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Chaplin, Keaton, Fairbanks to Return to Silent Silver Screen

May 29, 1988|ALAN CITRON | Times Staff Writer

If the Hollywood writers strike causes a drastic slowdown in motion picture production, at least one exhibitor won't have to worry about the loss of boffo box office revenues. John Hampton, the owner of the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, hasn't shown a contemporary film in more than 46 years.

The silent-movie buff has spent most of his time catering to people who are more captivated by the "Perils of Pauline" than the rigors of "Rambo." And now, after a long and unplanned hiatus, Hampton is preparing to reopen his doors.

The black-and-white images of Rudolph Valentino, Elmo Lincoln and other early screen stars should be flickering across the Silent Movie Theatre's screen by fall. Hampton, spry and almost boyishly enthusiastic at 78, said there has always been a big market for the films of his youth.

Fare to Remain the Same

"I've never worried if people wanted to see them or not," Hampton said. "I figured that if I liked the movies, then other people would too."

Hampton's bill will include serials, cartoons, shorts and features, just as it did until 1980, when he temporarily retired after 38 years at the same location because of illness, business opportunities and the need to catalogue his film collection.

Since then, Hampton said, he has received at least one telephone call a week from loyal patrons begging him to reopen. One caller even threatened to kill him if he didn't get things rolling again soon.

Hampton said silent-film fans are a devoted lot composed of people who actually remember the heyday of such stars as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks; serious film students and younger people who view the movies as novelties.

Hampton's own love of silent films is so ingrained that he still has a hard time accepting talkies, some 61 years after the fact. He has spent more than four decades accumulating one of the largest private silent-film collections in the world, but can't even remember the last modern film he attended.

"I'm not interested in them," Hampton said. "The old films had something like a hypnotic quality. . . . You don't find that too much anymore."

Hundreds of Rare Treasures

Film scholars say collectors such as Hampton, who they say may also be the world's only remaining full-time operator of a silent movie theater, are uncommon. He is said to own the best copy of the silent version of "Phantom of the Opera," and has a huge collection of serials and hundreds of other rare treasures stored at various temperature-controlled sites around the city.

Sam Gill, an archivist with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said he was always impressed with Hampton's devotion to quality and his love of the movies that he screened at his 250-seat theater, which was usually crowded in the days when Gill attended movies there.

"He is meticulous in keeping his films preserved," Gill said. "If he had an incomplete print, he would buy other copies and reconstruct it. He could have some of the most complete Keystone-era Chaplin films in existence."

"He takes it very seriously," added Howard W. Hays, manager of commercial services for the UCLA film archives department. "You could have all the money in the world and you still wouldn't be able to duplicate that collection."

As Hampton recently stood in front of his theater--which has become a favored target of graffiti vandals in recent months, even though he and his wife still live in the apartment upstairs--he could easily be mistaken for the groundskeeper. He favors T-shirts and faded jeans and has the rugged look of someone who has spent more time outdoors than hunched over the brittle remains of old movies.

Hampton's love of silent pictures took hold around 1918, when he and a friend in rural Oklahoma saw a serial starring Elmo Lincoln called "Elmo the Mighty." The serials, with their cliffhanger endings, were something new to the young Hampton, and when the episode ended with the words "To Be Continued," he just assumed the next episode would be shown on the same day.

"We sat there waiting for it to come back," Hampton recalled. "We thought that maybe the reel had broken. Finally, after about six hours, we gave up."

By then, however, Hampton was hooked. For several years he worked for local movie theaters and drew posters for an Oklahoma City theater. By the late 1930s, he and his wife, Dorothy, had decided to go into the silent film business full time.

'Never Made Any Sense to Me'

Hampton said he never subscribed to the theory that silent films were dead. "That would be like saying you had to abandon the art of painting for the art of photography he said. "It just never made any sense to me."

The problem was finding a theater site. Asthma problems had forced Hampton to leave Oklahoma. And as he and Dorothy traveled around the country, they became more and more discouraged. Officials in Miami said they didn't need any more movie theaters, and the Gulf Coast proved to be too hot and muggy.

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