Throughout the summer, we will be highlighting some of the best places to watch movies in Los Angeles as part of our Summer in the City series.
In just a little more than a week, the LA Conservancy’s Last Remaining Seats program will begin its 29th season on June 10th with a screening of “Psycho” in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Universal is opening up their archives to display props from the film and there’s no doubt that the lure of hearing Bernard Herrmann’s classic score or the evergreen shock appeal of a knife-wielding Norman Bates contributes to the lines around the corner from the Million Dollar Theater, but the star attraction here, as its always been for the summer series, won’t have its name in the credits.
“We know that people are drawn to the series largely because of the movies that we screen, but we know that by the end of the night, these amazing theatres have made the biggest impression on them,” says Sarah Weber, the director of education for the LA Conservancy who manages the LRS program.
Between 12,000 to 13,000 attendees are expected to come out for the five screenings set for the Conservancy’s monthlong celebration of the grand movie palaces, a series that will see “City Lights” illuminate the marquee of the Los Angeles Theatre (June 13), “How to Marry a Millionaire” flirt with the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion (June 20), “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” find its golden ticket at the Orpheum and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” rumble into the Theatre at the Ace Hotel (June 27). All are accompanied by special guests and the kind of bells and whistles that make the screenings feel like the events they were when they first graced such screens, no small feat in this day and age.
Yet what’s more impressive to consider is how all has grown out of what had initially been planned as just a three-part lecture series about the theaters that lined Broadway Street. While the goal of bringing attention to the deterioration of the movie palaces while reviving the excitement inside them hasn’t changed since nine volunteers first gathered at the home of one of the organization’s Board of Directors, those at the Conservancy knew that it needed to quickly move beyond the slideshows and presentations it started out with if it was ever going to live up to its full potential.
Cleaning up the theaters, many of which had been stuffed with arcade games or collected dust and graffiti since their heyday, proved to be one challenge, but attracting audiences to an area that as a whole had fallen on hard times was another. Still, when legendary silent film organist Gaylord Carter began to play the first few notes of “Hooray for Hollywood” on the Wurlitzer before a program that included a 1926 newsreel, a Harold Lloyd short and Buster Keaton’s “Steamboat Bill Jr.” on July 15, 1987, one of the city’s signature cinematic experiences was born.
Now, there are at least double the number of volunteers from that very first meeting to simply work on the programming, in addition to the many more who donate their time to serve as ushers and ticket-takers at the venues. From August to April, a mix of veteran and newer volunteers come together to select the films, which continue to include at least one Spanish classic such as “El Gran Calavera”, Cantiflas’ “Los Tres Mosqueteros” or the Dolores Del Rio starrer “Flor Silvestre” amidst a wave of Hollywood hits from various eras. In recent years, the program has broadened its reach to include films from the 1970s and ‘80s to reflect the younger audiences that have come to embrace the series, making for a particularly memorable event last summer when Ace Hotel’s revival of the United Artists Theater led to Last Remaining Seats’ first screening there since 1990, appropriately enough for “Back to the Future.”
“We had the DeLorean time machine parked in front of this beautifully restored theatre, and Leonard Maltin interviewed cast members Lea Thompson, Claudia Wells, and Don Fullilove,” Weber enthuses. “People were thrilled to be back in this theatre after so long, and the movie was hugely popular. There was electricity in the air, and it was really a magical experience.”
The magic hasn’t been limited, however, to just one single event. It’s likely no coincidence that in the nearly three decades that the LA Conservancy has staged Last Remaining Seats, the downtown area has undergone an incredible resurgence. While the program runs just one month a year, it has long been one of the Conservancy’s biggest fundraisers, creating the foundation for all their other efforts such as walking tours and events celebrating other iconic locations throughout the city that have raised awareness for the need to protect and maintain all of its amazing architecture and history. By showing the culture that once existed downtown, they’ve helped laid the groundwork for the vibrant one that is now just emerging, even giving birth to many other screening series that want to take advantage of the unique downtown locale. According to Weber, the Conservancy doesn’t see this as competition, but rather the fulfillment of a mission.
“We are a historic preservation organization that has produced a film series for nearly thirty years as a way to highlight an important part of our architectural heritages,” says Weber. “To see professional organizations come down here and join in the fun is really gratifying. The more the merrier. We want these movie theatres to be programmed all the time. The best way to save a historic building is to use it.”
For more information on Last Remaining Seats, check out the LA Conservancy website here, and follow them on Twitter @LAConservancy.