After waiting game, Aero takes flight

Cinematheque theater opens doors with 'Company'

Nearly a year behind schedule, the newly restored Aero Theater on Montana Avenue in Santa Monica is finally opening its doors tonight — much to the relief and anticipation of Westsiders who are tired of trekking east every time there’s a John Ford film.

True to the arduous process that has characterized the theater’s rebirth, however, there were still a few details up in the air on Wednesday, causing last-minute scrambling at the American Cinematheque, the org behind the restoration.

A hundred workers were still putting final touches on the art deco theater, and Dennis Quaid cancelled his appearance at the screening of “In Good Company,” tonight’s inaugural film. (Quaid is out of town and couldn’t make it back to L.A. in time.) Helmer Paul Weitz will take his place.

Permit pressures

The Aero was closed for restoration in April 2003 and was expected to reopen last summer. However, extensive wrangling with the city of Santa Monica and the health department over permits held it up. Issues ranged from how many sinks were required in order to sell popcorn (three) to parking (there isn’t any and never was) and a wheelchair-access platform that had to be installed at the 11th hour.

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“It’s no one’s fault, but you do a certain amount of work and you think everything’s fine, and then you get another piece of information that causes you not only to go back to square one, but get a permit to go back to square one,” said Barbara Smith, executive director of the American Cinematheque.

“It was worth waiting for,” said Rick Nicita, a CAA partner and chairman of the American Cinematheque board. “To do things right, you usually have to wait.”

From cineastes to neighborhood groups, there has been enormous support for the Aero, which is planned as the Westside’s answer to the Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

“People are so excited,” Smith said. “We’re just always flabbergasted at how everyone keeps asking us (about the Aero).”

Going west

She said that interest in the theater has been coming from two groups. “There are the people who are the really hardcore Westside people, who aren’t really familiar with the Egyptian and are completely floored that the theater shows one or two movies every night.” (The Aero will draw 75% of its programming from the Egyptian.)

“Then there are people who would love to go to the Egyptian, but for every 10 times they want to go, they go once, because of traffic or because Hollywood Boulevard is closed.”

Also pleased is Jim Rosenfield, the Santa Monica-based developer who bought the theater eight years ago with his partner John Bucksbaum.

“I couldn’t be more excited or thrilled at how great (the Aero) looks inside, and that we’ve finally gotten here after such a long, difficult road,” Rosenfield said.

Indeed, the road’s been long.

After a worldwide search for a partner on the project — hopefuls like Robert Redford and the Electric Theater in London fell through — Rosenfield began talks with the Cinematheque two years ago, about four years after the nonprofit org completed its $15 million restoration of the Egyptian.

Pocket palace

A more modest undertaking was planned for the Aero, which is far less grandiose than the palace-like Egyptian, designed by Sid Grauman in 1927. Rosenfield said the Aero restoration has cost a little over $1 million, with $650,000 of that coming from the Cinematheque. Max Palevsky donated $500,000 of the Cinematheque’s portion.

“The Aero is really the exact reverse of the Egyptian,” Smith said. “The Egyptian is a grand destination. But Hollywood Boulevard isn’t really a neighborhood because of the tourists. People don’t just wander over there. Everybody knows they want to see something (at the Egyptian).

“I think part of the notion of the Aero is that it’s a neighborhood theater where I suspect people will just wander in, not because they know exactly what we’re showing that night. I think that really is what the theater always was.”

Besides renewing the projection and sound systems, the single-screen theater’s capacity was reduced from 600 seats to 400 in order to install bigger, more comfortable seats. The new screen, which is 44 feet wide and 17 feet high, is three times the size of the original. A new concession stand was also installed.

Many original details remain. The marquee looks exactly as it did in 1940 — when the Aero was built by the Douglas Aircraft Co. to provide entertainment for its employees — thanks to a color historian, who determined the correct shade of green and red neon. Lit, the effect is pale green and pink.

The theater’s ticket booth, clock, ashtrays and light fixtures have also been preserved.

Plane preservation

“Inside the lobby, which is maroon and silver, the silver is airplane aluminum and says ‘Aero’ on the ceiling, wall and floor. It makes you feel that era,” Rosenfield said. “It’s connected to Donald Douglas. They were very thoughtful in preserving it.”

While Douglas is most credited for the original spirit of the Aero, according to Donald Krehbiel, who was an usher at the Aero in the early 1940s, the real patron of the theater back then was Ed Thompson.

“He was the heart of the theater. A real showman,” Krehbiel said. “He ran the theater and would greet everyone. He got to know everybody and where they got to sit.

“He was a good friend of Barbara Stanwyck’s, and there was a little room up near the projection where he could have his own personal guests. A few times she was his guest.”

Krehbiel says the main difference between the Aero then and now is that when it was originally built, there was no concession stand. “I have a vague recollection there was a candy store next door, and there was the drugstore diagonally across the street. But when I cleaned and swept, it was not a problem keeping things clean.”

Following tonight’s 7:30 p.m. screening of “In Good Company” are selected Golden Globe-nominated films — such as “Being Julia,” “A Very Long Engagement” and “Sideways,” some of which are double features — interspersed with classics like “Hello Dolly” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”

On Jan. 15 a week of Australian films kicks off as part of the Rosemount Australian Film and Style Festival.