Once one of Los Angeles' premiere art theaters, the mid-city Vagabond on Wilshire Boulevard near Carondelet Street has in recent years been host to nostalgic Hollywood double features and even a long-running 3-D festival.
Many have tried to revive the Vagabond, but Ron Lockyer and Eric Nelson, who have been operating the theater since Oct. 1, have a better chance than their predecessors.
Instead of Technicolor Betty Grable musicals or "Bwana Devil," they're looking to book venturesome independent features, thus attracting a young crowd. They opened with "Laws of Gravity," followed it with "Feed" and broke loose with the German experimental feature "Dandy," drawing an amazing 550 people over Halloween weekend. What's more, they're not merely sprucing up the old theater but investing in substantial improvements. Already in place is a new marble floor in the lobby, and soon to come is a new curtain, new candy counter and a pair of outsize spatter paintings. A customer has commented to them that the Vagabond, which opened in May, 1950, at a cost of a mere $130,000, is beginning to look like an art gallery, which is exactly the effect that Lockyer and Nelson are striving to achieve.
"What we see is a whole new industry emerging," Lockyer said. "Because of the new technology, young film artists can be like modern painters and express their vision inexpensively--a Gregg Araki, for example, can make a movie for $5,000. This will be a place where their films can be seen."
"So many independent films go straight to video, but we say, 'Wait a minute, why not show them at our theater first?,' " Nelson added. "We want an independent filmmaker to be able to see a curtain go up on something that may have cost anywhere between $5,000 and $50,000. We also want to show the director's cut of all kinds of fine films."
Lockyer, 51, who describes himself as a "bohemian in a blue suit," is a one-time corporate executive at Fortune 500 companies who finally despaired of being able "to connect with the most creative part of our times." Eight years ago, he took over a small San Francisco hotel, but decided, in the wake of the '89 earthquake and the recession, to strike out anew. By that time, he had met Nelson, 23, an aspiring screenwriter from Glendale then living in San Francisco, who remembered the Vagabond from having worked at a nearby law office. When they learned that the Vagabond's lease was available, they joined forces to take over the theater.
They cite a number of factors that make investing in the Vagabond a promising, if admittedly risky, venture: the coming of Metro Rail at their corner, the redevelopment plan for Wilshire Boulevard itself and free parking next door on the site of an old gas station, a recent development. Their strongest suit, however, is their sense of the nearby community--of attracting USC students, the young people of Silver Lake and the throngs that attend Madonna's "rave" parties at the nearby Park Plaza Hotel.
To this end they have come up with some decidedly offbeat bookings. On Tuesday, they will revive Julien Temple's 1980 "The Great Rock and Roll Swindle," featuring the Sex Pistols--and will present Johnny Rotten in person. Also upcoming is "Gift," a new film by Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction and, in December, a Monte Hellman retrospective.