Fighting a Fade-Out : Haven for Long Beach Film Buffs Struggles to Survive in Cable, Video Era

Times Staff Writer

By anybody's standards, the place is unspectacular.

A grubby theater front in an older part of town. A single ticket window with an apartment building on one side and a vacant bank on the other.

To Howard Linn, however, it is a livelihood, a service and a calling. And in an area far from the fertile cinematic grounds of Los Angeles, it is a familiar institution with a devoted following.

For 60 years the Art Theater on 4th Street near Cherry Avenue has served celluloid offerings to satisfy a variety of tastes. For the past 12 years it has specialized in foreign films, cult films and classics, offering thematic double bills that change every third day.

Owner Linn describes it as a specialized theater for film buffs such as himself. It is one of a handful in Southern California and the only one of its kind in Long Beach. "There's a certain chemistry," said Linn.

But not all is well at this bastion of eclectic tastes. In the foyer, displayed prominently along with announcements of upcoming attractions, is a poster containing the blowup of a newspaper article. Its subject: the recent closing of an independent theater in East Hollywood because of poor attendance. The hypothetical question posed on the poster: Can This Happen Here?

'An Endangered Species'

"We're an endangered species," Linn said of the Art and other theaters like it.

Though always a "film enthusiast," Lynn, 57, was an industrial trainer by profession. He came to California from New York in 1956, founded a film society in Los Angeles and later directed the Long Beach Film Society based at Cal State Long Beach.

In 1970 he was laid off from his job as a systems analyst. After a few years of professional drifting, including a short stint as owner of a record shop, he decided to take a step toward his lifelong dream of owning a chain of art movie houses by purchasing the Art Theater in 1973.

He began by changing everything. Instead of continuing the new releases the theater had shown since 1925, when it opened as a silent movie house complete with orchestra pit and pipe organ, Linn began showing the foreign and non-American English-language films for which he had long held a passion.

Within a few months he had broadened the fare to roughly its current mix: about 40% foreign, 15% cult and 15% classic films. The balance, he said, consists of recent releases with relatively short commercial runs that he finds of particular interest or merit.

Recent offerings include the 1979 Australian film "The Last Wave," the 1973 French comedy "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe," a collection of acclaimed Alfred Hitchcock movies, the Humphrey Bogart classics "The African Queen" and "Casablanca" and such cult fare as "Harold and Maude" and "King of Hearts."

Occasionally, he said, the theater screens "off-the-wall" movies featuring 3-D or other special effects. And last year, said Linn, he bought an organ for an authentic revival of the silent movies that gave the theater its start.

Because he and his wife, Florence, work full time at the theater, Linn said, he can keep afloat and even pay a few employees. From 1978 to 1983, in fact, business was booming: Sellouts were not uncommon and on warm summer nights an average of 350 people showed up at the Art.

Then things began to change. In the last two years, said Linn, the theater has experienced a 15% decline in summer attendance and a 30% reduction during the rest of the year. A recent midweek screening of a Humphrey Bogart movie attracted an audience of about 100.

'In a New Phase'

Linn attributes the decline to two factors: the advent of cable television, which features many of the same films his theater does, and the proliferation of videocassette recorders and commercially produced videotapes.

"We're in a new phase now," he said. For the first time in the theater's history, virtually all of its offerings are available on tape. Although more traditional theaters have also been affected by the video revolution, he said, the availability of first-run movies recorded for home use is more limited and therefore the effect is less dramatic.

"How long can you expect people to pay for a theater when they can see the same thing at home for 49 cents?" Linn asked rhetorically.

But some of his customers say it isn't at all the same.

"There's something about the atmosphere of an old theater," said Steve Meckna, 24, a student at Cal State Long Beach. "It's a neat experience coming out to a movie with your friends--better than sitting at home."

Others view the incursion of video as a serious threat to their life styles. "I would have to find another theater" if this one closed, said F. X. McDonald, 56, a real estate investor who said he comes to the Art two or three times a week to enjoy the "unusual films" it shows.

Added Joel Weinberg, 33, a talent promoter and aspiring film producer: "Having a place like this is important to society because it independently stands against mainstream commercialism and offers people thought-provoking, meaningful art and entertainment."

Audience Reaction Mixed

Linn keeps his spirits up by screening the kinds of films he says he enjoys himself. About 20% of the fare, he said, consists of old standbys shown annually, much to the delight of his regulars. Audience reaction, he said, is mixed, with no particular type of film dominating. And though he has considered tampering with his format, he has no intentions of closing.

"I've invested a lot of work, sweat and pride," Linn said. "There's a lot of me in this theater."

But he wishes the cultural community of Long Beach would give more recognition to the "public service" he believes he performs and that film aficionados would realize theaters like his are not necessarily permanent fixtures on the landscape. "There're so few of us now that if they don't support us, we'll disappear," Linn said.

Still, he sees some hope in the type of audience he does attract--a generally youthful crowd, ages 25 to 35. Present at the "Casablanca" screening, in fact, were some even younger people experiencing a Bogart movie for the first time.

"I had never seen the movie, but I knew all the famous lines," said Johanna Silverthorne, 14, of Los Alamitos.

Added 19-year-old Tricia Krause, who said it was her first visit to the Art: "If this had been on TV I probably would have changed the channel. I guess as you get older you get more into culture."

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