Nation’s only silent cinema reopens

Lustman gathers investors to bring back a landmark

HOLLYWOOD – After the 1997 murder of owner Laurence Austin, Los Angeles’ Silent Movie Theatre — the only cinema in the U.S. dedicated to silents — seemed doomed to become either a Persian carpet store or a parking lot.

But 34-year-old folksongwriter Charlie Lustman, who “had driven by (the theater) thousands of times like everyone else, but never went in,” persuaded a group of private investors (who wish to remain anonymous) to plunk down approximately $650,000, rescuing the theater from retail oblivion.

Five months later, Lustman, who shelled out about $100,000 on his own on credit cards, has crafted a happier ending for the theater, which reopened Nov. 5.

“I just wanted to do something different,” Lustman says. “I literally went for a falafel on Fairfax and saw the ‘for sale’ sign and thought, ‘Silent movies — I’ve never seen one before.’ ”

Lustman became disturbed by the empty, deserted building and decided it was about time to do his good deed for the day.

“You know, someone was murdered here, and I hope that doesn’t put you out,” warned the Fred Sands Realtor. “Whoever buys this is in for more than they bargained for.”

After a quick history lesson from the Fred Sands rep, Lustman learned that three years ago, Austinwas gunned down inside the theater by a hit man hired by Austin’s estranged lover.

But ignoring the Realtor (not to mention his own family and friends), Lustman put in 100-hour weeks readying the theater for next month’s public unveiling.

Eerie, unexplainable setbacks have slowed the renovation efforts. “The phone lines have been going wacky — people hear busy signals even though we have both voice mail and call waiting … and Pac Bell insists nothing’s wrong with the lines,” Lustman says.

Also curious, “we have brand-new iMacs that just blank out with never any error messages.” In fact, Lustman whispers, “we had a little seance here for Larry last week.”

Although he realizes he has zero management experience and has by now “watched maybe a few silent films on TV,” Lustman is confident that “the good people I have working for me and my four months of intensive studying will make the theater a success.”

Improving the theater’s acoustics and upgrading all the equipment, including installing a new screen and a 1938 vintage projector, Lustman is confident that “if you build it, people will come.”

Already, one celeb wants to throw a birthday bash at the theater and “someone even mentioned wanting to get married here,” Lustman marvels.

Since “(Austin) never sold concessions and opened the theater just three days a week,” Lustman doesn’t blame anyone for regularly bypassing the venue.

Many videostores carry silent films, but Lustman disagrees that this is a potential business threat, because “the energy of seeing (silent pics) on the big screen with 200 people — you just can’t get that at home.” It’s like preferring “to buy a print of Van Gogh at the store over seeing it the way it was intended, at (the art museum).”

Now with a packed, eclectic film schedule (concocted by Silent Movie Theatre program director and Mary Pickford Library employee Elaina Archer), a full-service cappuccino bar and a gallery filled with classic on-the-set photos donated from Bison photo archives, Lustman says, “it’s going to be more than movies, it’s a whole experience, and that’s how I plan to make a living.”

Although Lustman honestly acknowledges he “has no idea” how much daily operations will cost, he nevertheless smells profit in his future. He’s charging an $8 admission price for the films, on par with commercial movie houses.

The studios are even lending Lustman a hand, gladly dusting off rarely seen classics (most buried within homevid shelves) at relatively low rental rates. Many, including Paramount, Sony, Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox, charge an after-the-fact percentage based on ticket sales.

Lustman hopes the theater will get regular promotional play in L.A. area arts newspapers, with fresh reviews written for each featured film.

November’s sked featured a month-long tribute to the 80th anniversary of United Artists film studio, featuring restored 35mm prints including “The Thief of Baghdad,” “My Best Girl,” “Don Q, Son of Zorro,” “Suds,” “The Eagle,” “Way Down East” and “Little Annie Rooney” — all accompanied by live music.

Highlights in December include a Clara Bow film series, introduced by her son, Rex Bell, and a Cecil B. DeMille week, led by his granddaughter Cecilia DeMille Presley.

David Raksin, music arranger for Charlie Chaplin’s final silent film, the 1936 “Modern Times,” has only kind words for Lustman: “I’m just happy that someone’s actually taking the time to show silent films; they’re the greatest legacy the film industry has given us.”