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BRINGING THE MOVIES CLOSER TO HOME : But Art Houses Are Doing a Big Fade-Out in L.A.

November 23, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

New first-run movie theaters may be popping up all over. But the box-office boom isn't likely to rescue Southern California's rapidly disappearing single-screen art and repertory movie houses.

Since the revival peak of the 1970s and early 1980s, many ornate old picture palaces have closed down or switched from repertory to mainstream movies. In Los Angeles alone, their number has shrunk from 13 to seven in less than a decade. Some movie mavens predict that single-screen art and repertory theaters may be doomed.

"Most of those places will be completely gone by the end of this century. It makes me very sad because I fell in love with film in theaters like that," says Richard B. Jewell, director of critical studies in the USC School of Cinema-Television. With their quirky decor, eclectic fare and employees whose offbeat manner was matched only by that of the clientele, the revival houses provided a moviegoing experience that aficionados say is lacking in today's multiplexes.

Gary McVey, associate director of the American Film Institute Film Fest, recalls his days as a projectionist at Loew's Paradise, an Arabian Nights-style fantasy palace in New York that is credited with inspiring Stanley Kubrick to become a director:

"You really felt as if you were entering another world. . . . It gave you a feeling you just can't get if you go to one of these cinder-block, shoebox multiplexes."

Still, Steve Gilula, president of Landmark Theatre Corp., an art film company with 33 movie houses nationwide, says interest in foreign films, classics and the more esoteric independent studio releases has "fallen dramatically." In 1982, 24 of his theaters showed classics and cult films; today, lagging sales have whittled that number to four.

Wayne Green, communications director for the National Assn. of Theater Owners, says he doesn't know of any industry group that keeps exact tabs on revival houses nationwide, but cites an ongoing decline since the mid-'70s.

In Los Angeles, revival houses that have disappeared in the last few years include the Tiffany, the Loyola, the Four Star, the New Baronet and the Vista. Recent losses in New York include the Regency and the Thalia.

Most exhibitors seem to agree that the future of movie theaters lies with the multiplex, not the free-standing art house. Repertory theater is also threatened by the growing availability of the so-called "lost" film--classics that once could only be seen in revival houses but today are staples on cable TV and at the corner video shop.

Rising real estate values and the cost of restoring old fixtures often make it more profitable to turn an old movie palace into a mutiplex or gut it entirely.

The Los Feliz was almost put out of business late this summer after a new owner raised the rent of longtime operator Max Laemmle and began negotiating instead with prospective retail tenants. But the theater received an 11th-hour reprieve when Tom Cooper, former operator of the Vagabond Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard and the Tiffany Theater in Hollywood, signed a several-year lease on the property. Cooper says he will carry on the Los Feliz tradition but show a mix of classics, revivals and musicals beginning Dec. 13.

Rather than switch to first-run, mainstream movies, some art and revial houses find innovative ways to boost attendance.

The Nuart in West Los Angeles, which is owned by Landmark and shows a mix of first-run art films and classics, features quarterly shows by the L.A. Connection comedy troupe. The group acts out campy live shows against a backdrop of old cult films like "Cat Women on the Moon."

The Fox International in Venice, which has been closed about four months for repairs, formerly featured a cafe and a lobby where patrons could rent videocassettes. The Fox was long known as a repertory house, but it switched gears in 1984 when new manager Rafigh Pooya began showing first-run international films, many with social and political themes. Pooya says the Health Department has ordered the theater's owner to remove asbestos and that the Fox remains dark because this work has not yet been done.

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