After a decade showing movie classics of the 1930s and 1940s, the Vagabond Theatre will fade out Saturday night, the latest casualty of the videocassette revolution.
Owner Tom Cooper, whose lease at 2509 Wilshire Blvd. ends this month, has scheduled “The Best of Warner Bros. Cartoons” for the Vagabond’s final two nights. Complete shows on Saturday will begin at 2, 4:45 and 7:30 p.m.
“The videocassette market has really hurt us as it has all revival theaters,” Cooper said, between phone calls to shut off utility services to the building. “The taping of old movies off television killed me.”
He’s philosophical about losing the Vagabond.
“It’s been a terrific 10 years,” he said. “I’ve had some great times and met some wonderful people. But I’ve kind of run out of ideas. I’ve shown almost every great old movie I could find, over and over, and each time the audience dwindled slightly. I feel I’ve done the best I could and now it’s time to move on.”
During his tenure, Cooper held festivals honoring various studios, and persuaded some to strike new prints of vintage films. He also held tributes for stars like Rita Hayworth, Kathryn Grayson and Esther Williams, with the honorees in attendance.
Such Hollywood luminaries as George Cukor, Francois Truffaut, Steven Spielberg and John Travolta were frequent patrons. “One of my biggest attendees was Carrie Fisher,” Cooper recalled. “Terri Garr came. So did Buddy Ebsen. Gene Kelly used to sneak in whenever we showed Buster Keaton films. Dom DeLuise used to come all the time.”
They came for such alluring double bills as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Wizard of Oz,” which Cooper offered in his first year of operation. “It was our biggest grosser. There were lines around the block for three weeks. I played it every Christmas, but even those two together don’t draw anymore.”
Another hit attraction was the restored version of “A Star Is Born” with Judy Garland two years ago. Pictures starring Eleanor Powell and Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald were especially popular. So were “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Casablanca” and “The Maltese Falcon.”
“We used to have some really big hits when we just packed them in,” Cooper said, “but we haven’t had a sellout for over a year.”
Cooper said that rising liability insurance rates also contributed to the Vagabond’s demise. Violence at other theaters, he said, particularly drive-ins, has driven up the number and size of legal settlements. His coverage for 1986 would have been $9,000. “That’s a lot of money for a little dinky theater that’s never had any problems. But they lump all of us together. It’s not fair, but how can you fight it?”
A pop singer who has recorded three albums, Cooper is currently producing and hosting 10 pilot segments of a television show called “Hollywood Interviews,” which he hopes to syndicate. Although more contemporary celebrities like Janet Leigh and Mel Torme have been among his guests, he seemed especially proud of interviewing Joan Leslie, a Warner Bros. star of the 1940s.
“She was the leading lady in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ opposite James Cagney,” said Cooper, always the die-hard film buff. “She was in ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’ Don’t you remember?”