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Silent Classics of Ill-Fated Theater Sold at Auction

Crime: Owner's '97 murder leads to liquidation of rare collection and related memorabilia.

May 24, 1999|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the aftermath of a murder that closed the nation's only theater devoted exclusively to silent movies, its rare collection of films and memorabilia was broken up and auctioned off Sunday.

The collection had been the centerpiece of the Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue, a Hollywood institution where its 74-year-old owner and operator, Laurence W. Austin, was shot to death in January 1997.

Among the bidders Sunday at the Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in Hollywood was Charlie Lustman, who recently bought the theater (but not its archives of 1,500 films) and plans to remodel and reopen it this summer with similar silent programming.

Lustman was outbid on many of the groupings of films for sale Sunday but his $4,250 offer finally secured 13 Douglas Fairbanks movies, including "Robin Hood," "The Three Musketeers," and "Robinson Crusoe." He then leaped to his feet, arms upthrust, and shouted "Yes!" As he carried out the movies in their silver cans, Lustman cried out: "Doug is coming home!"

Lustman, a songwriter, also bought the projector that was in the theater since its 1942 opening.

Michael F. Blake, a film historian who is a biographer of Lon Chaney, said he successfully bid $4,000 for a collection of six Chaney films because it contains a minute or so of footage that had been presumed to be lost forever. Blake said he is working with the Library of Congress to "put it all together and preserve it."

Blake saw the sale of the theater's collection as "kind of an end of an era. I hope whoever buys this stuff gives it a good home. I hope it gets seen."

Sunday's sale netted $210,000 for Austin's estate. His relatives said they are happy that the buyers love and will protect the silent movies. After the murder, the films were found in the theater, uninsured and not being properly maintained, and were later moved to UCLA for safekeeping.

"We don't have to protect it and worry about it anymore," said Dian Austin, the murdered man's niece. "It's going to nice, safe places where it will be preserved."

As keepsakes, Austin bought some films Sunday and a favorite figurine of Charlie Chaplin that her uncle had kept in the theater. "We wanted to keep it in the family," she said. Austin said she will hold silent movie parties at home to watch the films with friends.

She said the auction also "helps us come to a little bit of closure" about the murder. The shooting was arranged by the theater's projectionist, James Van Sickle, who lived with Austin for years and expected to inherit his estate. The slaying was carried out by a hired gunman named Christian Rodriguez in front of a shocked audience. A theater concession worker was wounded. Both Van Sickle and Rodriguez were convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

There was an unmistakable sense of nostalgia as the film collection went on the block. The theater was founded by film buffs John and Dorothy Hampton but was shuttered through the '80s. After John Hampton's death, the Silent Movie Theatre was reopened in 1991 by his friend Austin.

There were feature films and short subjects for sale Sunday, most in the original 16mm format and starring such giants as Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino, Harold Lloyd and many more.

The bidding was strong and steady.

The more than 100 people who attended were often outspent at the last moment by two parties on the telephone, one a private collector and the other described only as an archivist.

One of those phone bidders paid $36,000 for a huge collection of 13,000 vintage black and white photographs and 18,000 press clippings covering virtually every actor and actress from the silent era. Another bidder spent $8,500 for 35 short subjects with titles like "Should Tall Men Marry," "Misfit Sailor," and "Wine, Women and Sauerkraut."

A $4,400 bid captured eight silent feature films, including "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and "The Phantom of the Opera. A $2,500 bid bought a collection of 3,700 phonograph records from the early to mid-20th century that accompanied films. The same amount purchased a print of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance"

"I've never done an auction like this before of a single film collection," said Michael Schwartz, director of entertainment memorabilia for Butterfield & Butterfield. "The theater was such an institution, such a landmark in Los Angeles."

There has been a resurgence of interest in the silent films, said many aficionados who attended the auction. The federal government, they noted, is devoting millions of dollars to the preservation of the movies as national treasures.

When auctioneer Vivica Paulin was finished calling out bids, she urged the winners to pick up their piece of Hollywood history. "Take 'em home and start watching!" she said.

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