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Murder at the Silent Movie

Updated on January 25, 2018
Joel Eisenberg profile image

Joel is an author, screenwriter, and producer. He has developed projects for TNT, CBS, Warner Brothers, FOX, Ovation Network, and more.

An enthusiastic nighttime crowd at The Silent Movie.
An enthusiastic nighttime crowd at The Silent Movie.

Backstory

January 17, 1997. I yearned for a rare passive evening. My birthday was three days prior, and neighbors from my Melrose Place-style Hollywood residential complex (a large pool surrounded by small apartments and palm trees), had belatedly planned to throw me a party. Really, it was the usual end of the week party as an excuse to get drunk and celebrate the upcoming weekend, but nonetheless the organizer insisted this celebration would be in my honor.

No dice. I was going to force myself to relax for a change.

I tended to thrive on chaos, then as now, and I had run around from meeting to meeting trying to sell my latest screenplay. By early dusk, I was wiped out, and under the weather. I elected to forgo both of my existing Friday night options. I didn’t drink anyway, so one choice was easy. The other, not so much. Attending the world’s only remaining silent movie theater, a legitimate Hollywood landmark, was a Friday night tradition. I’d make a quick appearance at my own party, and then hide, but I’d also stay home and, reluctantly, skip The Silent Movie.

And that is exactly where I was - esconsed in my studio apartment - when clicking through the television channels I caught the lead-in to the local 11:00 News. On my first Friday off from The Silent Movie in nearly two years, I watched and listened intently as the reporter offered “best thoughts” to those “shot” inside the theater, while the onscreen graphic showed the body of its fallen owner placed into an ambulance.

It hit me following the initial shock: Oh my God. Larry’s dead.

Buster Keaton
Buster Keaton

Hollywood Soul

The adage may be, “What have you done for me lately?” However, contrary to popular opinion, I believe Hollywood’s entertainment industry (Hollywood for convenience), must unconditionally embrace its past. Its pioneers must be celebrated; their work must remain not as relics, but authentic visions of years past that have inspired generations of fellow artisans to evolve the medium while telling their own stories.

Hollywood should be defined by its soul, which includes the entirety of its history, its scandals, its true-life characters desperate and not, as well as its moving images and celebrity culture.

To me, The Silent Movie represented the de facto soul of Hollywood. The love affair was instantaneous. I fell for her the moment I laid eyes upon her, and she was terrifically kind in return. She was generous with inspiration and jump-started my career as a writer.

It was a beautiful and eye-opening five years. It all began in earnest with a short called Cops, a feature entitled College ... and the most side-splitting human being I had ever seen, by the name of Buster Keaton.

The year was 1992. My first experience at The Silent Movie. The evening I discovered the soul of Hollywood.

A friend of mine had asked me to join him to see a movie. I thought we’d catch Reservoir Dogs, the debut film of a director proclaimed to be The Next Big Thing: Quentin Tarantino.

My friend wanted to see Buster Keaton. He asked me if I was a fan. I told him I saw The General once in high school, and it put me to sleep. I went on about Reservoir Dogs as everyone I knew was talking about it. We flipped a coin. I lost.

We arrived at the theater. My buddy bought the tickets as he said he felt sorry for me losing the bet. “I’m doing you a huge favor,” he said. “Trust me.”

I was struck entering the lobby. I’ve long been a fan of old Hollywood films, save for silents, and I felt like I was entering a museum. This was a positive. Framed portraits and lobby cards of silent stars and movies adorned the walls, mana for a collector of film memorabilia like myself. We stood on a line just inside the front door, while a very senior lady tore tickets and greeted everyone as they reached the theater proper.

My friend told me she was Dorothy Hampton, the former owner of the theater along with her late husband, John. There was certainly history here. I was fascinated.

The feature that night was something called College. That main feature was preceded by a Felix the Cat cartoon and several Keaton shorts, including Cops.

Surprising to me, the theater was packed. There couldn’t have been much more than 150 seats in total, but still this was a strong crowd for something so old. We managed to find two seats together in the second row, much too close for my comfort. Speaking of comfort, or lack thereof, the seats were hard, not cushioned whatsoever. Somehow it added to the atmosphere. There was an organ near the screen, on the floor to its left, and Bob Mitchell, a renowned silent movie organist who I’ve read about in some of my books, was the organist for the evening.

“Is that —“ I began, as he took his stool.

“Yeah it is,” my friend responded.

“How old is he now?”

”Eighty.”

In minutes, Mr. Mitchell adjusted his stool, and his fingers touched the keys. A vigorous version of Pomp and Circumstance emanated from his organ. On cue, the venue’s present owner entered from the back, to steady applause. Holding a microphone, he waited patiently for the theme to conclude.

“My name is Laurence Austin,” he said as the last key reverberated, “and I welcome you to the world’s only silent movie theater.”

Larry completed a brief introduction of the evening’s entertainment, and the films unspooled. I had never before been a member of any audience so enraptured. The laughter was loud, and contagious. Everything shown prior humored me, but Cops was just about the most amazing thing I’d ever seen on film. No special effects, just a heck of a chase that had the crowd in stitches. At times I could barely catch my breath, and tears squeezed from my eyes. Cops was followed by College, and I was addicted.

