Laurence Austin, the owner of the only theater in America devoted solely to silent films, was fatally gunned down in an apparent robbery at his Silent Movie Showcase before the start of the night’s main feature Jan. 17. The beloved owner, believed to be in his late 60s or early 70s, had renovated the theater and reopened it about five years ago.
After the shooting Friday, the killer fled through the theater full of moviegoers and escaped out the back exit. A 19-year-old employee was seriously wounded.
Austin, whose father and uncle were silent film actors, was highly visible at the theater, where old-time stars like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin found new generations of fans.
He would stand before audiences to introduce long-lost films he helped preserve, then wait by the door to shake hands with patrons afterward.
“We’re all shaking our heads, saying, ‘This is a bad dream and it’s going to go away, isn’t it?” said Michael F. Blake, author of two books on silent screen star Lon Chaney.
The theater opened in the early 1940s, but was shuttered when owner John Hampton died more than 10 years ago. Austin, a longtime friend of Hampton, reopened it in 1991. It was believed to be the only theater in the country to show silent films exclusively. In addition to his predecessor’s collection, Austin tapped a network of archives that gave him access to films that hadn’t been seen in 80 years.
The theater will be closed indefinitely.