Cinephiles in slippers

Special to The Times

Harold Bronson was so intent on having a home theater, he studied photos in magazines, checked out ads, put his imagination to work. But he didn't have a room that was workable in his Westwood house, and none of the designs he saw provoked him to build a new one. He just kept dreaming and hoping — for years.

And then one day, about a decade into his quest, he saw a picture of a home theater designed by Theo Kalomirakis. "It was obvious to me right away that it was what I wanted," says Bronson, co-founder of L.A.'s Rhino Records. "Finally, I was motivated — I had to have this room."

The New York-based, Greek-born Kalomirakis is used to that kind of aha! moment from clients, who number more than 300, live as far away as Australia and Saudi Arabia, and range from movie stars to Midwest businessmen to heads of state. He's been hired by novelist Dean Koontz, Roger Ebert, Eddie Murphy, Marc Anthony, Damon Dash, Russell Simmons, Cal Ripken Jr., Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Chili Davis and the president of Ukraine. Those are just a few of the ones he can remember off the top of his head, or disclose.

He's not nearly as interested in dropping big names as he is in talking about the architectural details of each theater and the history of great movie palaces, the grand spaces that inspired the profession he began with no formal training in the late '80s and has led to two Abrams books — "Theo Kalomirakis' Private Theaters" by Brett Anderson and Steven Castle's just-published "Great Escapes: New Designs for Home Theaters by Theo Kalomirakis."

Back in the '20s and '30s, Kalomirakis says, "a movie was a destination, an event. Going to a movie theater was like entering a different world — even before the film began on the screen we were transported to someplace magical, different, exotic."

Despite the rise of multiplex chains in shopping malls, more and more movie lovers, Kalomirakis says, crave the glamour and heightened reality of that old-time theatergoing experience. He is happy to accommodate them.

Most of his home theaters include a marquee ("It's like the eyebrows on the face. Shave them and something important is missing"), box office, entry lobby, main lobby, grand foyer, concession stand, powder room and, of course, the auditorium with its proscenium arch. Occasionally a smoking lounge too. And balconies — Koontz has nine.

"Theaters are not about slapping nice-looking fabrics on walls. You need to make the environment come alive with the architecture. It is the whole definition of the space, the aisles, the stairs to the mezzanine, the kind of memories of old movie palaces that have become part our architectural vocabulary. That's what I try to instill in my work, the echo of the grand spaces that were meant to dazzle the senses before the movie began."

A lifelong movie buff, Kalomirakis custom designs theaters that expertly address the homeowners' personalities and needs, while providing them a nostalgic space.

"Everybody's trying to capture a little bit of their past," Kalomirakis says. "For example, many clients want to bring back memories of their first romantic movie dates with their spouse."

Koontz and his wife, Gerda (his high school sweetheart), named their theater the Moonlight after their hometown drive-in in Bedford, Pa. In creating their 2,000-square-foot theater, Kalomirakis took into account — as he always does — the architecture of the house, which overlooks the Pacific. He describes it as Art Deco, but styled after Frank Lloyd Wright. Kalomirakis took cues from Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., with entry to each space of the theater occurring in a series of right turns.

"This is by far the most technologically advanced theater I've done on the West Coast," says Kalomirakis. "Actually, Bill Anderson of Genesis Audio did the technology. It has a real movie-sized screen and digital projection."

When not working on yet another best-selling suspense novel, Koontz likes to relax in the Moonlight, watching classic screwball comedies.

"The floor isn't sticky," he quips, "the popcorn is fresh. No one sits behind us and talks. We haven't caught colds from the explosive sneezes of fellow moviegoers. Our dog can come in the theater with us. We can have wine with the movie — and considering the quality of many recent films, a lot of them can be endured only with wine."

Stephen Tygh, owner of a semiconductor business, not only enjoys watching movies with his 12-year-old actor son, Jordan, in his Kalomirakis-designed underground theater in Laguna Beach, but he and his wife, Marie, also like to entertain guests there — often holding theme parties.

The theater, called the Cinemarié, has been the backdrop for parties celebrating the Academy Awards, the Super Bowl and the last episode of "Seinfeld." The stage has also served as a rehearsal and performing space for Jordan, who has appeared on a recent episode of "The Guardian," in several local indie films and a Coke commercial.

The subterranean space was dug into the hills, "beyond basement," says Kalomirakis, "probably two levels below ground level. I think it's the deepest-located theater that was ever done." It has the requisite marquee — "the prelude to the theater, like an overture to an opera" — a formal foyer and two vestibules that lead into the main auditorium.

So far, Kalomirakis has designed "about 40 or 50" theaters in California, the most in any one place, he says. The price tag varies considerably. He's currently doing one for two L.A. producers that will be less than $35,000, but he's also doing one on a private island outside Antigua for $2 million.

