The American Cinematheque is in negotiations to help run the historic Aero Theater in Santa Monica by using it as part of the Cinematheque's classic film screening programs. The Cinematheque, a 21-year-old nonprofit film society, which owns the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, would invest in upgrades for the venerable Aero, including new seats, projection equipment and concession stand.
No contract has yet been signed, but Barbara Smith, the Cinematheque's executive director, is optimistic.
"I think it is very beloved in the community," Smith said in an interview this week. "It's a great example of a neighborhood theater and it has its own history for people who live there."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 31, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 7 inches; 268 words Type of Material: Correction
Santa Monica mayor pro tem--Santa Monica Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown's title and first name were mistakenly omitted from a story on the Aero Theater in Saturday's Calendar.
The Aero, which shows second-run films at discount ticket prices, has been in financial trouble for the past decade, according to Chris Allen, who operates the theater, located on Santa Monica's tony Montana Avenue. Allen has not been involved in the Cinematheque negotiations, which have been handled by the Aero's owner, Jim Rosenfield. Smith said: "Jim is very committed to it being there and to having it stay a single screen. He's gone out of his way to make sure that happens."
Allen plans to hold two benefit showings of the James Dean classic "Rebel Without a Cause" on Wednesday night in case the Cinematheque deal falls through.
"I'm still here and I'm still trying to keep this theater going," said Allen. "It could be just like the Sundance deal, which didn't happen, and then what?"
In October 2000, Robert Redford, who saw his first movie at the Aero as a child, planned to acquire the theater and turn it into an art house devoted to showing independent film. That deal fell through when Redford's Sundance Cinemas' joint venture with General Cinemas shuttered.
The 550-seat Art Deco-style theater has plenty of colorful history. Built by the Douglas Aircraft Co. in 1939, it used to screen movies around the clock for employees who lived in the neighborhood and walked over when they got off shifts at all hours of the day.
But in these days of flashy multiplexes trimmed in neon and set in entertainment malls with restaurants, espresso bars and boutiques, the Aero is a dinosaur. It never shows first-run movies, has no parking lot, no cup holders in the armrests and no fresh popcorn.
Allen, who has been running the theater since 1996, said he would often get behind on rent payments but he always seemed to catch up. Then in 1996, attendance fell off, due mainly to the popularity of Blockbuster video and the Santa Monica Promenade drawing customers away, Allen said.
"I figured out I lost about 2,000 to 2,500 people [who were regular customers]," he said. "That is a small number but that's enough to throw it off balance."
In the past month Allen has served as a one-man publicity campaign, calling local publications, appearing on KCRW and distributing 3,500 fliers in the neighborhood asking the community to help save the Aero.
Other Los Angeles landmarks have been saved in recent years by larger theater chains. The Regent Theater in Westwood was acquired by the Landmark specialty chain and has been doing decent business showing art films. Dot-com millionaire Robert Bucksbaum bought the single screen Crest Theater, also in Westwood, continuing to feature family fare but also using the theater for special events and promotions.
"I think there is a growing interest in revitalizing Los Angeles' historic theaters," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, a nonprofit historic preservation organization. He noted some success stories like the Egyptian, and the Orpheum theater downtown, which was rehabilitated with a $3-million cash investment last year by its owner, as part of the Conservancy's Broadway revitalization program. But, he said, "there are still many theaters in a precarious state." Bernstein said it is the neighborhood movie theaters that suffer most because they bear the brunt of the competition from the megaplexes, including the Golden Gate Theater in East L.A., which has been vacant for a decade.
The Aero may be outdated but some locals maintain their affection for it.
"I love it," said Paul Kraemer, 70, a retired health care consultant who lives in Pacific Palisades and has been going to movies at the Aero for 20 years. He stopped to reminisce before a recent Saturday matinee of "The Emperor's New Clothes," starring Ian Holm. "It takes me back to my childhood. And here you can see things you missed in other theaters."
McKeown said it will take more than talk to save the theater. "We all say we love the Aero but if we want it to survive we have to become customers again. The Aero is great because you can walk there, see a movie and walk home holding hands, talking about the movie."
"Rebel Without a Cause" screens at 6 and 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Aero Theater, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. Tickets are $20 and include appetizers. (310) 395-4990.