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Santa Monica's Aero Theatre regulars believe in the joy of movies

At the American Cinematheque's Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, the magic of movies has cast a wide spell

Amelia Jordan Hammond was 13 when she and her family moved from El Paso to Santa Monica.

"I didn't really have any friends or knew what to do around town," said Hammond. But then one day the family was driving on Montana Avenue and saw the marquee of the vintage Aero Theatre.

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For the Record

Jan. 18, 3:05 p.m.: An earlier version of this post referred to the theater’s manager as Amelia Jordan; her full name is Amelia Jordan Hammond. The article misspelled the name of theater programmer Grant Moninger as Moniger, and it stated that Hammond runs the Halloween Horrorton; Moninger runs it.

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"We saw that Charlie Chaplin was playing," she noted. "We started going to the Aero, and we haven't stopped since then. It's more than just a theater. It's more of a community. People who go there make bonds, friendships and relationships."

The 19-year-old college sophomore has worked at the Aero for several years in various capacities. For the last year, Hammond has been the manager of the single-screen theater, which has been operated by the American Cinematheque — which also owns and operates the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood — for the last decade.

The Cinematheque, a nonprofit, viewer-supported organization that screens classic and contemporary films, is not only celebrating its 10th year at the neighborhood theater but the 75th anniversary of the Aero. The yearlong festivities begin at the end of the month with a screening of Walt Disney's 1940 animated masterpiece, "Fantasia." .

Since 2005, the Aero has hosted more than 2,700 programs, including the world premiere of Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 film, "The Master." Some 36 Oscar-winning actors, 12 Academy Award-winning directors, including Clint Eastwood and James Cameron, and countless contemporary filmmakers such as Anderson, Jon Favreau, Richard Linklater and Jason Reitman have appeared in person.

Built by Donald Douglas, the founder of Douglas Aircraft Co., the Aero screened movies around the clock so his Santa Monica-based employees could catch a movie after work no matter what time their shift ended.

But with the rise of multiplexes, neighborhood theaters, including the Aero, struggled and many closed.

Developer James S. Rosenfield didn't want that to happen to the Aero. Rosenfield would see the Aero every time he walked home from his office, which was also on Montana.

Though the audiences were sparse and the theater was run down, Rosenfield loving going there. "Every community hopes and dreams for a single-screen movie theater. I set out to preserve it because I felt it was the right thing to do."

Rosenfield bought the Aero in 1997. And in 2003, the Cinematheque came on board to operate the theater.

"I talked to a lot of potential, different tenants," he said. "It was clear that the American Cinematheque and [Executive Director] Barbara Smith, especially, were knowledgeable and capable. American Cinematheque invested a lot of money and we invested a lot of money."

Retired interior designer Gera Korte had just returned to Santa Monica after living in Hawaii when the Aero opened under the supervision of the Cinematheque.

"I noticed an article in the local paper that they were looking for volunteers," said the film buff, who would always check out what was at the Aero whenever she was visiting from Hawaii.

The programming, said Korte, "is really unequaled. They show a different film every night they are open. We might have a silent movie — sometimes with a piano player even — or we have previews of current movies. We have international film weeks, documentaries, classic noirs."

Grant Moninger has also been working at the Aero for the last decade. He had just moved to Santa Monica from New York when he got a job as the Aero's assistant manager. He was quickly promoted when the manager left.

"When the programming first started they were moving programming from the Egyptian to here," said Moninger, who is now a programmer at the Aero. "You soon realized this was its own place. We have 5-year-olds and 105-year-olds. The community has such a love for it. As much as it is the American Cinematheque, to people it's always still the Aero."

Every New Year's Day, the Aero screens a Marx Brothers double bill — this year it was 1932's "Horse Feathers" and 1930's "Animal Crackers."

"It just amazing seeing 350-400 people," Moninger said. "There was nothing better than hearing a kid laughing so hard at 'Night at the Opera,' I could actually hear him on the street. There is no other repertory cinema I can think that is so family friendly."

"Jon Favreau has been a great supporter," Hammond noted. "We show 'Elf' ever year. He brings his kids to the Marx Brothers. We have parents bringing their kids to see Charlie Chaplin."

Another popular yearly offering is the dusk-to-dawn Halloween Horrorthon. "There are little skits and free candy," she said. "There are people who come from out of town just to watch the Horrorthon."

Mel Brooks, noted Moninger, "lives nearby. He just came in once because we were showing 'Young Frankenstein.' He jumped up and did an introduction. He has come 15 or 20 times since then."

And cinema buffs know that the Aero is the only place in town that starting Jan. 23 they can catch Jean-Luc Godard's latest film, "Goodbye to Language," in 3-D.

Rosenfield goes to the theater whenever he can. About six years ago, he took his oldest son, Finley, a big Eastwood fan, to see the filmmaker. His son, then 8, even took an Eastwood poster off of his bedroom wall, rolled it up and brought it to the screening.

The theater said Eastwood would meet with fans but not sign autographs, "Finley rushed right to him," said Rosenfield. "He said to him, 'What's in your hand?' Finley was speechless. Clint unrolled the poster — I don't remember what poster it was — and he said 'I hear this is a pretty good movie. Has anybody got a pen? What did you say your name was?'

"Finley and I will never forget that moment at the Aero."

susan.king@latimes.com

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