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Entertainment

Movie screenings highlight Union Station's role in films

Rose Rodriguez took her seat inside the cavernous former ticketing concourse in Union Station while her husband went to fetch some coffee.

She wasn't waiting for a train but for a screening of the award-winning documentary "Wampler's Ascent," about a physically disabled man's quest to climb Yosemite's El Capitan.

The Pasadena resident learned about the film after spotting a poster while passing through Union Station on a trip to Orange County. 

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"This is something totally different," she said, marveling at the 65-foot ceilings and the Art Deco-style architecture in the concourse. "This is awesome."

The fact that the screening was free to Metro Tap card holders was a bonus. Rodriguez was among about 140 commuters, travelers and film buffs who streamed into the empty 11,500-square-foot ticketing concourse for the documentary and a question-and-answer session with the climber, Stephen Wampler, and his wife, Elizabeth, who directed the film.

The event was the latest of several film screenings and entertainment events, from book readings to jazz concerts and opera performances, intended to promote Union Station as a destination and cultural landmark ahead of its 75th anniversary in May.

"So many people are film buffs, and it's wonderful to give them an excuse to come downtown to Union Station," said Maya Emsden, deputy executive officer of creative services for Metro. "It's very different than going to the ArcLight."

Union Station's role as a film venue is a natural extension of its long-standing ties to Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille and other Hollywood luminaries played a big role in promoting the opening of the station in 1939. Over the decades, the station, with its signature clock tower and combination of Spanish colonial and Streamline Moderne styles, has been among the most popular film locations in L.A., featured in countless movies, TV shows and commercials. 

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It was featured in the 1961 film "The Hustler" with Paul Newman, the futuristic "Blade Runner" and "The Dark Knight Rises," which shot the memorable mock court scene in the old ticketing concourse. The station has even doubled for New York's Grand Central Terminal in the Justin Timberlake romantic comedy "Friends With Benefits."

TV shows such as "CSI: New York," "Criminal Minds," "Mob City," "Major Crimes" and "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D" have made frequent appearances at the station, which is prominently featured in a current Mercedes-Benz Christmas commercial.

Despite growing traffic — it serves up to 75,000 commuters and travelers daily — the station actively courts filming. On average the station is used for filming about 100 days of the year. With such a large captive audience, and such large available screening spaces, Metro has no trouble filling seats to watch screenings of movies.

In July, the station hosted a packed free screening of "Chinatown" in the concourse, which closed in the early 1970s, just a few blocks from where the Oscar-winning 1974 movie was set.

In September, Metro partnered with the Echo Park Film Center to screen the Alfred Hitchcock thriller "Strangers on a Train" in the courtyard next to the Traxx restaurant. 

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Though that 1951 classic was filmed at Penn Station in Manhattan and other locations, organizers plan to screen movies that filmed at the iconic location, including the 1950 film noir "Union Station," starring William Holden, as well as other icons celebrating their 75th anniversary next year, such as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With the Wind," Emsden said. She previously helped promote various arts events at Grand Central Station in New York.

Another natural screening candidate is the 1946 Judy Garland musical "The Harvey Girls." The former Fred Harvey restaurant at Union Station remains closed to the public but is a popular location for weddings and other private events.

Thursday's screening was organized in partnership with Hollywood Locations, which has a contract with Metro to coordinate filming and special events at Union Station.

The company, whose principals co-own and manage Los Angeles Center Studios (home of AMC's "Mad Men"), is distributing "Wampler's Ascent," which debuted at theaters in New York and Los Angeles this summer and is currently available online at http://wamplersascent.com.

"We said, 'We have a movie that's very inspirational,'" Peter Brosnan, one of the partners of Hollywood Locations, told the crowd gathered for the Union Station screening. "Just being in this room is very inspirational. How about bringing the two together? That's what this screening is about."

Admission was $10 for the public and free to Metro Tap card holders, with proceeds going to the Stephen J. Wampler Foundation and summer camp program for children with physical disabilities.

After the screening, Wampler and his wife answered questions about the documentary and the five-day El Capitan climb. "I've never been to Union Station before. It's massive," said Wampler, an engineer who lives in Coronado, near San Diego. "The turnout was great and the questions were really good. I was impressed."

richard.verrier@latimes.com 

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