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Theaters fading to black in Westwood

The Mann Festival is the latest to close as filmgoers continue migrating to multiplexes. Preservationists brace for the possible loss of the Mann Village and the Mann Bruin.

August 01, 2009|Martha Groves

Moviegoers in the 1960s and '70s flocked to Westwood Village, where they had their pick of first-run films on nearly 20 screens. With parking scarce, patrons stashed their cars at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard and took shuttles into the village. A-list celebrities turned out for frequent splashy openings.

The occasional premiere still brings red carpets and klieg lights, but the neighborhood near UCLA is no longer the movie hub it once was. Nearby multiplexes have lured away most of the crowds, who favor comfortable stadium seating, state-of-the-art sound systems and other modern amenities.

The closing Thursday night of the Mann Festival Theatre on Lindbrook Drive -- on top of last year's demolition of the Mann National Theatre and previous losses of the Mann Westwood 4 and Mann Plaza, among others -- is further indication that Westwood's movie culture appears in danger of fading to black.

Preservationists are also bracing for the potential loss of the village's two most architecturally distinctive theaters: the Village and Bruin, which date from the 1930s. Encino-based Mann Theatres has given notice that it intends not to renew its leases on the Broxton Avenue theaters -- one Spanish Mission style with the famed neon-lighted Fox tower, the other Art Moderne with a distinctive wraparound marquee. Both are city historic-cultural monuments.

The building owners say they are seeking new operators. Whether they will find them, given the tough economy and the challenges facing single-screen theaters, is far from certain.

"We've lost a staggering number of important theaters," said Ross Melnick, co-founder of the Cinema Treasures website. "The idea of the Village closing and being lost is nearly unfathomable."

Of all the theaters, many of them virtual museum pieces from another era, the Village, with its Fox tower, might loom the largest. Melnick described the spire as "an international signpost of Los Angeles and movies."

Katy MacQuoid, waiting in a long line near the Bruin for a fresh ice cream sandwich at Diddy Riese, had her first and last experience at the Mann Festival on Thursday night, when she and co-workers attended a private screening of "Funny People."

"In general, I prefer smaller neighborhood theaters to cineplexes, but the cineplexes are so much more convenient," conceded MacQuoid, 30, of Hermosa Beach.

Jole Nguyen, 25, a freelance movie production assistant from Studio City, said she prefers multiplexes. "Even when I had friends at UCLA, we'd always go somewhere else that had bigger theaters, like the Grove or the iMax theaters at Universal or the Promenade," she said.

Oddly, that suggests that Westwood, envisioned as a village for students and residents, has been outdone by faux villages such as the Grove and Universal CityWalk, with their megaplexes and see-and-be-seen ambience.

Such patterns, particularly among younger theatergoers, explain why venues such as the Festival have become expendable. They also reflect the general economic malaise that has afflicted the village for years. Storefronts along Westwood Boulevard and side streets are filled with vacancy signs.

"[The Festival] was red ink on the Mann chain's books," said Marc Wanamaker, a historian who is writing a book about Westwood. "We're living right now in a catastrophe for theaters."

The Mann Festival was located in a former Ralphs grocery store -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- that opened in 1929 as one of the village's first six buildings. The theater had had many identities, including UA, UA Egyptian and Odeon Cinema. Opened in 1970, it featured a simplistic but comfortable auditorium -- not flashy enough for today's crowd.

Paul Colichman, a publisher and self-avowed theater geek who as a boy worked behind a movie theater candy counter, said ideally an investor would design a modern complex around the Village and Bruin, much like the Arclight Hollywood at the Cinerama Dome. At one point, he noted, Mann Theatres thought of putting a multiplex in a parking lot behind the Bruin.

Meanwhile, preservationists fret over the outlook for neighborhood theaters. Robert Bucksbaum, owner of the Majestic Crest on Westwood Boulevard, is struggling to keep the theater alive and has put it up for sale.

"It is very worrisome," Wanamaker said, "this slippery slope of one little one closing and finally people start looking at the Village and the Bruin, the holy grail ones. I don't know what the solution is."

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martha.groves@latimes.com

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