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FLICKERING REMINDERS OF MAJESTY

Times Arts Editor

In the powerful last sequence of King Vidor’s silent masterpiece “The Crowd,” Vidor’s working-class hero and heroine have endured a series of grievous afflictions: the death of a child, the loss of a job, and above all the surrender of youthful dreams of prosperity, let alone fame and fortune. Now, to get away from all their woes, they’re sitting in the balcony of one of the great movie palaces.

Vidor’s camera begins close on them as they smile and laugh at the unseen screen. The camera pulls slowly back, further and further, so that the crowd, rocking with laughter, begins to suggest a field of flowers, waving in a summer breeze. Prisms multiply the crowd until it appears to stretch to infinity.

It is as good an advertisement for themselves as the movies have ever had, and, 59 years later, the scene--ingenious, funny and very affecting--still speaks volumes about the healing and reassuring role the movies have played in the life of the world ever since they were born.

The world, the audience and the movies themselves have changed radically and drastically over their nine decades together, yet the movies still exist primarily as a restorative antidote to the street reality beyond the foyer.

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It was as if we were acting out a remake of that last scene of “The Crowd” one night last week when thousands of us filled the historic Orpheum Theater on lower Broadway and rocked with laughter amid its fading splendors.

This was the first of four evenings organized by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the city’s primary and effective private preservationist group, to celebrate the glories of four great movie palaces clustered on Broadway in the heart of a much-changed downtown.

They did know how to make theaters in those boom days of the ‘20s, vast, marble-walled wonders of bronze and gilt and ornately molded plaster, with huge chandeliers bearing heroic figures who themselves seemed to represent tales of passion and desire not rated a bit below R.

Walking majestically up those staircases (ignoring the slightly worn, torn carpet) and gazing at all the dark artistries, it was possible to feel as the first customers must have felt, like minor moguls, at least, or emirs and princesses.

The show began even before you’d got past the ticket window and, in the great days, what you saw on the screen was almost incidental to how you felt just being there.

Except that they knew how to make movies then, even before the movies had been taught how to speak.

The conservancy had put together a thrilling program: a 1926 Hearst silent newsreel to open, then Walt Disney’s first cartoon, “Puss And Boots,” made in his garage in Kansas City but already revealing Disney’s genius for sight gags and animals with winningly human capacities for mischief.

There was as well a rare Harold Lloyd short, “Billy Blazes, Esq.,” which unerringly parodied all the Westerns you might ever see (this was 1917) with wonderful jokes (Lloyd pushing a horse to its knees with the lightest of touches), amazing stunts and non-stop action.

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The piece de resistance was Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jr.” from 1928, which gets away to a slow start but builds to a cyclone sequence that is simply astonishing for its amazing and hysterically funny physical action. Even now it is impossible to know how Keaton survived the obviously dangerous things he did.

(The whole front of a building falls over him, but where he stands there was a doorway in the building, so that he escapes--by mere inches--being touched, and as the dust settles he is still standing there, deadpan and unperturbed. It is one of the most famous sequences in silent comedy, and rightly so.)

Among its attractions, the Orpheum has a mighty theater organ, lovingly restored and maintained by the local chapter of the Theater Organ Society. Gaylord Carter, still a live wire at 81, was at the console, showing off the organ’s soul-shaking powers and its chimes and orchestra effects, stirring reminders that, as Carter said, the silents were never silent. You got an earful and then some.

The Orpheum was designed by G. Albert Lansburgh in 1926 as a vaudeville house for the Orpheum Circuit. But the movies were killing vaudeville and in 1932 it became a movie house as well. Lansburgh also designed the Palace for the Orpheum Circuit in 1911, and the conservancy series, “The Last Remaining Seats,” explores the Palace on Wednesday night.

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“If only,” someone was heard to say last week, “they were on the Westside.” It’s true that first-run movie going has become centered in Westwood and that the great downtown palaces are oases on a street where late evening walking is not comfortable.

Yet what also is true is that the cities have tides, like oceans, and what the central city will be like in a quarter century is far from certain. What the conservancy fights for is the preservation of artful constructions of all sizes, so that some Tomorrow will not have to wish mournfully that it still had evidence of a vivid Yesterday.

These baroque palaces can be preserved, but they can’t be done again.


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