A sentimental crowd came out to the La Reina theater Friday night to see the last picture show at the Art Deco theater on Ventura Boulevard and party with the picture's Roman emperor.
The 48-year-old La Reina, recently sold to a developer, will be converted into a shopping center with only its graceful facade preserved as a reminder of what was once the Valley's most stylish movie house.
The host of the farewell party, a short, intense young man named Ken Kramer, greeted people at the door in a threadbare fuchsia lame jacket, a costume intended to evoke the epoch in the 1950s when he fell in love with the La Reina.
His girlfriend, Kathy Losso, wore a chartreuse tulle dress, white lace gloves, a pink carnation wrist corsage and rhinestone earrings in a setting of yellow plastic.
"They're real rhinestones," she said, showing them off.
"And it's real plastic."
Kramer, who owns a company that procures film clips for Hollywood retrospectives, talked the Mann Theaters into lending him the theater and all its employees for a goodby party the night after the last paying customers saw "Police Academy III."
But he didn't want that movie to be the La Reina's last hurrah.
"We thought this theater deserved a little more dignity than that," Kramer said. He managed to borrow a 20th Century Fox biblical extravaganza that influenced him to follow a career in show business, no matter how oblique.
And so, Friday night, there on the La Reina marquee, just as it had been 33 years earlier, was "The Robe" with Richard Burton, Victor Mature and Jean Simmons, the movie that introduced CinemaScope.
"When 'The Robe' opened, it played here three weeks," Kramer said. "I was here every night for three weeks. I loved CinemaScope, and that was that."
Kramer asked everyone he knows to the party and issued a general invitation to anyone who felt as sentimental as he did about the theater.
He wasn't sure how many would come, so he attempted a half-hearted security check at the door: Everyone who came had to be somebody he knew or have a good story to tell.
One uninvited guest said she drove 40 miles to say farewell to the theater of her youth, Losso said. She wasn't refused.
Spectrum of Fans
About 300 people attended. It was an eclectic convocation of actors and would-be actors and the behind-the-scenes people who make up the San Fernando Valley's Hollywood connection, mingling with the simply sentimental Valley children who are grown-ups now and remember their first date or first movie at the La Reina.
The star of the evening, just as he was when "The Robe" opened in 1953, was Jay Robinson.
There may be those who have forgotten Robinson's whimpering, campy portrayal of the Emperor Caligula, described in a review by Bosley Crowther of the New York Times as "one of the 10 best performances in the history of film."
There may even be those who have forgotten the film--with its lavish marble palaces, unrelenting drum rolls, trumpet fanfares and hallelujahs--which told the tale of a ne'er-do-well Roman tribune's conversion to Christianity and subsequent martyrdom.
But the 22-year-old Robinson became an overnight celebrity for his performance as the fluid-limbed, ranting personification of evil.
Then he fell from Hollywood grace, getting involved with drugs before it was fashionable. He was arrested for drug possession and served a prison term in the 1960s.
Robinson is back in show business, having landed several respectable, if not splashy, roles in movies and television shows. When Kramer told him about the La Reina farewell, he eagerly agreed to attend. Friday night was almost like a second premiere.
"It's been exactly 33 years ago today since my first day on the set of 'The Robe,' " he said Friday.
Old friends, admirers and aspiring young actors paid tribute, many led to him by casting agent Marvin Paige, who wore a black tuxedo.
"James Horan, General Hospital," Paige said to Robinson, bringing forward a handsome young man.
"Jay Robinson, Caligula," Robinson replied.
A Few Giggles
When "The Robe" was shown, there were a few chuckles at the rigid and overwrought performances of Burton as the tribune and Mature as the Greek slave who leads him to redemption. But the audience cheered when Robinson flounced into the Forum of ancient Rome at the head of a line of spear-bearing soldiers.
And they howled later, when he jumped up and down in a childish tantrum, screeching to the Praetorian Guard, "Find him or you'll all go to the galleons!"
Afterward, Robinson smilingly stood in the foyer, receiving praise for his performance of 33 years ago.
"It's sad, the tearing down of this theater," he said. "But in life, always a new beginning."