A historic Santa Monica theater built by aviation pioneer Donald Douglas as a perk for his workers will be renovated by a nonprofit film society that will continue to operate it as a single-screen venue, one of the few remaining in Southern California.
American Cinematheque, which owns the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, will refurbish the struggling Aero Theatre on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica and bring its diverse range of movie fare to the Westside.
The Hollywood-based film society will take over the lease from Chris Allen, an independent operator who has struggled unsuccessfully to turn a profit for the last few years, said James Rosenfield, a Santa Monica developer who owns the Aero and other commercial buildings in the area.
The 64-year-old theater will close for renovations April 14. American Cinematheque Director Barbara Smith said she doesn't yet know how much will be spent on the upgrade, which will include improvements to the projection and sound systems and a new concession stand.
The theater's capacity will be reduced by 33% to about 400 seats from 600, but it will not be converted to the stadium-style configuration popular in most new complexes.
The front of the English Tudor-style building with its sidewalk box office and neon marquee will be preserved, Smith said. It will reopen in early summer or midsummer.
The Aero will screen the same eclectic fare that American Cinematheque shows at the Egyptian, which recently showed new movies from Ireland and Venezuela, followed by the 1965 classic, "The Sound of Music." The Egyptian shows a different movie nearly every day and will pass the films on to the Aero.
Smith said the Aero is the "opposite" kind of theater from the Egyptian, a fantasy movie palace built in 1927 by Sid Grauman, who also created the famous Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
"The Aero is a neighborhood theater like 'The Last Picture Show,' " she said. "Single-screen movie theaters that people can walk to are almost a thing of the past."
The theater, built in 1939 by the founder of Douglas Aircraft Co., screened movies around the clock so employees at his airplane production plant in Santa Monica could catch a movie after work, even if they had to work the graveyard shift.
But like most single-screen movie houses faced with competition from flashy new multiplexes, the Aero was struggling by the 1990s. Allen, the current operator, said in a recent letter to customers that he is $38,000 in debt. He couldn't be reached for comment. A recording at the theater invites customers to a farewell party April 12 for the screening of the 1974 Mel Brooks comedy "Blazing Saddles."
Rosenfield, the landlord, said he has been looking for an operator with deeper pockets for about five years.
Actor and director Robert Redford, who watched movies in the Aero as a boy, came close to taking it over about two years ago to make it into a showcase for independent films, but backed out, Rosenfield said.
Allen has done "a great job of being the steward," of the Aero, Rosenfield said, but "I wanted an operator who could renovate the theater, had access to films and could keep it going for future generations."