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Not just the silent treatment on Fairfax

Times Staff Writer

The Silent Movie Theatre is getting a new voice. After decades of near-exclusive devotion to the pre-talkie era, the theater is being sold to two brothers who plan to add more modern revival fare to the bill.

Charlie Lustman, who bought the shuttered building in 1999, is selling the business to Dan and Sammy Harkham in a deal expected to close at the end of the month. Lustman’s last silent picture show as proprietor will be the Charlie Chaplin classic “The Kid,” running Friday through Sunday.

Though Lustman will come back to present other silents, he’s handing the reins to the Harkhams, who until a few months ago had only dreamed of owning a revival house.

“It’s every movie nerd’s dream,” said Sammy Harkham, 26, a cartoonist who will be in charge of programming. His 24-year-old brother, Dan, who will manage the business, is just as excited. “It’s like two kids buying Disneyland,” he said.

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They will be the fourth owners of the little theater on Fairfax Avenue in its 64-year history.

The Silent Movie Theatre was an anachronism when it was built in 1942 -- 15 years after the advent of talking motion pictures. But its founder, John Hampton, was smitten by silents at an early age, and his passion was undying. He projected movies in the living room as a kid, and later worked in theaters and painted movie posters. After he married, he and his wife, Dorothy, barnstormed theaterless towns in Oklahoma showing movies in rented halls and tents.

Asthma drove him out of dustbowl Oklahoma, and he began looking for a place to build a permanent shrine to silent film. He built his 150-seat Old Time Movie theater on Fairfax Avenue. Hampton would spin old records like a DJ to provide a soundtrack, while Dorothy collected the 5- and 10-cent tickets. They lived in a small apartment above the lobby.

In addition to running the theater, Hampton collected and restored silent films, which were shot on highly flammable nitrate film stock. Film scholars estimate that 90% of silent movies have been lost -- thrown away, burned in vault fires, degraded into dust -- and Hampton amassed a collection of considerable value.

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The theater closed after a death in the family in 1979, and then Hampton’s own health began failing and it didn’t reopen. He sold half his films to collector David Packard to pay for medical treatment. Hampton died of cancer in 1990.

Lawrence Austin, who was a teen in the neighborhood when Old Time Movie opened, persuaded the widowed Dorothy Hampton to let him reopen in 1991 as the Silent Movie Theatre. He refurbished the building -- notably adding new seats and a gold lame curtain -- but is thought to have sold off parts of the Hamptons’ collection of posters, lobby cards and even films to finance the enterprise. Eventually, he got Dorothy Hampton, who was living in an adjacent nursing home, to sign the deed of the theater over to him -- a move that was legally contested later.

The theater closed again -- and it seemed for good -- in 1997 after a shooting in the lobby that left Austin dead and a concessionaire wounded. In the coming months, police discovered that the gunman had been hired for $25,000 by James Van Sickle, who worked at the theater and lived with Austin, on and off, in the Hamptons’ old apartment. Van Sickle, who claimed Austin had willed him the theater, and the shooter are both serving life sentences.

Old-time glamour

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Lustman, a singer-songwriter who’d been living overseas, knew nothing about the murder or silent movies before buying the theater in 1999. He was looking for space to create an artists colony -- with a recording studio -- but soon got swept up in the idea of rebuilding the Silent Movie Theatre.

His mother bought the building and he signed a 20-year lease. By the time they finished an extensive remodel, the two were hardly speaking, but the theater had never looked better. The apartment became a little cafe. The auditorium walls were lined with golden velvet and framed portraits of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow and others. Out front, a brand-new neon marquee announced the first film, Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.”

Nearly seven years later, the Silent Movie Theatre doesn’t look to have aged much. Lustman points out the subtle changes since then: He reconfigured the projection booth, added a dressing room, took down Harry Landon’s portrait and put up one of Greta Garbo. Lustman is still an enthusiastic storyteller, despite having lost a portion of his upper jaw to a rare form of bone cancer this spring. A temporary prosthetic gives him a slight lisp -- “I sound like Al Pacino in ‘Scarface,’ ” he joked -- but hardly slows him in recounting the near-disaster that was opening night in 1999.

