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Making a Dramatic Use of the Backyard

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like many Southern Californians, Marc LaFont has two favorite hobbies that don’t usually overlap--watching movies and spending time outdoors. About five years ago, the Santa Ana publicist decided to combine the two and create an outdoor entertainment center in his backyard.

What began as an informal system has mushroomed into a large movie screen and state-of-the-art projector. For the next few weekends, he is holding a private film festival for friends and neighbors, showing classics under the stars.

“In our wonderful mild climate, if you’re lucky enough to have a backyard, it only makes sense to move the entertainment system outdoors,” said LaFont, who owns the 1930 Wahl Cottage in Santa Ana’s Wilshire Square neighborhood. “After a hot day, most people would rather be outside than in a stuffy living room.”

There’s also something magical about watching movies outdoors, LaFont said.

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“When you watch a favorite movie in the backyard, it becomes a theatrical experience,” he said. “People were riveted to their seats when I showed ‘Casablanca.’ There’s something about watching a film outdoors on a big screen that makes a difference.”

A well-designed landscape also makes a difference. In LaFont’s tranquil backyard, a large lily pond is surrounded by wood decking. Guests sit on the deck and watch films on his 69-by-85-inch movie screen, which overlooks the pond.

Although many visitors bring chairs, there is also seating, including a porch swing, under a gazebo.

The block wall behind the movie screen is covered with a variety of vines that hide the system’s speakers.

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The idea for an outdoor entertainment center came in “bits and pieces,” LaFont said.

“After I put in the pond and decking in 1992, a friend who worked for an audiovisual company offered me a Sony monitor,” he said. “I decided to put it in the backyard because it was large and heavy, and the outdoors was already set up for sound.”

That winter, LaFont moved the monitor indoors and brought it out in spring. By the second winter, the monitor had become overgrown with foliage and was so well situated as a part of the garden that he didn’t want to move it. He simply threw plastic sheeting over it to protect it from the rain.

LaFont continued to show movies on the monitor until last year, when a friend found him an Eiki liquid-crystal projector at a good price. He gave away the monitor and began projecting movies onto a large white matte projection canvas.

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It’s not necessary to have an expensive screen, LaFont said. “You could paint a piece of plywood with reflective white paint or throw the image against a smooth white wall,” he said. “Another option is finding an old [home] movie screen at the thrift store.”

Although not everyone has access to a large-screen TV or can afford a liquid crystal projector (about $3,900 at the Good Guys), most people can create an outdoor entertainment system with a used TV, LaFont said.

“Any television set that has a VCR hookup can be used outside to show movies,” he said. “Put the television set [and VCR] in a waterproof casing to protect it from the weather, and it will probably work for years.”

You can enjoy years of outdoor viewing if you protect a television set from the elements, agreed Jim Palumbo, vice president of the Consumer Television Products Group for Sony Electronics Inc., which is based in Park Ridge, N.J.

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“If you protect a television set from moisture, cold and unusual amounts of dust, it should do fine outdoors,” Palumbo said. “Because the weather in Southern California is dry and mild, the environment is much more conducive to outdoor entertaining than many other parts of the country.”

Palumbo keeps a television in his garden from April to October or November. When it’s not in use, he unplugs the set and covers it with a plastic tarp like the one he uses to protect his grill.

One requirement for an outdoor entertainment center is a good sound system. LaFont has had the same outdoor speakers for 10 years, and they still work well.

For the best sound possible, LaFont suggests placing the speakers on either side of the screen at the same distance from one another and the audience.

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LaFont also recommends placing speakers so that they create a minimal amount of sound in your neighbors’ yards. His speakers are at the bottom of his wall behind the movie screen, which helps keep noise directed away from the neighbors. All of the walls surrounding his property are overgrown with ivy and other climbing plants to absorb and reflect sound.

“No one likes to hear a neighbor’s stereo wafting into the backyard on a summer evening,” LaFont said. “The same goes for a movie. If you design things well, most of the sound should remain contained in your yard, although you can always ensure that your neighbors aren’t unhappy by inviting them over.”

Another critical element of a backyard entertainment center is appropriate lighting, LaFont said. “Make sure there isn’t a street lamp shining into your backyard that will interfere with the image on the screen,” he said. “You should also be able to dim your backyard lighting.”

It shouldn’t be completely dark, however, because you don’t want guests tripping. LaFont has Malibu lighting, which is soft and not intrusive.

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It’s important to keep cords out of the way of foot traffic, said Palumbo. “Put the television set up against the wall where the plug is,” he said. “And make sure that nothing [in the area] is wet before you plug in the TV.”

Once you have a place for your television set, landscape around it, LaFont suggested.

“Even indoors, television sets aren’t the most attractive objects. It would look odd to have a TV set sitting in the middle of a table in your backyard. With a little imagination, you can blend it into the landscape.”

LaFont says that if your entertainment system will be a permanent fixture, you should away from aggressive twining plants that may overtake the screen and rigid, thorny plants that can damage equipment and make maintenance painful.

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For watering around the system, LaFont recommends soaker hoses, which will water roots and not spray equipment.

Oh, and about the movie fare: LaFont’s lineup includes “Hairspray,” “Auntie Mame,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Pillow Talk.”

“My words of advice for outdoor viewing are: No documentaries, no heavy British dramas. Keep it light. It’s like a drive-in movie. What plays best are films that don’t require a whole lot of attention.”


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