I fell for Buster Keaton that night. I fell for the world of pre-sound movies that night (most of which have since fallen into the public domain, including the Keaton favorites discussed above). In fact, I was completely and utterly seduced. I embraced the earliest history of a mercurial business this then-starving screenwriter sometimes loved and frequently loathed.

Most of all, I embraced The Silent Movie.

My friend was right. Over subsequent weeks, I felt increasingly privileged to attend the screenings. I had developed a keen interest in silent film, and I wanted more.

I especially wanted to learn about the history of this special venue.

The original iteration of The Silent Movie Theater, same venue but different name and facade, as owned by John and Dorothy Hampton.
The original iteration of The Silent Movie Theater, same venue but different name and facade, as owned by John and Dorothy Hampton.

History (1942-1990)

During my visits, The Silent Movie was fan shorthand for Silent Movie Theater, a small, specialty movie house founded by John and Dorothy Hampton in February of 1942. The Fairfax Avenue favorite, then known as Old-Time Movies, had quite the initial run, closing in 1979 after 37 years. John passed away in 1990. The theater was reopened in 1991 by Laurence Austin, a family friend. Upon its reopening, Dorothy collected and ripped tickets in the lobby.

In its original iteration, Old-Time Movies predominantly showcased silent classics that decades later would become stables on television and home video. Early comedic shorts and features starring Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy, adventures featuring Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., epics by Cecil B. DeMille (The Ten Commandments, The King of Kings), Fritz Lang (Metropolis), and D.W. Griffith (Intolerance), intimate dramas with Mary Pickford, and Lon Chaney, Sr. horrors (The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) were particular favorites.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin
Laurel and Hardy in “Two Tars”
Laurel and Hardy in “Two Tars”
Lon Chaney, Sr.’s “The Phantom of the Opera”
Lon Chaney, Sr.’s “The Phantom of the Opera”
“It”
“It”
“Robin Hood”
“Robin Hood”

Many of the silents prior to the theater’s opening had already perished with age; those that survived were the purview of the Hamptons. John was an Oklahoma native, and a collector of silent films since hIs childhood. His idea was to open a theater dedicated to preserving and exploiting these early Hollywood efforts, which he and his wife considered to be a lost art. John and Dorothy relocated to the epicenter of the film business, Los Angeles, in 1940. They purchased vacant land and built the theater. The upstairs of the two-floor structure was organized as their living quarters.

Within the mythology of the theater‘s early days, it is said that the biggest stars of the silent era regularly attended, frequently incognito, and sat among the patrons. Charlie Chaplin and Clara Bow were said to be among them. Years later, during the theater’s first revival period from ‘91, many Hollywood celebrities, writers, and directors openly attended, and were frequently introduced to the crowd by host Laurence Austin.

In the Hamptons’ era, years prior to digital tech, John worked daily restoring the old nitrate films, dyeing and redeveloping them in his bathtub. This was an old habit, and eventually the longterm use of the chemicals was blamed for his 1980 cancer diagnosis, and decade-long health battle that followed. John closed the theater that year. A family friend, Laurence Austin, eventually purchased the films and the theater from John to help pay his medical bills. Larry then renovated the theater. He changed the primary marquee to Silent Movie. John passed away in 1990.

The new version of the venue opened its doors on January 18, 1991.

Laurence Austin
Laurence Austin

The Austin Era (1991-1997)

I began attending as a regular the following year. I would become part of the scenery on Friday nights, and attend inconistently on Saturdays. The theater was not generally open on weekdays, save for special events. Laurence became “Larry” to me, the kindly older gentleman who allowed me to lock my 10-speed on the side of his building, who always asked about my week and my writing progress.

Larry Austin knew me on a first-name basis, and I felt like a member of a privileged society, a voyager traversing the expanse of film history both onscreen and behind the scenes. When asked, Larry would tell me of his background, his interest in acquiring and screening films that the Hamptons did not own, and also anecdotes about the making the films themselves.

The other knowledge, secrets that he didn’t have time to delve into during his introductions. Or so he said. He told me, as others, that his mother was Cecil B. DeMille’s personal tailor. Or seamstress. His knowledge, he explained, was first-hand, due to having grown up in the business.

I asked him of his goal with the theater. He responded, simply, that he wanted to introduce rarities to the audience, or otherwise films not usually screened due to their subject matter.

“Birth of a Nation”
“Birth of a Nation”
Lon Chaney, Sr. in “The Penalty”
Lon Chaney, Sr. in “The Penalty”
Comic actor Charley (“Charlie”) Chase, whose films fell out of favor in the era of Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.
Comic actor Charley (“Charlie”) Chase, whose films fell out of favor in the era of Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.
“Broken Blossoms”
“Broken Blossoms”
Harry Houdini, escape artist and silent film star
Harry Houdini, escape artist and silent film star

Cracks started to show, but I ignored them as long as I could. Whispers of Larry and an allegedly shady past. Innuendo of questionable business dealings with the Hamptons. He was said by her family to have taken advantage of Dorothy following John’s death, and kept her working tickets as a way to buy her silence.

