LOS ANGELES -- Charlie Lustman started out looking for lunch, but ended up championing the roots of Hollywood.
One day last year, 34-year-old Lustman recalls, he was driving down Fairfax Avenue, hungry for a falafel sandwich, when he noticed an abandoned building up for sale. Recently returned from Europe, the struggling songwriter was working on the vague notion of setting up an artists' studio. Maybe, he thought, this could be that place. So he stopped at a pay phone and called the real estate agent, who hurried over and gave him a tour.
What he saw that day was the inside of the Silent Movie Theatre, a small West Hollywood cinema that had long been the only one in the country devoted primarily to the silents. The building had been dark for more than two years and seemed destined to become either a warehouse or a parking lot.
But then the ghosts of silent movies past, the ones staring down at him from the theater walls, began to speak. Lustman listened and was hooked. Last November, he reopened Silent Movie with a sold-out showing of Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times."
"I walked into the theater, and I was blown away," recalls Lustman, seated on a couch in the refurbished theater's second-floor coffee bar, just inches from the hypnotic visage of silent-movie vamp Theda Bara. "The gold curtain was up, and the portraits were on the wall. I just looked around, and all these portraits looked back at me. Their eyes are staring straight ahead, so wherever you walk, they're all looking at you. And I'm like, 'Hey, what are you all looking at? I'm going to build an artists' loft.' And they're like, 'No, you're not. You're opening back up the Silent Movie Theatre.' "
First opened in 1942
For more than 50 years, those ghosts had been a welcome presence at Silent Movie. It was opened in 1942 by film buff John Hampton, who wanted a place where he could watch the silent films he remembered from his youth in Oklahoma City. The theater had lain dormant once before, from 1979 to 1991. Then, one of Hampton's proteges, Laurence Austin, persuaded Hampton's widow (John Hampton had died in 1990) to let him reopen the place. The 224-seat theater quickly became a favorite haunt of film buffs who wanted to see what it was like in the days before movies learned to talk.
That chapter of Silent Movie's history ended tragically on the evening of Jan. 17, 1997, when Austin was murdered during what appeared to be a robbery attempt, but would later turn out to be a murder-for-hire initiated by Silent Movie projectionist James Van Sickle, the victim's business partner, lover and apparent heir.
Nearly three years of court wrangling followed, and Hollywood was without a showcase for the silent films that had first made it famous. Lustman's first job in reopening that showcase was to get two other investors to help him raise $650,000 to purchase the property.
"I had to convince these investors that this single-tenant-use building, that had been empty for three years, with a murder history in it, had some value. It was a tough sell."
But Lustman, who comes across as much a showman as an entrepreneur, proved up to the task.
"I said, 'I'll reopen the Silent Movie theater. It's the only one of its kind. It'll be this magical place, seen all over the world as a unique, art deco theater showing silent films.' "
Convincing the investors, however, proved easy, compared with what followed: seven months of extensive renovations. "Everything was rotten," Lustman says. "Austin had redone the theater when he took it over, but everything was just makeup. You wipe away the powder, and you've got rotten walls, ceilings, electrical, plumbing, floors. There was no air-conditioning system."
Besides generally sprucing up the place, Lustman has made several changes to Silent Movie, including the addition of a brightly lighted marquee to the theater's facade -- a first for the building. He's also added the second-floor coffee bar (where Austin used to have an apartment) and turned a back patio into a reception area complete with performing stage.
Since November's reopening, the crowds have kept coming -- not overwhelmingly, but steadily. A recent screening of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in "Flesh and the Devil," introduced by Gilbert's granddaughter, saw the theater about half-full. And on weekends, which are devoted to silent comedies, "we pack the place," Lustman says.
"I'm sure a lot of the audience that Austin had has disappeared for different reasons, one being that they were used to Austin, were close to Austin, and they're just kind of spooked by the whole thing," he adds. A tribute to Austin, held on the third anniversary of his murder -- F.W. Murnau's "Sunrise," the scheduled film on that fateful evening -- met with resistance from some of the man's friends, who maintained the whole thing was in bad taste.
"The date of Laurence's death was going to come," one of Austin's friends told the Los Angeles Times, "and we had to mark the occasion somehow."
The range of films being shown at Silent Movie has also changed since the reopening. For one thing, Lustman doesn't have access to the same treasure trove of silent cinema as Austin; much of the theater's film archive, collected and preserved over the years by John Hampton, was sold to private collectors last year. That followed a bitter dispute over whether Austin had unfairly taken advantage of a sick Dorothy Hampton, who had signed over ownership of the theater and its contents to him. The dispute eventually was resolved in Austin's favor, and the proceeds of the auction went to his estate.
"Austin had the movies at his disposal, and he also had a free theater. He didn't have to pay rent," says Lustman, who retained only a 13-title Douglas Fairbanks collection, for which he paid $4,250. "Now I have to rent films, and I have to pay rent."
The result is a schedule that relies mainly on the familiar -- Chaplin, Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton, D.W. Griffith, Harold Lloyd, Lon Chaney. The theater also has added "Talkie Tuesdays," bringing a stream of dialogue to the building for the first time since it opened.
"We do like to show the transformation of certain artists from their silents to their talking pictures," says Lustman, adding there's still a limit to Silent Movie's timeliness. "We run anything and everything that's wonderful from the '30s and '40s. We draw the line at '49."
Those changes have drawn the ire of some of the theater's faithful, but Lustman says he has little choice.
"Some people criticize me for running all the mainstream stuff and not the obscure pictures. But obscure pictures do not draw audiences. They draw 10 aficionados who complain about the quality of the print and hide food in their coats when they walk in." Lustman has big plans for his Silent Movie, probably bigger plans than were ever envisioned by Austin, who seemed content to parade down the aisles of his movie house each night (usually with the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" coming from the sound system) and revel in the admiration of his loyal fans. Publicity was not Austin's thing.
"He really didn't do a lot to spread the word," Lustman says. "And he didn't need to. ... His plan was always to sell the theater, the collection, and buy a big house somewhere."
Going on the road
Silent Movie's new owner, however, hopes to take his silent film experience on the road next year, for a tour of major American cities. He's putting together a series of films with political themes for next month's Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. He's received permission from the Library of Congress to show some of its silent movies at the theater, including some rarely seen Thanhouser Studio films from the 1910s. And he's hoping the major studios will help out by digging into their archives for films he can showcase.
"This is their heritage," he says. "I've been trying to convince them that it's an image issue -- take advantage of it. I know you made $80 million on 'Pokemon,' but what about a beautiful print of an early picture that we'd like to show to 100 people that shows the value and heritage of your studio?"
Making a go of Silent Movie won't be easy. Although his reliance on the more well-known silents are bringing in the audiences now, there's only so many times you can attract a crowd to "The Circus" or "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." But for now, he's enjoying the attempt.
"I have found the lost culture of my city," Lustman says. "Silent movies are charming, they're romantic, they're expressive. And they're the earliest examples of the art form of our century. In some ways, they're the lost art of our century. I feel like I am an archaeologist, and this is my dig."