To anybody following the news over the last few months, it should be clear that sexual harassment and sexual abuse are rampant in our society. It’s not just limited to Hollywood or government. It’s part of the culture we live in. It can poison an institution. It can poison a workplace. And it can poison a family.
Cinefamily fell into all three categories. For years it was a key part of LA’s film scene and its cultural scene. It was a place where employees and volunteers worked long hours, knocking themselves out to deliver a diverse and innovative film program. And for the loyal audience it built, people who were passionately devoted to movies, it truly seemed ike a family. It wasn’t just about watching movies. A lot of people felt a deep connection to Cinefamily.
In August the news broke that members of Cinefamily’s leadership had been accused of sexual harrassment and sexual abuse. The LA Weekly and BuzzFeed News both interviewed former employees, many of whom described a toxic environment at Cinefamily and alleged that they had either been victims of or had witnessed various kinds of harrassment and assault. The two men who were the focus of the accusations resigned. After a couple months of uncertainty about whether Cinefamily could survive the scandal, the board released a statement saying that Cinefamly was shutting down.
It makes sense. It’s hard to see how Cinefamily could go on. But it’s a huge loss to the local film scene. Revival theatres and art houses have become scarce in LA. Competition from on-line media makes it easier to watch movies pretty much anywhere and any time you want. But even though new avenues for distribution have opened up in recent years, most movies were meant to be seen on a big screen and with an audience. It’s a shared experience. Even if you’re by yourself in a roomful of strangers. In fact, sometimes the fact that you’re sitting in a darkened auditorium, just one more stranger in the faceless crowd, makes the experience even more powerful. There are times when the audience reacts as one, when the movie you’re watching brings you together and makes you realize that there are basic feelings we all share.
A while ago I went down to the venue that Cinefamily called home, The Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax. I wanted to take some pictures. It was sad seeing the place all closed up. But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen it go dark….
It started out in 1942 as the Old Time Movie Theatre. Though sound films had become the standard in Hollywood only a little over a decade before, silent films were already largely forgotten. But John and Dorothy Hampton kept Griffith and Chaplin, Pickford and Gish alive by screening their movies at the little theatre on Fairfax for 37 years. John was passionately devoted to the silents, and in addition to screening them he worked hard at restoring the prints in the collection he and his wife built. Unfortunately, John fell ill and the theatre closed in 1979. The Hamptons still lived upstairs during the following years, but the theatre was dark and truly silent. John died in 1990.
The theatre reopened in 1991, thanks largely to the efforts of Lawrence Austin. Apparently he had become acquainted with the Hamptons some time before, and together with Dorothy he brought the theatre back to life. Now called the Silent Movie Theatre, it offered pretty much the same programming as it had when John Hampton was alive, and it garnered a whole new audience. During the years that Austin ran the place he acted as MC, promenading down the aisle before every show as the accompanist who provided music for the screenings performed a playful march. (I remember Hail to the Chief, but other sources say it was Pomp and Circumstance. Both could be correct.) The elderly Austin always dressed formally, always held himself erect. You could see he took pride in presenting these films, and he introduced them to the audience as though the movies were old friends. Regular patrons grew to love him. For a while Dorothy continued working at the theatre, but suffering from Alzheimer’s, she eventually moved to a care facility. Austin had turned the theatre into a successful business, and at some point she turned ownership of the building over to him.
Then one night in 1997, while a movie was playing in the theatre, Austin was shot during what appeared to be a robbery. In reality it was a paid hit, financed by Austin’s partner, James Van Sickle, who was apparently named in the old man’s will. Investigators looking into the crime uncovered much more than anybody wanted to know. Both Austin and Van Sickle had criminal records. Dorothy Hampton’s family accused Austin of having stolen the theatre from her. It was an awful, depressing mess. Those of us who were mourning the closing of the Silent Movie didn’t want to hear the charges levelled against our old friend. It was bad enough to lose the theatre. Now it was as though our memories of it were being stolen.
The Silent Movie went dark again for over two years. It was finally reopened by Charlie Lustman, who fell in love with the idea of bringing it back to its former glory. He was passionate about reviving the theatre, first tackling the tough job of finding financing, and then the even tougher job of finding prints to screen. The box office was open for business again in 1999, and gradually a whole new audience discovered the films of the silent era. Lustman ran the theate for about seven years, but had to give it up when he fell ill with cancer. (Not only did Lustman recover, he turned his battle with cancer into a series of songs and then into a one-man show. Made Me Nuclear premiered at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2008. He has continued to perform, travelling all over the US to sing for cancer pateints. Here’s a recent post from his Facebook page: “Good morning everyone. I know it’s cliche but I thank God for another day on Earth. Another day to be healthy or ill, rich or poor, happy or sad, for better or for worse…it’s just great to be alive” Check out the page for yourself: https://www.facebook.com/MusicalHOPECampaign)
Dan and Sammy Harkham bought the theatre in 2006, and this was the beginning of Cinefamily. Moving away from silent movies, the theatre began to show an amazingly eclectic mix of films under the leadership of Hadrian Belove. The programming ran from incredibly obscure oddities to crowd pleasing popular hits. I remember among the films I saw there were Film Socialisme and Breaking Away. I wasn’t a regular at Cinefamily, but I remember that when I did go there was a sense of cameraderie about the place. The employees, the members of the audience, all seemed happy to be there.
That’s all over now. As a result of allegations made by former employees and volunteers, Belove and board member Shadie Elnashai resigned in August. In November the board announced that Cinefamily was closing down.
The loss of the theatre is terrible. The loss of trust is even worse. In situations like this people often ask how it could have gone on for so long without coming to light. The answer is that none of us want to believe it. Movies can be lots of different things, but for many of us who love the medium, a large part of the attraction is the escape into a fantasy world. While we’re sitting in the darkened theatre we can be transported to a place where the cruel realities of the real world fade away. A classic Hollywood romance can make us believe that love conquers all. A sci-fi flick may take us to worlds we never imagined. Even a horror film can satisfy our need to believe in justice by showing how the wicked are always punished in the end.
But Hollywood is about manufacturing fantasies. And for as long as Hollywood has existed, there have been guys like Harvey Weinstein. It’s brutally difficult to acknowledge that the industry which has done so much to shape our culture has a long history of protecting sexual predators. But it’s true of Hollywood. It’s true of Washington. It’s true of Wall Street. And you can find the same dynamic at play in churches, in museums, in schools, and in our families. We don’t see it because we don’t want to. Which is why it keeps happening over and over again.
And so another family has been torn apart. The little building on Fairfax is dark again. And LA has lost much more than a place to see movies.