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Not just the silent treatment on Fairfax

New theater owners will add films with sound to the mix.

June 13, 2006|Robin Rauzi | Times Staff Writer

The Silent Movie Theatre is getting a new voice. After decades of near-exclusive devotion to the pre-talkie era, the theater is being sold to two brothers who plan to add more modern revival fare to the bill.

Charlie Lustman, who bought the shuttered building in 1999, is selling the business to Dan and Sammy Harkham in a deal expected to close at the end of the month. Lustman's last silent picture show as proprietor will be the Charlie Chaplin classic "The Kid," running Friday through Sunday.

Though Lustman will come back to present other silents, he's handing the reins to the Harkhams, who until a few months ago had only dreamed of owning a revival house.

"It's every movie nerd's dream," said Sammy Harkham, 26, a cartoonist who will be in charge of programming. His 24-year-old brother, Dan, who will manage the business, is just as excited. "It's like two kids buying Disneyland," he said.

They will be the fourth owners of the little theater on Fairfax Avenue in its 64-year history.

The Silent Movie Theatre was an anachronism when it was built in 1942 -- 15 years after the advent of talking motion pictures. But its founder, John Hampton, was smitten by silents at an early age, and his passion was undying. He projected movies in the living room as a kid, and later worked in theaters and painted movie posters. After he married, he and his wife, Dorothy, barnstormed theaterless towns in Oklahoma showing movies in rented halls and tents.

Asthma drove him out of dustbowl Oklahoma, and he began looking for a place to build a permanent shrine to silent film. He built his 150-seat Old Time Movie theater on Fairfax Avenue. Hampton would spin old records like a DJ to provide a soundtrack, while Dorothy collected the 5- and 10-cent tickets. They lived in a small apartment above the lobby.

In addition to running the theater, Hampton collected and restored silent films, which were shot on highly flammable nitrate film stock. Film scholars estimate that 90% of silent movies have been lost -- thrown away, burned in vault fires, degraded into dust -- and Hampton amassed a collection of considerable value.

The theater closed after a death in the family in 1979, and then Hampton's own health began failing and it didn't reopen. He sold half his films to collector David Packard to pay for medical treatment. Hampton died of cancer in 1990.

Lawrence Austin, who was a teen in the neighborhood when Old Time Movie opened, persuaded the widowed Dorothy Hampton to let him reopen in 1991 as the Silent Movie Theatre. He refurbished the building -- notably adding new seats and a gold lame curtain -- but is thought to have sold off parts of the Hamptons' collection of posters, lobby cards and even films to finance the enterprise. Eventually, he got Dorothy Hampton, who was living in an adjacent nursing home, to sign the deed of the theater over to him -- a move that was legally contested later.

The theater closed again -- and it seemed for good -- in 1997 after a shooting in the lobby that left Austin dead and a concessionaire wounded. In the coming months, police discovered that the gunman had been hired for $25,000 by James Van Sickle, who worked at the theater and lived with Austin, on and off, in the Hamptons' old apartment. Van Sickle, who claimed Austin had willed him the theater, and the shooter are both serving life sentences.

Old-time glamour

Lustman, a singer-songwriter who'd been living overseas, knew nothing about the murder or silent movies before buying the theater in 1999. He was looking for space to create an artists colony -- with a recording studio -- but soon got swept up in the idea of rebuilding the Silent Movie Theatre.

His mother bought the building and he signed a 20-year lease. By the time they finished an extensive remodel, the two were hardly speaking, but the theater had never looked better. The apartment became a little cafe. The auditorium walls were lined with golden velvet and framed portraits of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow and others. Out front, a brand-new neon marquee announced the first film, Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times."

Nearly seven years later, the Silent Movie Theatre doesn't look to have aged much. Lustman points out the subtle changes since then: He reconfigured the projection booth, added a dressing room, took down Harry Landon's portrait and put up one of Greta Garbo. Lustman is still an enthusiastic storyteller, despite having lost a portion of his upper jaw to a rare form of bone cancer this spring. A temporary prosthetic gives him a slight lisp -- "I sound like Al Pacino in 'Scarface,' " he joked -- but hardly slows him in recounting the near-disaster that was opening night in 1999.

"Modern Times" has a recorded musical soundtrack but as the opening credits rolled, there was no overture. The sound system had failed. So Lustman ran down the aisle, tapped the arm of pianist Rick Friend and begged him to play.

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