A Report From The Last Days of the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre… or are they?

Click the video below to see public comment made today at Los Angeles City Hall, when the halls were filled with Perry Mason extras in 1920s period dress, lending a weird Chinatown noir air to the proceedings.

The first speaker, representing the American Cinematheque board, is consultant Ken Scherer. If his name is familiar, you might recall the central role he played a decade ago in the attempted closure of the charitable Motion Picture Home, causing life-threatening stress to elderly residents until community activists proved that the nursing home’s supposedly dire financial situation was wildly exaggerated. It takes a special kind of person to try to shutter a treasured Hollywood non-profit. Here’s hoping the American Cinematheque fares as well as the Motion Picture Home did, in the end.

Note: public comment can also be viewed from a different angle on the city website. Start at timestamp 43:17, then skip ahead to 48:37.

Since July 4, when we launched our petition seeking transparency from the American Cinematheque regarding their proposed sale of the Egyptian Theatre to Netflix, we’ve heard from so many people with strong feelings about the matter. Some of them know things, things that when strung together begin to fill in the holes in this mysterious narrative.

Of course there’s really nothing very mysterious here. The problems at the American Cinematheque are simply another facet of the crisis of non-profit stewardship that just in Los Angeles County has LACMA imploding, Gamble House and Arroyo del Rey disentangling themselves from USC in the aftermath of the Freeman House furniture theft scandal, the disappearance of the French Benevolent Society and their millions, the still unfinished Academy Museum suddenly directorless, ad nauseam.

In this chaotic moment, old fashioned concepts like fiduciary responsibility, prudent management and attention to mission statements must seem terribly old fashioned.

Nevertheless, the full picture of why the American Cinematheque board has done such an abysmal job of managing itself that the California Attorney General is investigating with the aim of possibly shutting the organization down, and why they are so desperate to sell the Egyptian Theatre to Netflix while the investigation remains ongoing, is not clear to the public. And although they don’t even own the theater and might not ever own it, the prime mover in almost everything that’s happening seems to be Netflix.

Thus, all tips from concerned parties are very interesting, even if we can’t attest to their significance or accuracy. Consider the following to be cocktail party chatter, which everyone who cares about the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre has as much right to hear as do we. Should any of it spark a connection in your mind, please let us know.

• Netflix and the American Cinematheque so firmly believed the sale would close on July 31—coincidentally the day we filmed our Spectrum News piece—that American Cinematheque staff had been directed to clear out the building, and the August calendar was empty in anticipation of the theater’s closure. The sale did not close, and an August calendar was hurriedly filled in, bookending the long-scheduled, very nearly cancelled, 55th Annual Cinecon Classic Film Festival.

• The urgency for Netflix to own a theater in Los Angeles County is tied to the fast approaching deadline for Academy Award nominations, specifically as it relates to Martin Scorcese’s The Irishman. The Egyptian is not a qualifying house under Oscar’s strict rules, so the film may not even have public bookings there. Instead, Netflix seeks to leverage the prestige of Hollywood’s original motion picture palace to host a constant rotation of free private screenings for voting members of the industry guilds, four days a week, all through awards season (October-January). In so doing, they would privatize a public resource 57% of the time. Why, you might ask, can’t Netflix hold guild screenings at one of their numerous buildings and leave the only cinema non-profit in Hollywood to continue its good works? That’s just one of the questions that the public has not been able to ask the American Cinematheque board, since they refuse to hold an informational meeting for members and the public.

• One reason that Netflix is feeling increasing stress over the failure of the property sale to close is their desire to install a complicated $100,000 Dolby Atmos cinema sound system inside the landmark Egyptian Theatre before planned guild screenings of The Irishman begin. A rushed installation of large audio components that need to be attached to the delicate surfaces of the Egyptian stands to potentially cause harm to the protected painted plaster surfaces. Any such major alterations must be carefully reviewed by the Office of Historic Resources and Cultural Heritage Commission to ensure they comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, with opportunity for public notification and comment, before any work begins. This is a timeline that would likely preclude installation by awards season. And as patrons, personally we would not feel comfortable sitting underneath a speaker mounted to the 97-year-old ceiling.

• Although the possible sale of the Egyptian Theatre to Netflix was announced in the trades in April 2019, the Egyptian was actually Netflix’ second choice Hollywood Boulevard motion picture palace. For months beforehand, the company was in serious negotiations with the owners of the vacant Warner-Pacific Theater, and working closely with City Councilman Mitch O’Farrell’s office on this project before it collapsed for reasons unknown. We are saddened that Netflix has stepped away from this opportunity to revive a beautiful theater that would be a great addition to the cultural landscape, and has instead set its sights on privatizing a community treasure like the Egyptian Theatre.

