Cinema on the planet

004 – Rieko

The Silent Movie Theatre (home of The Cinefamily)


In Los Angeles some theaters still exist from the Silent era, but there’s one movie theater dedicated to playing silent films well after talkies had replaced them. This is the not-so-silent story of The Silent Movie Theatre.



The man who opened The Silent Movie Theatre was named John Hampton. A devoted silent film fan since his childhood, he purchased his own projector to screen silent films for friends and family. In 1942 Hampton moved to Los Angeles with his wife to chase his dream of opening a theater to screen his collection of silent comedies for the public. On an inauspicious day that Los Angeles was rumored to be bombed, February 26, 1942, he stuck to his guns and opened The Silent Movie Theatre.



By the early 40’s more than 10 years had passed since the transition from silents to talkies, and silent films were treated as a thing of the past. Universal studio sold their stock of Silent 16mm films at junk rates and destroyed most of their flammable 35mm Nitrate film stock. Many of these precious Nitrate films are even rumored to be buried under the highways of Los Angeles.


そんな逆風の中、サイレント映画を守るのは自分だ! と使命感に燃えていたジョン・ハンプトンは、ユニバーサルが放出した16mmフィルムをほぼ全て買収。映画館2階にある自宅の風呂場で、日夜修復作業に励みました。同じ映画の違うコピーを集め、状態が良いものを繋ぎ合わせて色を合わせる作業など、独学で編み出した手法もあり、その情熱から生き返った映画は、今でも有名だそうです。しかし、やがて修復作業で使われる強い科学液の影響から、肺の病にかかってしまいます。1970年代のある日、夫人と旅行に出かける為に臨時休館。しかし旅行から帰ってきた後も、病が発覚した精神的なショックからか、映画館の扉が二度と開くことはありませんでした。

In this climate, John Hampton kindled a great passion. As if on a mission to save silent cinema from disappearing entirely, he purchased all the 16mm stock from Universal Studio and started to restore the film in the bathtub of his home on the second floor of the theater. Hampton even invented his own restoration technique: gathering several prints of the same film, splicing the undamaged parts together, then correlating colors to make a final version for screening – these “Hampton reels” are still famous to this day. However, due to the harsh chemicals used in the restoration effort he became ill with lung disease. When Hampton closed the theater in the 70’s for a vacation with his wife, he said it was temporary but never returned, giving no reason for the closing. Perhaps the shock of his diagnosis made a return to The Silent Movie Theatre too painful to consider.



After John Hampton passed away in 1990 his old friend Lawrence Austin took over the business and The Silent Movie Theatre was reborn in 1991. The theater’s second owner was said to be a very unique individual too: sitting in the ticket booth by himself, selling tickets with big smile, greeting the audience in front of the glistering gold curtain, wearing a white suit every night like he was the main attraction. But Austin’s passion for the silent cinema remained paramount, his programming eclectic enough to satisfy even the most hard core silent fans.



Happy days didn’t last long. The tragedy occurred on January 17th, 1997. Lawrence Austin was working the concessions as usual. Right before F.W.Murnau’s Sunrise was to start, an armed robber shot him and a woman working with him in the concession stand. The woman survived but Austin, who was shot in the face, died immediately. The police investigation revealed that it was a murder for hire and the real killer was Austin’s long time partner who was also the projectionist at the theater. It could have come straight out of the movies…



Tragically losing its second owner, The Silent Movie Theatre closed its doors yet again. Later a man named Charlie Lustman saw the “For Sale” sign, entered the theater, fell under the spell of the pictures of the silent stars on the wall and impulsively made a deal to buy the theater. Thus, The Silent Movie Theatre reopened in 1999, welcoming its third owner. Under Lustman’s tenure the theater mostly screened famous silent films such as those starring Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. But the theater also gained popularity as a rental space for private parties and film screenings eventually dwindled to only a few times a year.



In 2006 the third owner Charlie Lustman announced his plans to sell the theater. The fourth and current owner is an NPO (non-profit organization) called The Cinefamily, started by Hadrian Belove who previously was a co-owner of Cinefile Video on Santa Monica Boulevard. The Cinefamily continues to call The Silent Movie Theatre home today and this is the era that I know personally.



