good comedies — and then do a Griffith week, or show Colleen Moore in a heavy role. Believe me, everything that’s silent is gonna run in this theater.“