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A man’s theater is his palace

As I was leaving the Crest Theater the other night, I bumped into a woman strolling down Westwood Boulevard who had just seen “Phone Booth” there. “Wasn’t that a nice man taking tickets at the front door?” she asked. “Someone should tell the owner how friendly he is. It makes you feel right at home.” “Actually,” I told her, “he is the owner.”

“Really?” she asked. “How many theater owners take the tickets themselves?”

Robert Bucksbaum does. He also changes projector bulbs, sweeps up after the show, loads film reels on a platter, hosts promotional giveaways at his weekend showings, makes cotton candy and modestly considers himself the Nigela Lawson of popcorn-popping (the trick is to add the melted butter halfway through filling the bag, for maximum sensory, finger-licking effect). One day when we were on the phone, Bucksbaum apologized for having to put me on hold. “Our manager had to leave for an emergency,” he explained. “So I’m up in the booth, threading the movie into the projector for the 5:30 show.”

A lifelong fan of movies who’s made his living running a box office data firm called ReelSource, Bucksbaum, 41, always had a hankering to own a movie theater. Born and raised in a small town in Pennsylvania, he used to spend all day watching movies at the local theater. After a four-year stint in the Army -- he was a paratrooper and served in Army intelligence -- he moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s; his first job was working as an usher at the Pantages Theater. In 2000, after making ReelSource into a successful business, he spent $150,000 to buy the Empire, a ramshackle 225-seat theater in Wofford, Calif., that he’d spotted on a fly-fishing trip to the Sierra. The theater needed work: The previous owner had only one functioning projector, so audiences were treated to a three-minute intermission every time he changed reels.

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Bucksbaum still makes a weekly 2 1/2-hour drive to the theater, now called the Reel Cinema, to oversee its operations. But his true love is the Crest, which was built in 1941 as a legitimate theater by Henry Fonda’s second wife, Frances Seymour Brokaw. Bucksbaum, who lives five minutes from the theater with his wife and two young sons, has always viewed the theater as a living reminder of Hollywood’s glory days. When he heard last year that the Crest was for sale and might be converted into a swap meet, he jumped at the chance, paying $3.2 million -- his life savings -- for the theater, which he’s been operating since Jan. 1.

If you told your financial planner you were buying a 60-year-old single-screen movie theater, he’d send for the paramedics. But for Bucksbaum, the investment makes perfect karmic sense. His favorite modern-day movie is “The Majestic,” the Jim Carrey drama about a man who loses his memory and ends up running a small-town movie theater. As Bucksbaum jokes with his friends: “The guy in that movie lost his memory, but I lost my mind.”

Tall and fair-haired, Bucksbaum has the guileless air of a 1930s-era Jimmy Stewart -- he’s the small-town guy scrambling to outwit the big-city slickers. “When I told my wife what I did, she thought I was insane,” he admits. “But I can’t tell you how much I’ve gotten back from people who appreciate the experience of coming to our theater. Even if the Crest is successful, I’ll be in debt for the rest of my life, but to me, a single-screen theater is like fine dining instead of going to the McDonald’s multiplex, where you’re treated like a flock of sheep. So I’m going to try to make it work.

A hallowed tradition

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Bucksbaum may seem like a quixotic character, but back in the day, it wasn’t unusual for people who loved film to run movie theaters. My grandfather opened his first movie theater in Miami during the Depression, and even in his old age he could remember every hit movie he’d booked and how long it had played in his theaters. My ex-wife’s father, who owned theaters here, loved to walk me around the ancient movie palaces of downtown L.A., recalling which theaters had played MGM musicals and which ones had played Warner Bros. gangster movies.

Times have changed. In the 1960s and 1970s, before movies opened on thousands of screens on the same weekend, Westwood was a mecca for local moviegoers. But the neighborhood has lost much of its luster. After several gang shootings in the 1980s, theater business plummeted. Then came the invasion of the multiplexes, followed by a massive theater build up on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade and, most recently, by the arrival of the Grove at Farmers Market, reportedly the top-grossing theater complex in the country.

