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A THEATER AT THE CROSSROADS : Preservation-minded residents and merchants are battling to save the Los Feliz film house that symbolizes the spirit of their neighborhood

September 21, 1987|JONATHAN PETERSON | Times Staff Writer

It lacks the flash of a Melrose Avenue, the dazzle of a Rodeo Drive, the bustle of a Westwood, the parking of your neighborhood shopping mall. But the four-block stretch of North Vermont Avenue above Hollywood Boulevard in Los Feliz shares with such districts a quality that is nonetheless rare in Los Angeles: sidewalks that people actually use for strolling.

For years, one of the attractions has been the Los Feliz Theatre, a showcase for art-oriented films, which patrons often visit along with trips to nearby restaurants--there is an abundance of the Italian variety--and bookstores. But the sale of the theater building--and uncertainty about its future use--have raised questions about what's in store for this grittily charming slice of the city.

"This stretch of Vermont is really (on) the edge--and I think it could go either way," said Ari Sikora, an urban planner and nearby resident, who has spearheaded attempts to preserve the theater. "If that sense of community and comfort in walking at night disappears, it could become just another shopping strip."

The area could surely be at a crossroads. It was once the heart of a lively middle-class neighborhood, with lots of foot traffic and a strong sense of community. But in the past several years, it has undergone many changes.

Sleepy Quality

A post office building took over valuable storefront space when it opened in 1976, displacing a popular drugstore, and on-street parking has been reduced over the years. Nearby residential areas have experienced an influx of Latino, Armenian and Filipino immigrants.

And while the area is a modest hike from the opulent hillside homes near Griffith Park and just five miles from downtown, it is also close to rundown sections of Hollywood. Despite its central location, the district sometimes has a sleepy quality, which is reflected in the low rents paid by some of the merchants.

The incidence of auto thefts and auto break-ins has increased this year, as it has through much of the city, although overall crime is down slightly, according to Watch Cmdr. John L. Bradbury of the Los Angeles Police Department's Northeast Division.

City Councilman Michael Woo had North Vermont Avenue in mind in August when he pushed through a measure to temporarily block development in his district of "mini-malls," the small shopping centers that often include convenience stores and doughnut shops. "You don't see a lot of parking lots when you walk along North Vermont Avenue," explained William D. Chandler, a spokesman for Woo. "You see a lot of stores and a lot of people walking--and that's what the councilman wants to preserve."

Often, the people are walking in the direction of dinner. Their choices include four Italian restaurants and two delicatessens--one with sidewalk tables. In addition, there are other eateries, two experimental playhouses, an art gallery and bookstore (a second bookstore, specializing in German-language writings, recently moved after its own building was sold).

'Still a Neighborhood'

At the same time, an assortment of neighborhood-oriented shops remains, including dry cleaners, a locksmith, shoemaker, health food store, jeweler, coffee shop, dress shop and television repair store.

Lynn Snodgrass, manager of the 99-seat Skylight playhouse, said the area is reminiscent of New York City, if more mellow: "For me, it has a strong feeling about it--it's definitely still a neighborhood," she said.

Of the many businesses, the Los Feliz Theatre has long symbolized the district's cosmopolitan identity. The 760-seat film house is widely known in theater circles, gaining an international reputation in the early 1960s by premiering, among others, movies of such French New Wave directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson.

Moreover, neighboring merchants credit the theater as a commercial lure that pays off at their own cash registers. "People who come to the theater are continually reminded that the bookstore is here," said Koki Iwamoto, owner of Chatterton's, an independent bookstore that, like the movie theater next door, tends to draw a culture-oriented clientele. "If they don't come in right then, they might come back another time."

Understandably, the theater's future is of keen interest to many residents and merchants. It has been a neighborhood fixture for more than 40 years, under operation by the Laemmle family. But last December, it was sold to Denley Investment & Management Co., a firm with property interests in Hollywood, downtown and Santa Ana, and whose president is Michael M. Bolour.

After the sale of the 7,500-square-foot building for $480,000, Robert Laemmle was able to negotiate two brief extensions of the lease--at steeply higher rates. But when Laemmle balked in August at an increase to $5,000 a month, representing more than a 10-fold hike from what he'd been paying under the old ownership, he was given 60 days to get out.

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