“Modern Times” has a recorded musical soundtrack but as the opening credits rolled, there was no overture. The sound system had failed. So Lustman ran down the aisle, tapped the arm of pianist Rick Friend and begged him to play.

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“Boom! The room came alive,” Lustman recalled. “Someone from the Chaplin estate was there, and she was outraged because the film is never supposed to be done with live music. That’s Chaplin’s score. Me, I was happy. Thank God there was a show.”

That was when the silent picture show idea coalesced for Lustman. “That’s what I lived by all these years: Live music to picture.”

His choices, like Hampton’s, were conservative -- most often the crowd-pleasing comedies. Showings were too mainstream for some critics, and too infrequent for others. Over the years, he scaled back from six nights a week to four, then more sporadically. In the last few years, he’s done the show -- nearly always comedies -- on eight holiday weekends a year.

Running silent movies, it turns out, was a break-even business in the 21st century.

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But throwing private parties in a one-of-a-kind movie house? That was a highly profitable enterprise. Weddings. Bar mitzvahs. Wrap parties. He even did a private screening as a date for Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis. Lustman can also rattle off the musicians -- Alanis Morissette, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, David Bowie, Aqualung -- who’ve been in the house for release parties.

Lustman, now 41, married and expecting a second child in September, started working on his own music again in 2002 and recorded an album he’ll self-release in July. To rededicate himself to music, he decided he needed to find a new owner for the Silent Movie Theatre.

“It’s hard to sell it,” Lustman said. “But because I’m a control freak -- I don’t know a nicer way to put it -- I care too much about what’s going on here. Either I’m in control or I have to cut myself off. I can’t be in the middle, or just place managers and go on my way.”

He believes he’s found the right buyers. “I really trust these guys,” he said.

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The Harkhams had never been inside the theater before touring it as potential buyers. But they seem as smitten by the place -- and the idea of it -- as Lustman was.

“We’re not changing a thing,” said Dan Harkham. “The paint color is going to stay the same.”

Well, a few things will change. They’ll need a wider screen and a sound system suitable for modern films.

Eclectic programming

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Sammy Harkham, who edits the comic anthology “Kramers Ergot” as well as creating his own books, is sketching out what’s to come. Their first weekend of eclectic programming will be Aug. 17-20, with Monte Hellman’s “Two-Lane Blacktop” (1971), “Straight Time” (1978), midnight screenings of the horror film “Basket Case” (1982) and a Sunday matinee of the silent Danish horror film “Haxan” (1922). Then, Sammy Harkham said, he’d like to get an uncut version of Ken Russell’s “The Devils” (1971) for Labor Day weekend, maybe pair it with “Women in Love” (1969) and “La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” (1928).

Enough private events are booked through the end of 2006 to keep the mortgage paid, so they have an opportunity to take some chances on movies.

“I’m not interested in making another Cinematheque or New Beverly. Those already exist, and I don’t want to compete with those places,” Sammy Harkham said. “You think, ‘What am I going to contribute to L.A.? To the moviegoing world?’ ”

Dan Harkham, whose day job is managing real estate and construction projects, is suddenly obsessed with silent films. He’s dying to run “The Man With a Movie Camera” (1929) by Eastern European director Dziga Vertov. It’s like watching a silent David Lynch movie, he said.

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Something like that may show up on a Monday night, when they plan to run silent movies (with live music) every week starting Aug. 21. Sammy Harkham hopes there will be an audience then for such lesser-known films.

“My feeling is that if people are coming out on a Monday, they’re there to see silent films, not just Chaplin,” he said.

Lustman isn’t abandoning the silent picture business altogether either. He’s finishing up a book called “The Story of the Silent Movie Theatre: Romance, Murder, Revival” that recounts the venue’s history primarily through photos. He plans to self-publish it in November and take a silent picture show on the road to promote it.

On Fairfax Avenue, meantime, the Harkhams will be doing the balancing act. Can they afford to give up private-event income two weekends a month? More?

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“At the very, very least, there will be a weekend every month,” said Dan Harkham. “And there will always be two people sitting in that theater -- me and him.”


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