No Los Angeles location has so captured my attention before or since.
I attended Fairfax’s own Silent Movie Theatre every Friday and Saturday night for years, until its untimely demise on January 17, 1997. In a tragedy that could fairly be perceived as endemic of old Hollywood lore, what was once billed as “The World’s Only Silent Movie Theater” shuttered in violence. I will not go into detail about the evening here; however, for those who do want to read a detailed history as to what exactly transpired, NewsBreak published my piece, “Murder at the Silent Movie,” on New Year’s Eve of 2020.
For whatever the reason, I had thought about the theater that day.
You can read that article by clicking on the above link, from which I will liberally and exclusively excerpt herein. Portions of this new article appeared previously in that linked piece.
As to this present piece, consider it a fond remembrance. Though the theater reopened sporadically over the years with different owners, it was no longer relegated to silent film. Those days were gone. Instead, The Silent Movie Theatre had become just another Fairfax District storefront to my eyes, this one bereft of its soul, and a location to rent for weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs.
But, once upon a time, there was magic…
THE SILENT MOVIE THEATRE
Hollywood should be defined by its soul, in my opinion, which includes the entirety of its history, its scandals, its true-life characters desperate and not, as well as its moving images and celebrity culture.
To me, The Silent Movie represented the de facto soul of Hollywood. Billed as “the world’s only existing silent movie theater,” the love affair was instantaneous. I fell for her the moment I laid eyes upon her, and she was terrifically kind in return. She was generous with inspiration and jump-started my career as a writer.
It was a beautiful and eye-opening experience for five years. It began in earnest with a short called “Cops,” a feature entitled “College,” and the most side-splitting human being I had ever seen… by the name of Buster Keaton.
When I was a high school student, I saw Keaton’s masterwork, “The General,” for the first time. As with so many films we had to see back then due to class requirements, I was bored.
Needless to say, when I rediscovered Keaton years later at The Silent Movie Theater, he and the film became veritable gods to me. Stunts galore, decades prior to the creation of CGI as we would come to know it, pathos… Keaton mastered it all.
I am getting ahead of myself, though. As for that glorious day of rediscovery, way back in 1992, a friend of mine had asked me to join him to see a movie. I thought we’d catch “Reservoir Dogs,” the debut film of a director proclaimed to be The Next Big Thing: Quentin Tarantino.
My friend wanted to see Buster Keaton. He asked me if I was a fan. I told him I saw “The General” once in high school, and it put me to sleep. I went on about “Reservoir Dogs” as everyone I knew was talking about it. We flipped a coin. I lost.
We arrived at the theater. My buddy bought the tickets as he said he felt sorry for me losing the bet. “I’m doing you a huge favor,” he said. “Trust me.”
I was struck entering the lobby. I’ve long been a fan of old Hollywood films, save for silents, and I felt like I was entering a museum. This was positive. Framed portraits and lobby cards of silent stars and movies adorned the walls, mana for a collector of film memorabilia like myself. We stood on a line just inside the front door, while a very senior lady tore tickets and greeted everyone as they reached the theater proper.
My friend told me she was Dorothy Hampton, the former owner of the theater along with her late husband, John. There was certainly history here. I was fascinated.
The feature that night was something called “College.” That main feature was preceded by a “Felix the Cat” cartoon and several Keaton shorts, including “Cops.”
Surprisingly to me, the theater was packed. There couldn’t have been much more than 150 seats in total, but still, this was a strong crowd for something so old. We managed to find two seats together in the second row, much too close for my comfort. Speaking of comfort, or lack thereof, the seats were hard, not cushioned whatsoever. Somehow it added to the atmosphere. There was an organ near the screen, on the floor to its left, and Bob Mitchell, a renowned silent movie organist who I’ve read about in some of my books, was the organist for the evening.
“Is that — “ I began, as he took his stool.
“Yeah it is,” my friend responded.
“How old is he now?”
In minutes, Mr. Mitchell adjusted his stool, and his fingers touched the keys. A vigorous version of “Pomp and Circumstance” emanated from his organ. On cue, the venue’s present owner entered from the back, to steady applause. Holding a microphone, he waited patiently for the theme to conclude.
“My name is Laurence Austin,” he said as the last key reverberated, “and I welcome you to the world’s only silent movie theater.”
Larry completed a brief introduction of the evening’s entertainment, and the films unspooled. I had never before been a member of any audience so enraptured. The laughter was loud, and contagious. Everything shown prior humored me, but “Cops” was just about the most amazing thing I’d ever seen on film. No special effects, just a heck of a chase that had the crowd in stitches. At times I could barely catch my breath, and tears squeezed from my eyes. “Cops” was followed by “College,” and I was addicted.
I fell for Buster Keaton that night. I fell for the world of pre-sound movies that night (most of which have since fallen into the public domain, including the Keaton favorites discussed above). In fact, I was completely and utterly seduced. I embraced the earliest history of a mercurial business this then-starving screenwriter sometimes loved and frequently loathed.
Most of all, I embraced The Silent Movie.
My friend was right. Over subsequent weeks, I felt increasingly privileged to attend the screenings. I had developed a keen interest in silent film, and I wanted more.
I especially wanted to learn about the history of this special venue…
For that history, I would advise you to read my prior article, which is expansive. For a short version of what many of us simply referred to as “The Silent Movie,” the small, specialty movie house was founded by John and Dorothy Hampton in February of 1942. The Fairfax Avenue favorite, then known as “Old-Time Movies,” had quite the initial run, closing in 1979 after 37 years. John passed away in 1990. The theater was reopened in 1991 by Laurence Austin, a family friend. Upon its reopening, Dorothy collected and ripped tickets in the lobby.
All I can say today is I wish some of you reading this would have been able to experience to utter joy of this Los Angeles landmark. For those who have, please let me know your remembrances.
As for the iconic Lawrence Austin, a true Hollywood original in the best sense… my friend, you are greatly missed.
Thank you for reading.