The average, he says, is "$350 a square foot, soup to nuts. The misconception is because it's a theater and it looks fancy, it will cost three times more than what it would to do any other room in the house." Kalomirakis claims building a theater isn't any different from renovating a kitchen or bathroom: "Some people don't have mega-budgets, but they don't have to spend an enormous amount of money."

You may not have the space for a theater, but the technology is there.

"It's much easier to do a very fancy theater and pay less than it used to be five years ago," Kalomirakis says. "We have DLP [digital light processing] projectors now — a light processor that gives you phenomenal brightness at a fraction of what a similar projector used to cost. You can get it for about $10,000. There are also packages of surround-sound systems that you can get from anywhere from $5,000 to $30,000. So you can get picture quality and sound that equals that of the best theaters for under $40,000."

Ultimately Bronson expanded an existing room in his house so he could have an exact replica of the exquisite Art Deco theater Kalomirakis designed to be displayed at Disney's Epcot center — the one he'd seen in the photo — complete with dramatic columns, fiber-optic lighting, plush seating and a romantic "star-field" ceiling.

"I'm not only satisfied but I'm thrilled," Bronson says. "It's an amazing experience for people who enjoy movies because it engulfs you, making you feel special. In my opinion, Theo Kalomirakis is the best there is."

Kalomirakis, 45, is excitable, eloquent and jaunty. His zeal stems from his passion. "Theo is obsessed with his work," Koontz observes. Indeed, Kalomirakis knows his stuff and likes talking about it.

"As I work, I get excited about a potential plan and when I get excited, clients get excited. It's contagious! They see me catching fire and they say 'I'm in good hands. Theo will come up with something I like.' " His greatest talent, he insists, is this: "I steal best." In other words, he takes bits and pieces of a particular culture and synthesizes them into a new entity.

"To me, to try and reinvent an Art Deco grill or a classical column capital would not only be unnecessary, it would be sacrilegious," he says. "You don't capture the essence of an era or a particular architectural style by reinventing the wheel. You capture it by understanding the elements that make each particular culture what it is."

Kalomirakis saw his first movie, a revival of "Show Boat" with Ava Gardner, when he was a young boy in Athens. From that point on, he was movie struck.

"Aside from being entranced by the movie, I was captivated by what I saw around me — the elaborate columns on either side of the screen — to me what was on the screen was tied to the vessel that contained it."

The seeds for designing theaters were planted. His first screenings were on his parents' terrace in Athens. He put up a bed sheet as a screen and showed friends 16-millimeter films he'd checked out of the library. "John Wayne with the backdrop of the Acropolis," he recalls, smiling.

Eventually Kalomirakis tried his hand at making movies in Europe, and a number of his short films were shown at the Cannes and New York film festivals. He won a scholarship to NYU, where he earned a master's degree in film and TV.

"I got the Directors Guild of America award for best student script. So I filmed it. But what came out of that script was a horror. I said, 'I shouldn't be allowed behind a lens again.' " So he became a film critic for Greek American newspapers, then an art director at Time Warner and a magazine designer for Malcolm Forbes.

In the early '80s "video" was becoming the hot word. Struggling as a designer, Kalomirakis couldn't afford to buy his first VCR until 1985. A year later he came up with the idea of creating a personal space exclusively dedicated to showing movies.

"My idea was to put a theater in the basement of my Brooklyn brownstone," he says. "It was three rows of chairs, which I bought from an old off-Broadway theater that was being demolished. I paid $1 apiece. It took me months to get the chewing gum off the bottom of the seats. Then I had to learn how to upholster them because they were Naugahyde and I wanted red velvet."

So novel was the home theater concept, the New York Times ran a story on his clever little cubbyhole that, he recalls, "was done with a little bit of imagination and a lot of saliva." A week later, USA Today did its own piece. Then followed "Entertainment Tonight." Regional publications — about 200 of them — picked up the story.

"The phone never stopped ringing," he says, "people from everywhere wanting me to design for them. But I wasn't an architect, and it scared me to think of doing such a thing. Then one day Malcolm called me into his office. 'Opportunity knocks at your door, and you're deaf. Do it,' he told me." In 1988, Kalomirakis left the magazine world behind.

His first client was Ron Lauder, son of Estée, who was running for mayor of New York. "He came to my house in a limo, like a Mafia funeral, and decided he wanted the same thing in his house in Southampton." But Kalomirakis didn't want to repeat himself — a credo he adheres to even now.

Kalomirakis is expanding his horizons, designing for clients who want to integrate other entertainment rooms with the home theater. So the theme will spread out, incorporating bowling alleys, wine cellars and game rooms. For one client, he is designing an enormous replica of the public square in Sienna, Italy, which, along with a theater, will include a jazz club, smoking rooms, a restaurant, an arcade filled with antique games and a variety of small stores.

"This opens the door to a whole new way of defining entertainment areas," Kalomirakis says, catching fire again, excited at the thought of designing and redesigning a village in France, a Caribbean marketplace, or anywhere the desire of his clients, and his imagination, take him.

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World