The Silent Movie TheatreOct 29th, 2014 | By Lindsay | Category: This and That
I am very excited to announce that I recently started writing for the L.A. Tourism & Convention Board website, Discover Los Angeles. I have done two posts for the site so far – one on iconic horror movie locations and another about area hotels that have been immortalized onscreen. Before I was given my first assignment, my editor emailed me a few articles to use as examples, one of which was written by my buddy Scott Michaels, of the Find a Death website. The 2013 column, titled The 13 Scariest Places in Los Angeles, had me practically foaming at the mouth. The vast majority of locations mentioned I had never even heard of before, let alone stalked, and one in particular had me especially intrigued – the Silent Movie Theatre in Beverly Grove, where owner Lawrence Austin was shot to death in 1997.
The Silent Movie Theatre was originally constructed in 1942 for silent film buff John Hampton and his wife, Dorothy. John, an Oklahoma native, had collected silent movie reels and showcased them at his home from the time that he was a young boy. In 1940, the couple headed west and settled in Los Angeles. The following year, they purchased a vacant plot of land and commissioned a small, two-story silent movie theatre to be built on the premises. The upstairs floor served as their apartment.
The theatre opened for business in February 1942. By that time, silent movies were a thing of the past and John wanted to pay homage to the almost-forgotten genre. You can check out what the property looked like in its early days here. According to the Dead History Project website, a 1943 Los Angeles Times article described the 250-seat movie house as having “staggered seating,” a “bowl-shaped floor,” and “acoustical sound.” The theatre proved extremely popular and such celebrities as Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith were even known to stop by from time to time to catch viewings of their early films.
John had long been in the habit of restoring and redeveloping old films in his bathroom. The Dead History Project states, “Mr. Hampton transformed his bathtub into a film lab, dyeing and redeveloping old, nitrate film. His Phantom of the Opera, probably the best version of the original in existence, took acquiring eight separate prints over five years. Then, for over two months, he rebuilt the film – spliced the best parts of each print into a single version and meticulously dyed the frames to make sure they matched.” Sadly, in 1980, the harsh chemicals used in the process caught up with John and he developed cancer. He closed the theatre during his long battle with the disease and eventually passed away in 1990. A friend of John and Dorothy’s named Lawrence Austin purchased the theatre shortly thereafter and and renovated the space. He also changed the wording on the marquee from “Old Time Movies” to “Silent Movie.” The space re-opened for business on January 18th, 1991. You can check out a photo of what the property looked like after Austin took over here.
During the renovation process, Austin had hired a man named James Van Sickle to paint the Silent Movie Theatre. Despite a forty-year age difference (Austin was 67, Van Sickle was 27), the two hit it off romantically. Van Sickle eventually moved into the upstairs apartment with Lawrence and began working as the theatre’s projectionist.
On the evening of January 17th, 1997, the theatre was set to air a showing of Sunrise, proceeded by two short films. During one of the shorts, an audience member left the theatre and headed to the lobby, where Austin was standing behind the candy counter with Mary Giles, a concessions clerk. The man pulled out a .357 and first demanded that Lawrence hand over the money in the cash register. After he complied, the man shot him in the face. Lawrence died immediately. He was 74. The man then shot Mary twice in the chest, before turning back to Austin and shooting him two more times. Thankfully, Giles survived and was able to describe the shooter to the police, which eventually led them to a 19-year-old named Christian Rodriguez. It did not take long for Rodriguez to cave and inform detectives that he had been hired for $30,000 to kill both Austin and Giles and make the scenario look like a robbery. The person behind the scheme? None other than James Van Sickle, whom Austin had just recently named his beneficiary. Van Sickle was set to inherit the Silent Movie Theatre and over a million dollars in cash. Both James and Christian were eventually convicted of murder and are currently serving life sentences.
After the murder, the Silent Movie Theatre was put up for sale. A man named Charlie Lustman happened to pass by the property in 1999 and became intrigued. Though he knew nothing about silent films, he decided to purchase the theatre at a cost of $1.3 million. He remodeled the space and added a new marquee. The cinema re-opened its doors on November 5th, 1999. Besides showcasing films, Lustman also offered the theatre for special events. It proved to be a popular venue. In 2006, after falling ill, Charlie sold the property to Dan and Sammy Harkham. The brothers then formed Cinefamily, a “nonprofit organization of movie lovers devoted to finding and presenting interesting and unusual programs of exceptional, distinctive, weird and wonderful films.” The group currently showcases about 14 films a week at the Silent Movie Theatre. Last year, over 50,000 people attended screenings on the premises, none of whom were scared off by the ghosts of John Hampton and Lawrence Austin, who have been known to regularly haunt the historic venue.
Until next time, Happy Stalking!
Stalk It: The Silent Movie Theatre is located at 611 North Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles’ Beverly Grove neighborhood. You can visit the official Cinefamily website here.