Bought and completely renovated by Santa Monica singer/songwriter Charlie Lustman in 1999, the 60-year-old Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles has since become one of L.A.'s main attractions. It was first opened in 1942 by a young Oklahoma couple, John and Dorothy Hampton, but closed after the murder of its second owner, Lawrence Austin, in 1991. Since reviving the cinema three years ago, Lustman has projected 700 shorts and 150 features on its big screen as part of his fervent mission to re-popularize the genre that gave Felix the Cat his Hollywood chops. To this end, he's producing "The Silent Picture Show," a 40-city national tour that begins this weekend at the Castro Theatre.
"There's this whole world of art out there," says Lustman. Though he knew naught about silents before he embarked in the biz, he's since become an expert in the field. "Nobody else is doing it, but we've got it down to a science [in L.A.]. Now let's have our fun with the rest of the country."
The touring show includes a generous sampling of silent film faves, including Charlie Chaplin's first appearance as the Little Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), as well as the last silent film the Little Rascals made before going audio, Saturday's Lesson (1929). Other familiar faces include those of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Felix himself.
"Buster is the Number 1 draw," says Lustman, whose personal favorite is also Keaton. "He wrote, directed, and did all of his own stunts. The guy is unbelievable."
While all of the films shown are without sound, that doesn't mean the night is silent. The event begins with the Silent Movie Theatre theme song (written and performed by Lustman), followed by a sultry singing act by ukulele chanteuse Janet Klein and a 1929 George Burns and Gracie Allen duet (sung by Klein and Lustman). The tour's real musical draw, though, is 90-year-old Bob Mitchell (see also Reel World, Page 68). One of the silent film era's greatest organ players (having performed with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Ginger Rogers), Mitchell provides musical accompaniment that is completely improvised: The show is different every night.
A music man himself, Lustman is quick to emphasize the importance of live performance in the silent movie tradition, explaining that without it the experience is neither complete nor authentic. "This is a concert with a movie, not a movie with a concert," he says. "The big screen, live music, a live audience: That's the way it was meant to be seen."