In Hollywood in the late thirties, John Hampton was either an actor who sometimes worked in the studio crew, or a studio crew member
who occasionally worked as an actor. Giving interviews in later years, he never seemed able to decide which career he'd abandoned to open the
Silent Movie Theater. But some time in 1942, he decided that whichever business he was in, he was getting out of it to find something more
Hampton didn't have much money but he did have a large collection of silent movies. In 1942, they weren't as rare as they are
today. Though sound films had started more or less in 1929, not every theater immediately invested in the equipment to run talkies.
Silents were therefore kept in release well into the thirties, and some of the early talking films were marketed in both silent and sound
Finally though, even the movie houses in the sticks either closed or converted to sound. When they did, all those prints of
silent films became worthless. If you knew someone at a distributor, you could pick them up for next to nothing — or less. John Hampton
knew someone at a distributor.
He leased a small building on Fairfax Avenue, just south of Melrose, directly across the street from Fairfax High School.
Cramped, poorly ventilated, and furnished with hard, wooden seats, The Movie
(that's what he called it) was a far cry from the plush movie palaces of the day. On the other hand,
since he didn't pay much for the films he ran, he could afford to peg the admission price at bargain rates.
Nor did he have to pay employees. His wife Dorothy ran the box office and sold candy bars. John did everything else: He ran
the projector, restored the films, painted posters for the front display, even did handyman and janitorial duties around the building. It was
such a lean/mean operation that when he was ill — or taking Dorothy on their annual two-week, post-Christmas vacation — the theater had
At first, the silents were simple nostalgia: Most patrons in the forties went there to view the movies of their childhood.
Gradually though, it became a place where folks who'd never known Chaplin or Fairbanks or Keaton or Gish or Pickford could go and learn about a
bygone world. Hampton changed the big sign out front from The Movie to Old Time Movies and
its official handle to the Silent Movie
Theater. (If you want to see what the place looked like in 1969, find a wonderful-but-neglected movie by Carl Reiner
from the year called The Comic.
There's a scene where Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney wander past the place.)
I guess it was around 1964 when I discovered the Silent Movie Theater. My best friend of the time was a schoolmate named Steve
Hopkins. We were both interested in old films — comedies, especially — and we quickly became regulars in the third row. The bill changed every week and on Wednesday, Steve would phone up and Mrs. Hampton
would politely read him the list of what was playing, so we could do a bit of research in preparation
for our Friday evening expedition.
The show commenced at seven and we'd usually be there by 6:30. There would be moviegoers waiting around outside, studying Hampton's handmade posters and whatever stills he could scrounge up for that week's selections. Steve and I often found ourselves acting as
unofficial hosts, especially for the first-timers, holding court on the films and their stars. I guess it must have seemed odd — a
couple of twelve-year-old kids explaining to adults who Harry Langdon was — but we enjoyed flaunting our expertise.
The Silent Movie Theater was open six nights a week, with the entire program run twice a night. Most weeks, this consisted of a
feature preceded by an array of shorts. A Felix the Cat cartoon would often start things off and every so often, there'd be a chapter of a
And there would always be a Charlie Chaplin film. Hampton believed that many of his patrons were
especially curious to see that legendary
comedian. Chaplin's later, better features were then unavailable to the Silent Movie (or, more likely, not available for free exhibition) so
his one or two-reel comedies were featured, often to audience bafflement. Hampton's commitment to run one Chaplin per week meant that he ran a
lot of the comic's earliest, crudest work. As we exited, Steve and I often heard other patrons wondering out loud just what was so great about
the great Charlie Chaplin.
It would be even more pronounced every third week, when Hampton ran what he called his "laugh shows" — programs comprised wholly
of short comedies. Most of the Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton two-reelers cost money to run, but he would fill his bill with Harry Langdon,
Larry Semon, Lupino Lane, Mabel Normand, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Clyde Cook, Charley Chase, Chester Conklin, Billy West, Our Gang, Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan, and many others — including the occasional rare find, like a vintage Lloyd Hamilton short.
I don't know if it's still the case but back then, Lloyd Hamilton's films were very hard to locate, reportedly due to some long-ago
fire at the warehouse where the negatives were stored. But the few Hampton had were wonderful — and filled with bits that would later
become very familiar. One suspected that Jackie Gleason had seen them all, taken extensive notes, then started the fire so folks wouldn't know
where he got most of his mannerisms.
Anyway, the pièce de résistance of every laugh show was
almost always the Laurel and Hardy film. Even though Hampton saved the best Chaplins for the laugh shows, the audience consensus was always that
The Tramp couldn't hold the proverbial candle to Stan Laurel and
Oliver Hardy. And in a way, he couldn't...but it really wasn't a fair fight. Chaplin's shorts were all made in 1914-1918, whereas the
Laurel and Hardy silents were from 1926-1929. The years in-between were critical ones in the development of movie comedy. Viewed
side-by-side today, Stan and Ollie are so much more polished and in control — but if you saw a 1916 Chaplin — say, The Pawnshop
— amidst other 1916 offerings, you'd see how Chaplin was far ahead of his contemporaries...and leading the way towards what Laurel and Hardy,
among others, would soon achieve.
Steve and I used to urge Mr. Hampton to put together a show entirely of
comedy films from one year — films that might actually have been
shown on the same bill. He was always polite, telling us he'd consider our request, but we realized later that he'd never do it. The
theater operated on a shoestring and he couldn't risk putting together a program without
including the biggest-possible names. If he picked a year that would have
let him run Chaplin, he couldn't have had Laurel and Hardy, or vice-versa.