The Cinefamily offers a unique variety of programming by collaborating with many different programmers. They screen classic and independent films from all over the world, cult film including 70’s ephemeral 16mm and so on. Director retrospectives often have Q&A sessions with directors, actors and scholars. Standout retrospectives such as last year’s Chantal Akerman and Frederick Wiseman series were so good that I feel grateful to Cinefamily.


去年の目玉はなんといってもアンナ・カリーナの登壇! ゴダール映画の中から飛び出してきたようなファッションに身を固めたファンの女の子達(ここロサンゼルスでは珍しいのです!)と一緒にキャーキャー騒ぎながら、ゴダールとの想い出話を聞きました。黒澤明『乱』の上映会では、登壇した仲代達矢の本物の侍のようなオーラに感激したのも、良い思い出です。

Last year’s highlight was seeing Anna Karina in person! Screaming together with excited fans whose 60’s fashion seemed to come right out of Godard films, we listened to stories of her time with Godard. It was unbelievable!  Another deeply moving experience was seeing Tatsuya Nakadai speak at a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, every bit as samurai-like in real life as on screen.



In addition to Q&A’s The Cinefamily often combines screenings with DJ sets or live concerts, turning screenings into events. Going even further, The Cinefamily organizes screenings outside of the theater to non-traditional venues such as Barnsdall Park or The Bob Baker Marionette Theater. Creative screenings are one of The Cinefamily’s most unique characteristics, offering me a chance to visit places I might never have known otherwise.


映画館に話を戻します。上映室は小さめ。座席数が少ないためチケットが売り切れになることが多いものの、映画好きコミュニティーの親密さを感じられるところが特徴です。場内は傾斜があまりなく、前に背の高い人が座るとスクリーンが見難いのが難点。そんな日には「どうして体が大きく姿勢が良い上に髪を盛ってる人が自分の前に座るの??」と嘆くことに! なので、できるだけ前に座るように心がけています。前列のソファ席が取れたらラッキー!

Getting back to the theater. The screening room is quite small so tickets tend to sell out for popular screenings. Still, I enjoy the feeling of closeness with the community. The only complaint I have is the absence of raked seating in the theater, as I have to stick my neck out left and right during the movie if I’m behind a tall person. When I can grab a sofa seat in the front row, it makes my day!


魅力的な会員システムがあり、月25ドルを支払いメンバーになると、ほとんどの上映が無料で観放題!ポップコーンも無料、近隣のお店でのディスカウント・サービスなど、メンバー思いで助かっています。サイレント・ムービー・シアターの名前の由来であるサイレント映画は、現在は月に1回ほどではありますが、土曜午後に “Silent Treatment” というシリーズで上映され続けています。ピアノ伴奏の名手クリス・ラタリックによる伴奏付きのサイレント映画上映会は、やっぱりこの映画館で観るからこそ、スペシャルに感じられます。

By paying $25 per month to become a member you can watch most screenings for free, as much as you want. You can enjoy free member-popcorn and get a discount at nearby shops too. For frequent moviegoers like me it helps the wallet out a lot. Silent films, the original namesake of the theater, continue to play once a month on Saturday afternoon in a series called “The Silent Treatment.” Watching silent films, often accompanied on piano by the master Cliff Retallick, feels especially precious at The Silent Movie Theatre.


Palace of Silents (Documentary on The Silent Movie Theatre) (2010) Dir. Iain Kennedy

Ross Melnick and Andreas Fuchs, Cinema Treasures, MBI Publishing (2004)

Theater Information

The Silent Movie Theatre
(home of The Cinefamily)

611 N Fairfax Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90036 U.S.A.


Street parking only
1. Night screenings (from 7:30 pm) – Meter parking on Fairfax and Melrose is MAX 2 hours, but only has to be paid up to 8pm, so just pay for half an hour.
2. Early screenings on weekends – Since meter parking is MAX 2 hours only, and this area gets busy, finding free street parking in residential area is much safer to avoid tickets (just pay attention to the parking signs!)


Light Meals

I highly recommend a Middle Eastern deli called “Pita Bar & Grill.”
It’s only a block away and their chicken shwarma and falafel are delicious (20% discount for members too!)

1ブロック先の中東系Pita Bar & Grillのファラッフルやチキンシュワーマなどが近いし美味しく、大のおすすめです。

text & photo

Cinema Studio 28 Tokyo Los Angeles branch
In summertime, outside screenings are everywhere in parks or rooftops…
hope I can attend before the summer ends.