Last week, sadly, the Laemmle Sunset 5 closed its doors for good. Another movie theater chain will move into the space at 8000 Sunset Boulevard, but it still feels like the end of an era.

For nearly twenty years, the Sunset 5 showcased independent films that transformed the lives of the people who saw them and, most probably, the filmmakers who created them. I know my life had been changed on more than one occasion.

For ten weekends in the fall of 2001, the Sunset 5 undertook a retrospective of John Cassavetes films — from Faces to A Woman Under the Influence to Gloria. The movies inspired and excited me, and Cassavetes' righteous rebel attitude toward filmmaking made me want to do something similar in my own career. Even more important, the retrospective helped to save my life.

At the time, I was only a few weeks into my new sobriety, working a twelve step program. I was emotional, anxious, and filled with fear. Since I was no longer spending hours and days drinking or recovering from a massive hangover, I also had a lot of free time on my hands — the kind of free time that could easily turn into another bender. It was a touch-and-go situation.

But like a group of rock solid friends, I now had John Cassavetes' films and characters to visit every weekend. I cried with them. I got angry with them. I battled through life with them. It was exactly what I needed, and only the Sunset 5 was offering it.

Ten years later, and still sober, I went through another emotional time. I was suddenly very sad, and needed to get out of the apartment, out of my head, and do something.

It was too late in the night to ask a friend out for dinner, and I was desperate to feel happy. I went back to my old buddy: the Sunset 5.

When I got there, I bought a ticket for the documentary Being Elmo. I was still feeling very raw, and I walked up the steps, gave my ticket to the usher, and entered the lobby. Dozens of people were packed into the place, and a commotion was happening.

Elmo with Kevin Clash; Credit: Patrick Range McDonald

Elmo with Kevin Clash; Credit: Patrick Range McDonald

I then walked deeper into the crowd and couldn't believe my luck — Elmo, the Sesame Street character that's filled with unconditional love, and Kevin Clash, Elmo's creator whose extraordinary life was featured in the documentary, were posing for pictures for giddy twenty-somethings and middle-aged adults.

Much of my sadness faded away when I saw the scene, and I soon became one of the giddy ones, too, snapping my own pictures of Elmo and Clash. Being Elmo, a beautiful, life-affirming film, started up a few minutes later, and injected a much needed dose of happiness into my life. I made it through the night, and without a drink.

There are many other similar memories for me that took place at the Sunset 5.

Like the night I saw Bill Cunningham New York — which should win an Oscar, by the way — and saw a kindred spirit in the old New York Times fashion photographer who loved what he did and stayed true to himself. The film was a reminder that I was on the right path.

There was also the evening when I saw Hedwig and the Angry Inch around the same time I came out as a gay man. The movie made me feel certain that I made the right decision to no longer live a lie.

And none of these films, which changed and influenced my life in so many ways, were getting a run at the local cineplex.

Contact Patrick Range McDonald at

Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.

LA Weekly