Bucksbaum’s biggest challenge as one of the last independent theater owners in Los Angeles is getting access to top new movies. Warner Bros. and Paramount own the Mann chain, which operates most of Westwood’s high-profile theaters, including the Bruin and the Village. Their films go to Mann, as do most films from 20th Century Fox. Universal and MGM have deals with AMC Cinemas to play their top films at the Avco multiplex. Sony also gives its best films to the AMC and Mann theaters. Bucksbaum’s one reliable supplier is Disney, which spent millions refurbishing the Crest in the late 1980s, giving it a distinctive Art Deco look, with scenes of Hollywood landmarks and a ceiling that lights up with a sky full of stars.

Disney never owned the theater. It simply made a deal with Pacific Theaters, which operated the Crest, that Disney would always have first access to the theater. To recoup its investment, Disney took a cut of the proceeds. The relationship was dissolved last year. Bucksbaum has been lucky so far. In early February, “The Recruit” did $19,062 in its opening weekend, more than it made at the El Capitan. That put the Crest on the map.

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“When I told Disney the numbers, they didn’t believe me,” Bucksbaum recalls. “After that I had meetings with the distribution people at Sony, Fox and Miramax. It really got their attention.”

Still, with most of the studios tied into long-term relationships with competing theaters, Bucksbaum will have to hustle to survive. He’s at a huge competitive disadvantage. Because Fox’s “Phone Booth” had a good opening weekend, the studio wants him to hold the film over past its initial two-week run. But if he does, he can’t open Disney’s “Holes” this weekend. If Bucksbaum had a multiplex, he could move “Phone Booth” to another screen. “I’m like a guppy in a shark tank,” he says. “I’ve got both sides saying to me, ‘You can’t be friends to everybody, you’ve got to choose.’ ”

Bookings are hardly Bucksbaum’s only challenge. Theaters make much of their money on concessions, but the Crest’s Westwood patrons are -- how do I put this nicely? -- fanatically health conscious. Bucksbaum has a popcorn machine that makes both regular and kettle corn, but the sweetened kettle corn is a tough sell (oh, the calories!) as are chocolate bars, cotton candy and gummy bears. “The yoga place next door does more business than I do,” he grumbles. (Maybe he could team up with Whole Foods, which just opened a branch in a former multiplex a few blocks away, to offer organic snacks.)

Having a movie theater is a great way to keep tabs on filmgoer tastes, allowing Bucksbaum to gather information that’s useful for his other business, which provides theater owners with market data on upcoming movies. Bucksbaum gives away promo items at weekend night screenings, everything from a “Rugrats Go Wild” piggy bank to a “Terminator 3" baseball cap. Between giveaways, Bucksbaum asks moviegoers such questions as which film they most want to see, “The Matrix Reloaded” or “X2.” (“Matrix” was an easy winner.)

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Bucksbaum’s patrons appreciate the family-style atmosphere. The owner is diligent about having Andrea Dean, his young box-office cashier, card kids trying to sneak into R-rated films. The staff is unfailingly loyal -- and unusually close. “Mihai [Michalch], my manager, asked if he could have a day off because he was getting married,” Bucksbaum explains. “And I said, ‘That’s great. You know, Andrea is getting married too.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, to me!’ ” That night, Bucksbaum announced their nuptials during his promotional giveaway, prompting a round of applause from the audience. “They worked the next day,” he says proudly. “They spent their honeymoon here.”

As the theater begins to fill up on a recent weekend evening, Bucksbaum greets each patron, “Welcome to the Crest. Please save your ticket stub, we’re having a giveaway before the film begins.” When two young women arrive, Bucksbaum tells them to keep their ticket stubs. One of them gives her girlfriend a playful poke in the ribs. “Geez,” she giggles. “You think you could give away a man?”

When Andrea gets overwhelmed at the ticket window, Bucksbaum hurries over to help out, leaving me to tear tickets and welcome customers. Seeing the gleam of anticipation in everyone’s eyes as they enter the theater, I understand why someone could shell out a small fortune to buy a movie theater. If you love film, seeing people cross the threshold on a Saturday night, hopes high as they head into the dark, offers an exhilarating rush that lasts long after the movie is finished and the stale popcorn on the floor is swept away.

“The Big Picture” runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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