A Boffo Return for Silent Movies
By Rene Sanchez

February 27, 2000 — Inside a dark, creaking theater, the lost art that built Los Angeles and once dazzled the world is flickering back to life.

Old Bob Mitchell is hunched over the house organ belting out tunes again, just as he did 70 years ago. Another crowd is in stitches as the legendary comedian Harold Lloyd and other actors who never said a word in their careers clown across the silver screen. And Charlie Lustman, the 34-year-old maestro of it all, is beaming from his cramped and musty projection room like a proud new father.

It's just another bustling night at the only full-time silent movie theater in the country.

"This used to be the coolest art form there was," Lustman said before the show began. "We're trying to make it like that again."

Even in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, where strange dreams flourish all the time, it is a risky bet. But this is the same restless culture that in recent years somehow resurrected swing dancing and big bands into popular pastimes again. And early box office returns suggest that Lustman may be on to something.

Since it reopened last fall, meticulously restored as a shrine to such a distant era in American culture, the Silent Movie Theater has been drawing curious moviegoers from across the generations — elderly couples rekindling sweet memories of youth, thirtysomethings searching for entertainment created before irony and sarcasm swept the land, college students out to discover something new in something so old.

Aaron Talcoff, 83, took his wife there on a rare date one Friday night this month. He struggled to recall the last time he had seen a silent film in a theater with live music helping tell the story on screen.

"Maybe 70 years ago," Talcoff said. "They just seemed to vanish when the talking pictures started. But I always liked them. It was all we did as kids on Saturday afternoons, and all it cost was five cents."

Peter Park, 29, stood near him in line. "This takes you back to the very beginning of Hollywood," he said. "They're corny films, but that makes them interesting. It's so different from what we see now."

Six nights a week, Lustman shows all the greats: Chaplin, Valentino, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks. Every film is accompanied by an organ player who sits beside the stage, and the theater is filled with a rich collection of memorabilia from the time, including its original wooden seats and large portraits of the country's first film icons. There also are vintage photographs, some of movie marquees enticing patrons with new luxuries such as "Refrigerated Washed Air," otherwise known as air conditioning.

And then there is Mitchell. Now in his early nineties, he played for silent films shown around Southern California in the 1920s and once hoped to make a career of his craft. Instead, he became a choir director.

"Back then, silent films were so big we just took it for granted that they would always be around. A lot of us never thought talking pictures would last," he said with a hearty laugh after an hour of playing one recent night. "Guess we were wrong. But it's good to be back."

The demise of silent films, which began when "The Jazz Singer" debuted with sound in 1927, brought a seismic change to the nation's popular culture. At the time, movies were a new sensation that had no rival in entertaining the masses. Suddenly, a legion of famed actors had useless skills and careers in ruins.

By 1936, after Chaplin's comedy "Modern Times" premiered, the silent era took its final bow. But for a while a few theaters around the country kept showing the films for nostalgic moviegoers.

Lustman's theater first opened during World War II. It was run by a devout silent film buff named John Hampton, who lived much of his life in a small apartment above the projection room with his wife. Hampton showed silent movies for decades, but closed the theater in the 1970s. He died a decade ago. The theater had a short second run with a new owner but went up for sale after he was killed in a domestic dispute.

Until it caught Lustman's eye one day last year on his way to lunch, the theater seemed destined to be torn down and converted, like so much else in Los Angeles, into a parking lot. On a whim, he rounded up investors and bought the place. A songwriter by trade, he had just returned from a few successful years of work in Europe and had an itch for a new vocation. Lustman grew up in Los Angeles and professes love for Hollywood history. But he had never seen a silent movie.

He is evangelical about them now. He has purchased some classics at auctions and is getting other pristine copies on loan from film libraries or the estates of the earliest movie stars. He bought a new screen, movie curtain and a sound system. He is enlisting film historians to give short lectures to audiences before some screenings, and on weekends he runs matinees for children. On a few special nights, he has charged senior citizens a mere five cents a ticket, or a dime for a double feature.

Lustman has a crew of four organists who split shifts every week. One is a young film student who brings videos of silent movies home to study next to his keyboard. Mitchell, on the other hand, needs no practice. He lives in the neighborhood, knows all the movies, and just shows up and plays.

After years of taking piano lessons as a boy, he said he got his start playing for silent films as a teenager, after his mother persuaded a reluctant theater owner to let him practice on the keys before shows began.

"You know how Hollywood mothers are," Mitchell said.

On weekends, the theater, which seats about 225 people, is often full. And since so many who come for a look know little about silent films, Lustman regales the crowd with stories, first from the stage before a show begins and then afterward on the sidewalk beneath his bright new green neon marquee.

"I feel like I'm on a mission," he said. "It's a shame how forgotten these movies have become. I want people to appreciate how this was such an art — all the acting they did just with facial expressions, how you needed certain music for every scene. They were pioneers. This is a vibe you can't feel anymore."

The popularity of the theater is not a complete surprise. For a few weekends every summer here, some of the oldest movie palaces in the world, built when Los Angeles was more small town than metropolis, show silent classics and vaudeville acts and draw overflow crowds.

"There really is an audience for this sort of thing," said Ken Bernstein, a director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, which is leading a campaign to restore the crumbling theaters to their old glory. "People like the feel of the early movies, the music, their simplicity. Maybe looking back is a way of looking forward."

Lustman had his hands full the night he featured Lloyd, first in a few short films and then his 1922 masterpiece "Grandma's Boy." It is a coming-of-age comedy about a wimp who becomes a hero and gets the girl. As a crowd filled the theater, Lustman dashed around setting up his opening act: A young couple on hand to give the audience a taste of the era by dancing in 1920s costumes before the movie began.

If it began. It was 10 minutes to curtain, and there was no sign of Mitchell. Lustman rushed to a phone and returned moments later looking stricken.

"He was sleeping," he said.

The show had to go on. Soon the lights dimmed, and the couple took the stage. As they finished dancing, an old man began to lumber down a side aisle, pressing one hand along the wall for support.

It was Mitchell, at last. He took his seat beside the 1930s organ, then with one eye on the screen, let it rip.

For the next two hours, with hardly a break, he delighted the audience with clever tunes timed to match all the films' silent jokes, pratfalls and drama: A champagne cork popping. A near car wreck. A saloon fight. A chase through a hotel. A drunk wobbling on a building ledge. When one scene showed union officers in the Civil War milling around a camp, Mitchell began playing "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

The crowd burst into applause when the movie ended, and then slowly made its way to the exit. Once the theater was empty, Mitchell stood up from the organ and took halting steps up the dark aisle.

"Until next time," the old showman said, then left flashing a satisfied smile.

Webmaster's note: Bob Mitchell passed away on July 4, 2009. He was 96.