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Rebirth News Follows Wake for Theater

October 15, 1987|DOUG SMITH | Times Staff Writer

It was the worst of times and the best of times this week for the Los Feliz Theatre. And even the worst turned out pretty well.

That was Monday night when a crowd of art-film lovers turned out to give an emotional send-off to Max Laemmle and his son, Robert, who began their cinema chain at the North Vermont Avenue theater in the late 1940s and made it the city's first outlet for art and foreign films.

Their lease canceled this summer by a new owner, the Laemmles showed their last film at the theater Sunday.

A neighborhood group called Friends of the Los Feliz Theatre used the event to rally support for an anticipated battle to prevent the new owner from converting the building into a shopping center or restaurant.

But, even as the battle lines were being drawn, two surprise developments seemed to brighten the future for the historic theater.

First, Tuesday morning, two Los Angeles city councilmen announced a plan to buy the theater building and convert it into a live performance hall to replace the Los Feliz Performing Arts Center, which burned in 1985.

Revival for Revivalists

Later in the day, an agent for the new owner, Denley Investments & Management Co., announced that the theater had been leased to another theater operator who would carry on much in the Laemmle tradition.

The new tenant, Tom Cooper, is no stranger to lovers of cinema. Until two years ago, he operated the Vagabond Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard, showing a mix of classics, revivals and musicals.

Cooper left the Vagabond abruptly, saying that he thought the videocassette market was going to destroy revival theater such as his.

In an interview Tuesday, Cooper said he's changed his mind.

"Video is now bigger than ever," Cooper said. "Yet, on the other hand, people I talk to say there is nothing like seeing a movie they love on the big screen. I love operating a theater. I think the public enjoys it."

Cooper said he made an offer to buy the Los Feliz when it went up for sale late last year, but wasn't successful. His effort to lease it was partly motivated by his concern over the future of the theater, he said.

"I was upset to hear that the Los Feliz would be another casualty of rising rents," he said. "I'd hate to see that happen."

Cooper said he plans to have revival film festivals and show unusual and rarely seen films, as much as possible.

"I'm going to go in for a lot of the wonderful older films," he said. "I have all sorts of ideas. I've been making up pages and pages of interesting projects."

New Tenant Applauded

He said he is prepared to open the theater Wednesday. His first film will be a new print of "Gone With the Wind."

"We thought it would be a nice way to inaugurate the theater," he said.

City officials and a representative for the neighborhood group applauded the lease to Cooper.

"It sounds wonderful," said Curtiss Clayton, a Los Feliz resident who gathered about 200 signatures Monday on a petition opposing a change at the theater. "If it all turns out the way it's being advertised today, I think everyone will be very happy. I'm very pleased and happy that we're not going to have to drag this thing out and fight to keep the theater going."

Larry Kaplan, chief deputy for Councilman Michael Woo, said Woo is pleased by the resolution but will continue his effort to secure the theater as a city performance center in case Cooper's venture does not succeed.

Woo introduced a motion on Tuesday asking the city administrative officer to conduct a study into the cost, zoning considerations and artistic feasibility of converting the Los Feliz into a performing arts center. The City Council is scheduled to consider the motion Friday.

Ferraro's Idea

Kaplan said the idea was first proposed by Councilman John Ferraro, whose efforts to replace the Los Feliz Performing Arts Center have been stalled by cost considerations.

Under the plan, the remains of the Performing Arts Center on Riverside Drive would be razed and the land incorporated into an adjoining park.

Kaplan said he believes the Los Feliz can be converted into a live theater more cheaply than the old center can be rebuilt.

Kaplan said he suggested the idea last week to Steven Book, agent for the theater owner. Book rejected the idea, saying he is nearing agreement on a new lease.

"I told him that we would continue to pursue the motion because it's still a viable option in the long run and the city doesn't do things overnight."

Kaplan said he will not rule out the use of eminent domain if the idea receives a favorable report from city staff.

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