The Vista Theater, the Silver Lake-East Hollywood revival movie house beloved for its eclectic double bills and its Egyptian-style decor, is closing tonight, a victim, its management says, of the home-video revolution and the increasingly conservative tastes of young audiences.
Negotiations to sell the long-term lease on the Vista to an operator of second-run neighborhood movie houses are in the final stages, according to Steve Gilula, president of Landmark Theater Corp., which now runs the Vista. He declined to identify the potential buyer or any details of the deal but stressed that Landmark plans to keep open its other two area revival theaters, the Nuart in West Los Angeles and the Rialto in South Pasadena.
The Vista's financial troubles are symptomatic of the entire revival film-house industry, which has seen its staples of classics and cult films played repeatedly on cable television and put on videotapes. Since 1982, the number of area revival-repertory houses that print calendars has dropped from 13 to, as of tonight, four, Gilula said.
The 700-seat Vista has been attracting audiences averaging about 150, half the break-even figure, said Mark Weber, Vista manager since Landmark acquired it in 1982. "We used to do well with 'Harold and Maude,' 'King of Hearts,' 'Road Warrior' and 'Gone With the Wind,' but they're all now on videocassette or cable," he said.
Even changes in programming, such as Los Angeles premieres for some foreign films and highlighting gay-oriented non-pornographic films aimed at the large gay population in Silver Lake, have failed to boost the box office significantly, Weber said. For example, the Academy Award-winning documentary, "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," about the assassinated San Francisco politician and gay activist, had its local premiere at the Vista but "died here," Weber said.
In addition, the '60s counterculture that helped create cult films has died out. Said Gilula: "Some of our biggest successes were films of the '60s and '70s that related to that generation. The kids today don't relate in that way to movies like 'Performance' or 'King of Hearts,' and they don't have the same interest in foreign films."
Gilula said the Vista's closing and imminent sale are not directly related to the current three-week-old strike by projectionists against Landmark theaters in Los Angeles over a dispute about planned automation of projection booths, which would cut jobs. But he said that overall labor costs did contribute to the closing.
The Vista's location, at 4473 Sunset Drive at the confusing intersection of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards and Hillhurst Avenue, may have made matters worse, employees said. It can be difficult to park nearby, plus the immediate neighborhood has a somewhat unsavory reputation because of a pornographic bookstore across the street.
The Vista itself was a porno house for about 20 of its 62 years, moving from soft-core to hard-core and finally gay porn until it was refurbished for revivals in 1980 by the San Francisco-based Thomas Theaters chain, which subsequently sold it to Landmark.
Built on the site of the enormous Babylon set for D. W. Griffith's film "Intolerance," the theater opened in 1923 as Bard's East Hollywood Theater with a two-reeler starring child actress Baby Peggy. In 1927, new owners dubbed it the Vista. Its exterior is in Spanish Mission style, but its glory is its interior Egyptian motif, complete with Sphinx heads and pharaonic masks lining the auditorium's walls.
"It was always really nice for me to stand in the doorway and see the expression of people seeing the place for the first time," said Weber, 23, who has worked for Landmark theaters since he was 17 and will continue as manager of the Rialto.
Employees and customers say they fear that a second-run chain may let the architectural details decay and that a second-run house will not have the Vista's cozily avant-garde atmosphere of toleration for eccentricities in movies, moviegoers and employees.
The Vista's last calendar featured opera movies on Sundays, Pasolini on Mondays, Tennessee Williams on Tuesdays, Australian films on Wednesdays, Japanese films on Thursdays, heroic actors on Fridays and women stars like Greta Garbo on Saturdays.
On tonight's bill are "Polyester" and "Desperate Living," underground classics of comedic bad taste directed by John Waters and starring the plump transvestite Divine. After the last curtain, there will be a party.
"I think a lot of people will miss it," Weber said. "People took it for granted that it would always be here, and it won't. But I guess they'll find alternatives."