There was more. Rumors, but rumors that seemed to have some basis in truth.

Prior to the re-opening, 67-year-old Larry hired 27-year-old James Van Sickle to paint the building’s exterior. The two developed a romantic relationship. Like the Hamptons before him, Larry had moved into the theater’s upstairs apartment. James moved in with him, and became The Silent Movie’s projectionist in short order.

Their relationship was volatile from the beginning. As the years went on, James, reportedly in heavy debt, was named beneficiary to Larry’s fortune. He was set to inherit over a million dollars, in addition to the theater and its related assets.

Which brings us to January 17, 1991.

Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien in F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”
Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien in F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”
Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien in F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”
Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien in F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans”

The three-time Oscar-winning Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans was the scheduled feature. An allegory of man’s inner turmoil of good vs. evil, the film won Oscars for Best Cinematography (Charles Rosher and Karl Strauss), Janet Gaynor as Best Actress, and Best Unique and Artistic Picture (granted only once at the first annual awards ceremony, where Wings was named Best Picture proper).

The film was to be preceded by two shorts. As the second short unspooled, a member of the audience, wearing a golf hat, left his seat and entered the lobby. Larry was standing at the candy counter with Mary Giles, the theater’s concessions clerk. The man pulled a .357, asked Larry first for the cash in the register, and then proceeded to shoot him at close-range in the face. Larry was 74 years old. The gunman then shot Mary twice in the chest, before turning the weapon back to Larry and shooting him twice more. Giles survived, and soon would be able to describe the killer to the authorities.

19 year-old Christian Rodriquez was captured, and he would confess to the crime. James had paid him $30,000 to kill Larry and Mary both to make it look like a robbery. Publicly, James grieved over the tragedy but the cops would have none of it. He was desperate for the inheritance that he would now never receive. With Christian, James was eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The Silent Movie, shuttered following the death of Laurence Austin.
The Silent Movie, shuttered following the death of Laurence Austin.

The Silent Life

The theater closed. Over the next several weeks, the local news reports continued with progress of the investigation. Fans placed flowers in front of the theater in Larry’s memory, and in honor of the iconic building. Questions as to Larry’s true-life character were by now openly reported.

On the one hand, I was disappointed. On the other, I didn’t care. He was good to me. We did not know each other outside of the screenings, we were not great friends, but the minutes we spent before and after the programs were invaluable to me.

Over the subsequent years, many of the films have been released for home viewing. Larry‘s collection was scattered. Charles Lustman and later Cinefamily became the next owners of the theater, but by then it had all changed. The silents would continue, but the venue would exhibit primarily sound films. That iteration would eventually close too. Today, the space is rented out for wedding parties and other special events.

As a filmmaker, I cannot begin to explain the breadth of how much the theater inspired me. Watching these films at home, without such ravenous audiences, is not the same. As a writer, I can state that my career would have stalled if was not for the inspiration so provided.

As a fan, I still tear up over the loss of both the venue, and the kind, curious man who held his appreciative crowds in such a powerful grip. Larry’s stories were hypnotic, the films more so. I said in my title summary that my life was changed by this crime story, and it certainly was. Once or sometimes twice weekly, I was enraptured. The Silent Movie crowd became my second family. And then a man lost his life. An innocent woman was injured. To a lesser extent, the theater closed.

It was such an unnecessary tragedy. The films taught me and so many others about life, and creativity. The venue was sustenance for the like-minded.

The illusion was gone. Life really is temporary. It really can end in the snap of a finger.

As to my friend who introduced me to the theater? He is presently recovering from a stroke.

I write and produce for a living. If I’m ever short on inspiration, I’ll recall the happier times. I’ll recall those bygone evenings, the equivalent of feasting on the world’s finest gourmet meals. Sure, there were duds that were exhibited as well. But the industry was just beginning.

How I miss my time machine.

Maybe, one day, I’ll write my own movie about it all.

Silent, of course.

DeMille’s original, 1923 silent “The Ten Commandments.”
DeMille’s original, 1923 silent “The Ten Commandments.”
“King of Kings.”
“King of Kings.”
Harold Lloyd
Harold Lloyd
Murnau’s “Nosferatu.”
Murnau’s “Nosferatu.”
Lang’s “Metropolis”
Lang’s “Metropolis”

Postscript

Within the city proper, The Silent Movie has passed into Hollywood lore, spoken of similarly as the death of The Adventures of Superman’s George Reeves, the fatal car crashes of Jane Mansfield and James Dean, and the passings of Marilyn Monroe and John Belushi. Outside of the insulated town, it remains a largely unfamiliar locale and completely unknown story.

I’ve attached some short documentary footage below, in the belief we must never forget our pioneers. I’m referring to the films, the venue, and those who worked tirelessly to restore and exhibit them.

As ever, thank you for reading.

“Mysteries and Scandals”

Laurence Austin Tribute

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