Silent Movie Theater Keeps Film Goers Happy

The silent movie theater in Los Angeles has a storied, and slightly sordid, history. The 64th anniversary of the theater is this month, and people are still showing up to watch movies from another era.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

With this year's Academy Awards coming up, we thought we would take a step back in cinematic history. The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles is getting ready to celebrate it's 64th anniversary. In the ever changing movie culture the theater still packs them in despite having no Dolby sound and stars that never appear in People magazine. Reporter Gloria Hillard paid a visit.

GLORIA HILLARD reporting:

At every screening at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles, owner Charlie Lustman steps on the stage with a shimmering gold lame' curtain and belts out his Silent Movie Theater theme song.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. CHARLIE LUSTMAN (Owner, The Silent Movie Theater, Los Angeles, California): (Singing) Take me to the silent picture show. I've been waiting all this time...

HILLARD: Gracing the walls of the theater are life-sized photos of silent movie stars like Clara Bow, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. staring out behind too much eye makeup.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LUSTMAN: (Singing) Now, there's Mary, sweetheart of the land. Buster with that smile so grand. Clara Bow, you know that...

HILLARD: Owning a silent movie theater is not something the 40-year-old songwriter ever dreamed of, he says. That is, not until that fateful day, six years ago. That's when Charlie Lustman found himself driving by the boarded up theater with the large For Sale sign.

Mr. LUSTMAN: Here is this voice that comes out to me that says, Buy this place. Come over here. Buy it. You're the guy. We'll teach you everything we know.

HILLARD: Lustman, who had never even seen a silent film, believes now that voice belonged to John Hampton, the silent movie buff who opened the theater 15 years after the talkies had made their debut in 1942. Hampton died in 1990 but Lustman says somehow he still seems to be running the show. Lustman says whenever he's tried to make changes to the theater...

Mr. LUSTMAN: Something happens that reminds me in one way or the other that, just stick to what we did, kid. Just make it better, fine, but just stick to the basic premise, which is run silent movies with live music.

(Soundbite of music)

HILLARD: Of course, that's the thing about silent films. They weren't silent at all.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: Especially when the musical storyteller is a man who actually played during the silent movie era. In 1924 Bob Mitchell was 12 years old and his feet barely reached the pedal. The flickering screen lights up the smiling face of the 93-year-old Mitchell today, elegantly dressed with suit, tie, sweater vest and scarf.

Mr. BOB MITCHELL (Pianist): Well, I look forward to it. I just love to do it. I enjoy playing and I certainly love to play for pictures.

(Soundbite of piano)

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: On the screen is Buster Keaton's 1920 film Scarecrow. It is classic deadpan Keaton. He is a bachelor with an ingenious rope-and-pulley invention to take care of housecleaning. Mitchell doesn't miss a beat with the non-stop sight gags, and even though he's accompanied the film once or twice before...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. MITCHELL: Oh, of course. It's never twice the same. I will maybe quote the same pieces, but they won't be necessarily in the same key or the same tempo.

Mr. LUSTMAN: Time for a short intermission break while we change the reels. Coming up, Harold Lloyd in Girl Shy...

HILLARD: So while they change the reels in the cubbyhole projection booth, maybe this is a good time to share with you the other stories about The Silent Movie Theater. After John Hampton died and his widow was in a rest home, the theater fell into the hands of Laurence Austin. And then in 1997, Austin was gunned down in the lobby in a murder-for-hire plot planned by the theater's projectionist. And one more thing: the theater is reportedly haunted. Charlie Lustman has plenty of stories of sightings over the years and so do the young women working the concession stand.

(Sound of popcorn popping)

HILLARD: Take what recently happened to Bethalyn Staples(ph).

Ms. BETHALYN STAPLES (Employee, The Silent Movie Theater, Los Angeles, California): I was walking past the door that was open next to the piano and saw a man bent over the piano tuning it. Somebody also, every now and then late at night, hangs out on the stairs and lets me know they don't want me up there.

HILLARD: Charlie Lustman says, well, it would all make perfect sense.

Mr. LUSTMAN: And if you were alive during that time and silent movies were your thing, or if you made them, you were artists or people who worked on them in Hollywood, where were you goin'? Where you goin' as a spirit? You're comin' here on a regular basis. And when we don't run the movies, they don't like that.

HILLARD: Well, they must be pleased on this day. In the packed lobby, looking at photos of silent film superstars is an eclectic mix of patrons including a younger Hollywood crowd. Aspiring actors John Woodward(ph) and Anna Chahosaenni(ph) were hoping to pick up some tips from the silent stars.

Mr. JOHN WOODWARD (Patron, The Silent Movie Theater): Yeah, I think you can learn a lot.

Ms. ANNA CHAHOSAENNI (Patron, The Silent Movie Theater): It's amazing. It's very Twenties-esque. It's really cool.

HILLARD: Others, like Shirley O'Conti(ph), just love silent films.

Ms. SHIRLEY O'CONTI (Patron, The Silent Movie Theater): I just love it. It's got so much nostalgia and it's just wonderful. It takes you back.

(Soundbite of organ music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

HILLARD: Back from intermission, it's time for the feature: Harold Lloyd's 1924 film Girl Shy. The story of a shy tailor's assistant who is writing a book on how to win women over was punctuated by more laughter than you're likely to hear in today's surround sound cineplex. That doesn't surprise Bob Mitchell.

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, these are funny comedies, aren't they? That's what the remarkable part about proving that the silent picture still is an art form to be preserved because of the fact that it can get such emotions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MITCHELL: People say, don't you long for the old days? Oh, no, I would never want to go back. I'm the happiest now that I've ever been.

HILLARD: Because, he says, he gets to share with new audiences the movies he loves.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. LUSTMAN: Mr. Bob Mitchell!

(Soundbite of applause, cheers, whistles and yells)

HILLARD: That's the thing about silent movies, he says. They always have a happy ending. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard in Los Angeles.

Mr. LUSTMAN: How 'bout that, Bob?

(Soundbite of music)

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