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Issue: Issue Winter 1999/2000

A Hollywood Tale


Once upon a time in the dusty frontier of Oklahoma, John and Dorothy Hampton, a young and adventurous couple, set their sights on Hollywood, California and drove across America with their dream to build a Silent Movie Theatre that would carry them into the heart of the talking picture landscape.

You see, back in the early thirties, John Hampton used to run silent movies out of a tent in his backyard while Dorothy, his high school sweetheart, stood by. John, the man who would emerge to be a great pioneer of film restoration and preservation.

After arriving in Los Angeles, they found a piece of land on Fairfax Avenue and told the bank they were opening a talking picture show, and spent the next 14 months building a fortress of stucco and wood that would eventually house the thousands of silent movie titles John was to restore. They opened the doors on February 26, 1942 with Cecil B. DeMille's Kind of Kings, but shortly thereafter the theatre closed. It would not reopen until four years later. Soon the old time movie theater welcomed new fans of the classics as well as the stars of yesteryear who were regular customers. "Chaplin used to sit in the back and watch people laugh at his comedies thirty years after their original release," said Hampton in the late 1970s, shortly before the theatre was to close again for over eleven years.

The building at 611 N. Fairfax began deteriorating as John and Dorothy sat idly upstairs with no word to the outside world as to why they decided to close the only silent cinema in the USA. Sadly it was learned that John had contracted lung cancer from hours of film restoration.

Mounting debt forced to sell off 3/4 of his vast movie collection to David Packard of the Hewlett-Packard empire, for an estimated $400,000. John died in early 1990 at the age of 83.

It was at this time that Larry Austin, a friend of the Hamptons since the 1940s entered the picture. Larry had gone to Fairfax High School and always admired the Hamptons and their vintage theatre. As Dorothy became increasingly ill, Larry took over management of the theatre and reopened the door to local fanfare. Once again, the Silent Movie Theatre was back. The theatre was run successfully for the next seven years, as movie goers young and old flocked to the theatre they had always adored.

Controversy struck the theatre in 1996, when James Van Sickle, a projectionist at the theatre began to plot Larry Austin's demise. James was beneficiary to Austin's life insurance policy and had plans to take over the theatre upon his death.

On January 17, 1997, Larry opened the evening like any other night at the Silent Movie Theatre, making his nightly announcement with "Pomp and Circumstance" playing in the background. Meanwhile, a hired gunman purchased a ticket and entered the theatre. Minutes later, as organist Dean Mora played along to the movie, shots rang out in the tiny theatre. Larry Austin was shot and died immediately.

Later, both Van Sickle and his hired gunman were convicted. With the tragic death of Laurence Austin, it seemed as if the Silent Movie Theatre would be gone forever. The doors were sealed. Later, vandals broke into the quiet, dark theatre, and black security bars were erected in front of the building.

Finally, after an extended court battle to clear the title, the theatre was finally put up for sale.

One day in April, 1999, Charlie Lustman, a young songwriter from Santa Monica, was strolling down Fairfax munching on a falafel. Moved by what Charlie believes is the spirit of John Hampton, he looked up and saw the "FOR SALE" sign on the building. By the last week in May, 1999, the theatre was his. Charlie quickly learned and became mesmerized by the Hamptons passion for the movies. He unearthed amazing relics from the theatre, including the last remaining ticket from the Hampton's "Movie" which was inside a Milk Duds box. Charlie was intrigued with the theatre's special features, like the secret film vault John had built underneath the projection booth.

Over the next four months, Charlie embarked on the challenging mission of restoring the theatre to its original glory, ensuring that a new generation of fans would come to the theatre to get a glimpse of Chaplin, Fairbanks and Lloyd for the first time. Charlie designed a neon marquee for the front of the theatre and it immediately brought Fairfax Avenue to life. John Hampton had not been able to install an illuminated marquee on his theatre, as there was a blackout imposed during WWII. New equipment arrived daily, and Charlie spent long days and evenings bringing the theatre back to life.

On November 5, 1000, the Silent Movie Theatre reopened its doors for the first time since the Austin tragedy with a screening of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times. Reporters, supporters, and industry experts were amazed to see the tiny place up and running again. The Hamptons' undying dream came true again. This time, legions of fans and supporters hope for a truly happy ending.