Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Sound of Silents Lives On : Movies: One of the world's only theaters dedicated solely to silent films still stands, thanks to its late founder, John Hampton, his widow and a friend.

July 05, 1993|RIP RENSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hollywood owes the late John Hampton and his widow, Dorothy. And their longtime friend Lawrence Austin.

Without Hampton, one of the largest private collections of silent film would never have been assembled. Without Hampton and his wife, Dorothy, the Silent Movie Showcase theater in Hollywood would never have existed, let alone endured for 51 years. Without the intervention of Austin, son of Cecil B. DeMille's longtime personal tailor Ethel Austin and silent actor William Austin, the theater and collection probably would have perished three years ago in a dispute over Hampton's estate.

Instead, one of the world's only facilities dedicated solely to silent films still stands at 611 N. Fairfax--refurbished, spiffed up and open for business after a 12-year closure. To go there on a Friday or Saturday night and find a full house and organist is to understand a little of the '20s' fabled roar. The place lives up to John Hampton's hand-lettered words permanently posted in the lobby, which read, in part:

"Movie" is more than a museum, and those who regard the silent movies as museum pieces . . . are invited to patronize establishments where old-time stage melodramas are purposefully burlesqued.

"Movie" is Hollywood's shrine of the old time silent pictures, and for the study of serious students of the film . . . .

*

Seated one afternoon in the quiet theater surrounded by portraits of silent film greats like Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford, Austin and Dorothy Hampton recalled the history of the establishment and the sacrifices made by its founder. Austin, who joined forces with Dorothy to revive the theater after Hampton's death, spoke gently, deferring politely and with affection to octogenarian Dorothy.

John Hampton's dedication to silent film--and in fact, his whole life--is the kind of story that, well, ought to be a movie.

"John was always fascinated with movies," Dorothy said. "When he was a boy, on Friday nights, he'd put on a movie in the living room of his mother's home, and there would be about 25 kids in this little room. He used a 35-millimeter projector! It's a wonder he didn't burn down the whole place, my goodness!"

John Hampton said in a 1981 interview that it all began in Oklahoma City, Okla., at a penny matinee starring Elmo Lincoln. "I guess it was 1919 or 1920 when I saw this serial called 'Elmo the Mighty.' This gal was tied to a flatcar full of dynamite and Elmo was in a locomotive heading right toward her."

The 10-year-old boy's breath drew in as Elmo the Mighty got within 10 feet of the flatcar, and then--"TO BE CONTINUED."

"That didn't mean anything to me," chuckled Hampton, who had never seen a serial before, "so I watched it four more times to see if it turned out differently!"

From that day on, he couldn't get movies off his mind.

As a young man, Hampton went to work as a printer, yet continued to haunt the film exchanges and theaters in Oklahoma City, doing everything from painting movie posters (later a full-time occupation) to taking tickets. After he and childhood friend/fellow film-lover Dorothy Beatrice McBrayer married in 1934, the pair spent years barnstorming theater-less Oklahoma towns, showing movies in tents or rental halls.

But Hampton had in mind something more permanent for what was becoming a sizable film collection. Having developed a bad case of asthma, he finally decided to pack up and seek a healthier climate. In 1940, the Hamptons drove to Los Angeles and bought a nondescript little plot of land on North Fairfax--for the express purpose of opening a silent-movie house.

"I always had a dream of having a theater," Hampton said in 1981. "I never really outgrew my love for silent films. They were a separate and distinctive art form, and I was afraid that they would be forgotten and lost when talkies became popular. . . . People out here said I was crazy to start a theater with only silent films. As it turned out, this was the logical place to go."

The Hamptons christened the Old Time Movie, as it was originally known, Feb. 25, 1942--right in the middle of L.A.'s famous blackout instigated out of fear of invasion by Japan. Admission: a dime for adults, a nickel for kids.

For 37 straight years, Hampton--a bespectacled, ingenuous man with a broad, easy smile--perched in the theater's projection room, six days a week, two shows a day, screening films and spinning records as makeshift soundtracks.

Downstairs, Dorothy took the tickets and ran the business. The couple lived humbly in a small apartment just above the box office.

With its 150 wooden seats (legendarily uncomfortable until recent upholstering) and musty interior, the little theater struggled along, year after year--surviving the advent of television and development of the surrounding neighborhood. At one point the building had to be narrowed by several feet to accommodate a neighboring structure.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|