We contented ourselves that he still tossed in the forgotten rarities — the Lloyd Hamilton shorts, the Billy Dooley comedies
— between the films of the better-known. Few shows were without one genuine treasure for film buffs and Hampton was
continually making new "finds." I learned what this involved around 1969, when we struck up a slight friendship. I spent a few days
helping out in the tiny room upstairs where he ran the projector and did what he could to restore the old films he'd located.
Strewn about were reels of a feature starring Sydney Chaplin,
whose name has never been mentioned anywhere without reference to the fact that
he was Charlie's brother. The film had been thought lost forever, as are
way too many silents, but Hampton had come across not one but two copies, both severely damaged
and with sections missing, from two separate sources. At what was for him
great expense — and with no prospect for recoupment — he had acquired both and was piecing together the best condition scenes, hoping to
yield one complete copy. "I don't know what I'm doing this for," he said. "No one is clamoring for Sydney Chaplin movies." But of
course, he did know what he was doing it for: He was doing it because if he didn't, the odds were that no one ever would.
In 1981, illness and financial problems forced Hampton to close for what he prayed would be a short time. He optimistically
painted a large sign for the front, announcing he would reopen for Christmas — but the holiday came and went. Then another Christmas and
yet another. The Silent Movie Theater remained shuttered for twelve years, its facade crumbling, its paint peeling. It was a sad sight,
and many of us tended to avert our eyes in passing.
Around 1986, a local film connoisseur tried to organize a group to restore and reopen the hall. He had no trouble finding
volunteers to repaint the building and staff it, and I agreed to help with programming and publicity. But when he approached Dorothy Hampton
with the proposal, she declined — politely and gratefully. With John's death in 1990, it seemed the Silent Movie Theater was as defunct
as any of its stars.
But then in 1991, something glorious occurred. I recall driving down Fairfax one day and expecting to see the Silent Movie in its
usual, dilapidated and pathetic state. Instead and to my delight, I found its front to be receiving a desperately-needed coat of paint and
general makeover. Talk about rising from the dead.
Soon after, the L.A. Times announced what seemed like glorious news: A film buff (and
self-described friend of the Hamptons) named Laurence Austin had arranged
to reopen the Silent Movie Theater.
He did it as a part-time gig — three nights per week — though part-time from what, no one ever knew. Austin was an
older man of perhaps seventy. He apparently never married, nor left any children, but he did claim to hail from a theatrical family. His
mother, he would proudly insist, had been Cecil B. DeMille's personal seamstress. His father, William Austin, was a character actor in the late
silent/early sound era. These claims are, at least, questionable.
Laurence did not follow in their alleged footsteps. Truth to tell, no one seemed to know just what he did when he wasn't running
silent movies, and he coyly refused to tell. He must have had some other job somewhere, since the theater made little (if any) money and truly
came under the category of Labor of Love.
Just getting it up and running at all was a miracle but somehow Austin achieved it. With donations of money and labor from
friends, he managed to give the building a facelift and reopen its doors. The first time I went to the resurrected Silent Movie Theater, it was
like seeing an old friend you thought you'd lost, but who had returned from the dead, looking better than ever.
Some things had changed. His eye understandably set on making the place a going concern, Austin was showing fewer esoteric items
— less Raymond Griffith and Charles Hutchison, more Buster Keaton and Rudolph Valentino. Nothing wrong with that. He had also
replaced Hampton's musical accompaniment (old jazz records) with a live organist, and he preceded each screening with a little speech. It was a
wonderful place to spend an evening in another time period. Until last night.
Last night — Austin was showing Sunrise at the Silent Movie Theater. Around 8:30, during a Larry Semon short that
preceded the feature, a patron clad in black got up from his seat, went into the lobby and pulled out a gun.
Austin was in the tiny box office, counting money with a 19-year-old girl who worked for him. Confronted with a
demand for the cash, they handed it over and then for reasons that were not immediately apparent, the gunman opened fire.
Laurence Austin, shot in the
face at point-blank range, was killed instantly. The employee, shot in the chest, was rushed to Cedars-Sinai hospital where as I write
this, her condition is listed as "fair."
Sitting in the theater, around sixty silent movie-goers thought at first they were hearing fireworks. Then the robber ran down
the aisle, firing more shots as he headed out a rear door of the tiny theater. Audience members dove under the seats as he fled into a back alley. The
accompanist ran out into the lobby where he found the carnage. He and a patron quickly grabbed up the box office phone and dialed 911.
This all happened last night. The gunman is still at large, but police say they are optimistic they will soon make an
arrest. The employee, who seems to be surviving, gave them a solid description.
Today, everyone who ever attended the venerable establishment is saddened at the loss, and at the realization that this may mean the
end of the Silent Movie Theater.
No one ever got wealthy operating a place like that; not Austin, not the Hamptons before him. The Silent Movie Theater was always
founded on the love of an era and of the wonderful creativity of the men and women who made movies back then. Everyone who ever endured its
uncomfortable seats understood that. Everyone.
Today, the front of the building is decorated with flowers placed there by loving patrons. Others have written words of tribute
and posted them there. I'm going to print this out now and go tape it up with all the others.
I may not be able to find room because when I drove by a couple hours ago, the bouquets were piling up, and there were lit candles and
hundreds of letters and poems and condolence notices. And people were just standing there in front of the building and crying.
P.S. Not long after the above was written, police arrested the
theater's projectionist and charged him with hiring the gunman who'd killed
Laurence Austin. Both men are currently serving life sentences. The
Silent Movie Theater was closed again for several years until it was purchased,
refurbished and reopened by a new proprietor in 1999.