Dedicated movie houses may be disappearing across the country, but in L.A. we’re still blessed with an abundance of them, many of which take their aesthetic cues from the cultural and architectural tastes of their respective eras (Iberian romance! Egyptian grandeur! Deco opulence!). Some have suffered brushes with oblivion since their heydays, but the ones that remain have been done over with cushy seating and state-of-the-art sound and viewing systems. Whether they offer the latest Hollywood blockbuster, showcase the indie du jour, or draw heavily on the classics, these screen gems could lead you to ditch the multiplex for good.
The decor at the Vista Theatre (4473 Sunset Dr., Los Feliz, 323-660-6639) may be slightly confusing—the exterior is elegant Spanish colonial revival, the interior is kitschy Egyptian—but that only enhances the appeal of this first-run house, which local exhibitor Louis L. Bard opened in 1923. The theater went through decades of neglect and a long life as a porn venue. Then in the 1980s and ’90s, its owners restored the original neon sign, installed a silver screen, and removed every other row, creating an embarrassment of legroom. Nowadays you can expect to find manager Victor Lopez—he’s quite the movie lover—in full costume welcoming visitors. Classic soundtracks are played in the auditorium before each show, a detail not lost on patrons, many of whom work in the Industry (perhaps the reason screenings are chatter free).
When the New Beverly Cinema (7165 Beverly Blvd., L.A., 323-938-4038) was on the verge of financial collapse last year, writer-director Quentin Tarantino bought the building that houses the beloved art film venue—a fixture in the area since the 1970s. Its rescue allowed the high-caliber mix of foreign and classic second-run and revival films to continue. It also brought about some much-needed upgrades to the auditorium. Most screenings run as double features grouped by director or theme. At $7 for both, you won’t feel bad if you should skip one. Guest programmers like directors Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) and Joe Dante (Gremlins) attract savvy audiences who enliven the postshow Q&As.
Formerly the circa 1942 Silent Movie Theatre—the name still graces the Fairfax District marquee—the Cinefamily (611 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A., 323-655-2510) now boasts a broad and irreverent focus. Offbeat films new and old, cerebral and lowbrow, are packaged in unorthodox ways. A screening of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea featured the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt performing an original score, while the popular “100 Most Outrageous Kills” Halloween event last year consisted of a DJ and visual mash-ups of onscreen gore. The 158-seat theater has the worn quality of a dormitory, which is enhanced by postscreening parties on the back patio that can go into the wee hours.
With its industrial-chic glass-and-steel facade, whitewashed walls, and poured-concrete floors, you’d never know that Downtown Independent (251 S. Main St., downtown, 213-617-1033) was a thriving movie house in the 1920s. A sophisticated remodel in 2007 has provided a sleek backdrop for the roster of mostly independent features, documentaries, and shorts as well as live shows (comedy nights, concerts), some of which are free. The sizable yet intimate theater, top-of-the-line projection equipment, and reclining seats elevate such guilty pleasures as a Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs drink-along, followed by all-night beer pong on the roof deck. Bonus: Local residents and patrons who arrive by public transit receive a discount on ticketed events.
Of Westwood Village’s three movie palaces, the Majestic Crest (1262 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, 310-474-7824) is our favorite, and not just because its spectacular flashing marquee is as seductive as a carnival midway. The first-run theater opened in 1940 as a live venue (it was converted to a movie theater showing newsreels during World War II), but it has since gained a fancy screen and brand-new seats in addition to a new owner. Venice-based Bigfoot Entertainment picked up the property recently after competition from multiplexes squeezed out the previous operator. The vintage look is from the late ’80s, the product of a large-scale overhaul by theater designer Joseph Musil, who supervised the creation of a hand-painted black-light mural that depicts the 1930s Hollywood skyline, complete with klieg lights, palm trees, and landmarks like the Brown Derby. The curtain-opening sequence Musil designed, set to the piped-in strains of “That’s Entertainment!,” lends an air of ceremony to even the fluffiest flick.
Impresario Sid Grauman’s legacy lives on at two landmark Hollywood movie houses, both impeccably restored. The Egyptian Theatre (6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-466-3456) was the first grand movie palace to appear on the boulevard. The open-air courtyard and Egyptian revival style (faux sandstone columns, hieroglyphs) are as dazzling as when the theater opened in 1922, weeks before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb sparked a worldwide craze for pyramids and their inhabitants. Current owner American Cinematheque shows meticulously restored genre-spanning classics as well as new foreign releases—many in large formats such as 70mm and CinemaScope—and regularly hosts golden age luminaries at special events. Just down the street, the original Shishi stone lion statues and coral red columns flank the entrance of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (6925 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, 323-464-6266), which has been a popular spot for premieres (and tourists) since opening in 1927. Festivals and first-run blockbusters (Avatar, Harry Potter) are presented in the 1,162-seat auditorium, which has a 72-foot-wide screen.
Photograph by Russell Gearhart