Sunday, July 21, 2013

John Hampton and the Silent Movie Theater

The Silent Movie Theater, with films stacked on the seats. Notice the ghostly figure of Eric Aijala moving across the screen.

In 1988, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was interested in acquiring the silent film collection of John Hampton, and sent Eric Aijala and myself to the theater to inspect the collection. The films were all stored in boxes, mostly stacked on the theater seats. For two weeks, we wound through every single print in John's collection and made reports on their condition. (Eric and I started at UCLA about the same time, and I was initially hired as a three month temp, a new transplant from New York City. Eric and I worked side by side in those early days, and when I worried aloud of my prospects if my position didn't become permanent, Eric's helpful refrain would be, "You could always go flip burgers." I eventually learned to appreciate Eric's sense of humor.)

John Hampton checking some of his films

John was an amazing character, a significant figure in the film history of Los Angeles. He and his wife Dorothy started Silent Movie in the early 1940s, because John felt that silent films should continue to be screened and enjoyed. He developed a huge library of 16mm prints, some of which he tinted and toned himself. He projected the films, and created his own soundtracks by simultaneously playing records from his huge collection of 78 records. The theater operated until 1980.

A proud John Hampton in his projection booth.

While Eric and I wound through the films, John regaled us with stories of the films, the way he worked, and the Hollywood greats who often came to his theater. Damn, I wish I'd had thought to record his stories for posterity, and only took a handful of pictures. I now only remember a few of them. He said that some of the giants (it may have been Chaplin or Lloyd or Keaton - I don't recall), would come incognito, disguised in dark glasses and big hats, and sit in the back of the theater. He told a story of Mae West, who lived and I believed owned an apartment building on Rossmore. She looked out her window one day and saw that the building directly across the street was being painted a color she hated, and so just bought the building, so she could paint it the color she liked.

Eric inspecting one of John's films

After our project was completed, David Packard agreed to purchase the entire collection and place it at UCLA. It contained many rare and in some cases unique items, which have proven very valuable to their preservation program. Two years later, John died, and the theater experience a period of pretty crazy events, including the murder of its subsequent owner.


  1. Excellent! Working by your side and listening to John's stories sure made those days unforgettable, still vivid memories all these years later. John was thrilled to set up a projector and show us a Felix cartoon and very pleased to have a couple young movie fans to entertain with tales from the theater's glory years. Thanks for writing about (and posting the pictures from) our days with John. Great blog!

  2. Not sure if you still check this blog but would love to talk about the photos you have on this post for an upcoming documentary on the theater and Larry Austin