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Caught in the 3rd Dimension

At the Silent Movie Theatre, patrons venture deep into the world of 3-D--and some even get a little spooked along the way.


For Charlie Lustman, the largest problem with the 3-D film festival currently unspooling at his Silent Movie Theatre in Hollywood wasn't explaining that the movies he's screening are actually "talkies." And it wasn't the logistics of instructing each customer how to handle a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses. (Touch the lenses and they get smeared.)

No, to hear Lustman tell it, his biggest problem has been dealing with the unhappy ghost of the founder, John Hampton, who opened the theater in 1942. (Hampton is not to be confused with the previous owner Lawrence Austin, who was murdered in 1997 during the showing of a Larry Semon comedy short.)

"See this black eye?" Lustman asked the crowd before dimming the lights Friday evening. "I think the ghost just reached out and hit me." (Actually, he ran into a display case door he'd accidentally left open after swapping silent-movie posters for 3-D ones.)

Even stranger, said Lustman, the projector, which had worked flawlessly since he reopened the theater almost 11 months ago, had stopped working minutes before the first 3-D showing the week before. He thinks Hampton's ghost is unhappy with the decision to show the 3-D pictures.

But none of that spooky stuff has stopped Lustman from sharing the fun of 3-D movies with a generation that has rarely seen them outside of a theme park.

"With 3-D," said Lustman, a 35-year-old songwriter, "I'm doing the same thing they did in the 1950s. I'm pulling people away from their television sets to come in and see something they can't see on TV."

Gesturing to the rapidly filling lobby, he added, "this is a generation of people who never got it. Now they're getting it."

What they're getting, at 10 bucks a pop ($8 for children, students and seniors), is the opportunity to see movies in three dimensions, which gives a sense of depth to otherwise flat or two-dimensional images. Each ticket comes with a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses (without them, the movie will appear blurry) and the opportunity to see a newly struck print of Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 "Dial M for Murder." (Ray-Ban style 3-D glasses can be purchased for an extra $3. They sure look cool, but take it from someone with a little experience: Don't try driving home with them on.)

By donning silly looking glasses, moviegoers also get to experience a sense of community usually lacking in other theaters. As the crowd began loading up on popcorn and candy, trying to negotiate the lobby with 3-D glasses on, the scene resembled a Roy Orbison look-alike convention.


Shortly before the movie began, Lustman took the stage to introduce it. He talked a little about the movie, the 3-D genre and the upcoming schedule. He told a few jokes and threw a few baseball caps into the audience. One man won free movie passes for knowing that the 3-D craze was launched in 1952 with a feature called "Bwana Devil." Another pass went to a guy who knew that Andre de Toth directed "House of Wax."

"De Toth is blind in one eye, so he's never been able to see the fruits of his labor in 3-D," Lustman told the crowd. Pause. "But he's a visionary." The audience groaned. The 88-year-old De Toth, who lives in Burbank, is scheduled to visit the theater Saturday and will speak prior to a screening of "House of Wax."

After the movie, Lustman chatted with a cadre of cinephiles in the lobby, sharing movie trivia. He asked whether they knew that even the porn industry had dabbled in 3-D, with a 1970 soft-core feature called "Stewardesses." And though a print of "Stewardesses" was one of the few available 3-D films compatible with the equipment at the Silent Movie Theatre, Lustman said he'd never show it: "We're a family theater."

Many of the patrons at last week's screening weren't sure what to expect but came anyway because they are such fans of the theater--and "Dial M for Murder."

"I didn't realize it was done in 3-D," said Lisa Tatje, who makes the trek from Azusa almost weekly. "But I figure if anyone can do it, Hitchcock can."

Given the date--Friday the 13th--and the theater's grisly recent history, one patron wondered aloud whether the cold wind on the back of his neck was some sort of communique from the spirit world.

"Nah," said Lustman, "That's just the air-conditioning."

The Silent Movie Theatre's 3-D film festival concludes with "House of Wax," which will be screened Thursdays to Sundays through Oct. 29. Information: (323) 655-2520.

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