Film House Revives Only to Face a New Cloud Over Future

Times Staff Writer

The marquee still advertises "Trial on the Road," the film being shown six months ago before health officials closed the ornate old Fox International Theater in Venice.

"Call it wishful thinking," said Rafigh Pooya, the manager, as to why he decided to leave the marquee intact.

However, the future of the movie house that in recent years had become an important venue in Los Angeles for first-run international films is anything but certain.

Although old picture palaces are steadily disappearing against stiff competition from multiplex cinemas and home videocassettes, something else is behind the Fox's closing.

'Dragging Their Feet'

Cited as a health hazard, the Fox remains shut by order of the Health Department. Pooya, who charges that the owners of the 36-year-old theater have violated his lease by "dragging their feet" in making repairs, has threatened to sue.

"You put your blood, sweat and tears into a place like this, and then it starts to take off; you're doing great, and this happens. It's hard to swallow," he said.

The theater was closed in June after health inspectors, tipped off by an "anonymous complaint," found that samples of the soundproofing material on the walls and ceiling contained large quantities of amacite, one of the more hazardous forms of asbestos.

"There were fibers covering the theater from floor to ceiling," said Cole Landowski, a hazardous materials specialist. "Obviously, none of the people who have gone to the movies there all these years had a clue as to what any of it was."

Since the theater was closed, a leaky roof has left huge puddles in the once-stately auditorium. Globs of asbestos the size of hand towels cover the seats.

Albinas Markevicius, a Santa Monica real estate developer who is one of the building's several owners, said the owners are doing all they can to repair the theater. "We've had 10 different bids taken, and these things take time," he said.

He and Pooya have been arguing about the future of the theater for months.

"It doesn't take six months to take bids for a job that can be done in a few short weeks," Pooya said.

"They're trying to starve us out. They think they can get a lot more money for the building if we were to leave and they could either turn it into a commercial center or tear it down and put up a Burger King."

Pooya shunned tradition four years ago by converting what had been a sagging revival theater into something of an oasis for foreign films and more esoteric independent-studio releases.

Landmark Theater Corp., with a string of movie houses nationwide specializing in classic and cult films, was the latest of several companies whose efforts to operate the Fox failed.

Magnet for Transients

The commercial district around the theater had lost its luster, becoming a magnet for transients and driving moviegoers elsewhere. Landmark had stopped showing films there by the time Pooya first saw the theater in 1983.

After setting up his own distribution company, Pooya scoured Europe and much of the Third World to obtain exclusive rights to the sort of high-quality art films that are seldom distributed in the United States.

To showcase them, he purchased from Landmark the remaining five years of a 20-year lease, enabling his company, International Home Cinema, to rent the Fox for $1,600 a month.

"It was an extremely low amount, but it cost more than $100,000 just to obtain the lease, and I've easily spent another $200,000 improving the theater, and getting my distribution company off the ground," he said.

The lease, which expires in April, was being renegotiated when the asbestos was discovered.

"No matter how things turn out," Markevicius said, "the asbestos problem will have to be dealt with. That has never been a question."

The owners have never considered tearing down the theater, he said.

"That doesn't mean we've ruled out the possibility of the theater being used for another purpose. There are a thousand and one things you can do with a building like that."

The prospect of the Fox joining the roster of vanished theaters causes longtime patrons to shudder.

"The Fox isn't just any grand old theater, it's a landmark in the Venice community," said Harriet Robbins, who lives nearby. "For a long time it had become a sort of smelly place, not the kind of place you would want to hang around, but when the atmosphere changed, it brightened the whole neighborhood."

She is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., which last year presented Pooya with an award for his "venturesome film programming," only the second time in 25 years such an award has been given.

"I think many people who love foreign films would like to see something resolved so that Rafigh could keep it," said Teshome Gabriel, who teaches cinema at UCLA.

"It was really a one-of-a-kind house," he said. "Whereas other theaters are interested in the spectacle--the foreign film with commercial potential in this country--he concentrated on those films that are important in their own countries, which makes what the Fox offered unique."

Others were attracted to what they called "the family atmosphere" at the theater.

Pooya had added a lobby cafe, where film buffs and film makers could mingle over cappuccino before and after screenings .

"Many times, a film maker would show up and discuss his film after the screening," said Max B. Miller of Studio City.

"People would gather round and slowly the discussion would move into the lobby, then into the restaurant. Sometimes it would go into the wee hours. No other theater I know could offer that."

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