• It’s perhaps just a coincidence that in March, Steven Spielberg was interviewed saying that Netflix productions should be eligible for Emmys, not Oscars, and then in April, Netflix is announced to be buying the Egyptian Theatre, with its small screening room named after Spielberg. Or maybe industry people are just petty like that.

We love the Egyptian Theatre, and for all its problems, we believe in the mission of the American Cinematheque. Won’t you stand with us as we demand transparency and challenge the notion that a secretive board and a giant corporation know what’s best for the non-profit’s members and the wider community?

Tour keeps spirit of author Raymond Chandler’s L.A. alive (Associated Press, 2009)

LOS ANGELES — The thought hit as soon as the bus pulled up: “I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat, and a gun.”

Actually, what I really had was a notebook, a pen, and a digital recorder. Oh yeah, and a seat on Esotouric’s Raymond Chandler Bus Tour, having decided to learn whether L.A. really is, as Chandler’s hard-bitten detective Philip Marlowe once said, “just a big dry sunny place with ugly homes and no style.”

To find out, I would have to get as close to the source as possible. Just like Marlowe had done in Farewell, My Lovely, when he picked up that hat and coat, strapped on that gun, and passed through the mansions, the dive bars, and the “dine and dice emporiums” of this gaudy city in search of a deadly redhead named Velma.

The source of course couldn’t be Chandler himself. L.A.’s literary legend, arguably the greatest crime novelist of all time, had died 50 years earlier. Now, like Joe Brody in The Big Sleep, he was at rest in a modest grave in a San Diego cemetery.

No, the man to see would be Richard Schave, the guy standing by the front of the bus, the one in the snap-brim fedora, gaudy blue vest, and white shirt.

His outfit didn’t look quite as outrageous as that of the cowboy hoodlum in The Long Goodbye, the fellow Marlowe once mocked as looking like he was ready to “dance a tango with a ground squirrel.” But it made you think of it.

The 40-year-old tour guide was impressively well versed, however, on every aspect of Chandler’s life.

Schave had grown up in this neon-lighted slum that the author liked to mock as a place of “sunglasses and attitudes and pseudo-refined voices and waterfront morals.” And so he knew that Chandler secretly loved this city, in that twisted love-hate way only an Angelino can.

“I read his letters, and I knew Chandler liked to give tours of Los Angeles, about scenes from his books and his crime scenes in particular, and I always had this notion of how do you show people Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles,” Schave said.

But he might never have done it if there hadn’t been a woman involved. As Marlowe might say, “There always is.”

Schave’s wife, Kim Cooper, began putting together an L.A. crime noir blog three years ago, focusing on the year 1947. From the still-unsolved Black Dahlia murder of Elizabeth Short, whose body was neatly cut in half and left in a vacant lot, to the rubout of mob boss Bugsy Siegel, there was no lack of subject matter.

Soon Cooper had a loyal following, and when readers wanted to see the crime sites she was writing about it seemed only natural to rent a bus and take them there.

Three years later, Esotouric offers about a dozen different year-round tours, most focusing on the mean L.A. streets Chandler glamorized.

There’s a tour that covers the favorite haunts of Skid Row poet laureate Charles Bukowski and another that takes you down the streets that inspired musician Tom Waits. The sites that shaped the works of classic L.A. noir writers John Fante (Ask the Dust) and James M. Cain (Double Indemnity) are also included. The great L.A. crime novelist James Ellroy has even climbed aboard the bus himself a couple times to show riders the places that inspired works like L.A. Confidential and The Big Nowhere.

But Esotouric’s two Chandler tours remain the most popular of its four-hour Saturday excursions.

“I’ve been a mystery buff since I was a kid,” said Scott Nessa, who traveled all the way from Minneapolis with his friend Cathy Carter to see sites like the venerable Hollywood hangout Musso and Frank, where Chandler wrote The Big Sleep, the Lincoln Heights jail, where the author gained valuable knowledge for Marlowe’s incarceration in The Long Goodbye while sleeping off his own benders, and the Chateau Delaware, the beaux arts building Marlowe was living in when he set out to learn who put The Lady in the Lake. It was also the place where Joe Brody got plugged in The Big Sleep.

Then there’s the Barclay Hotel on the edge of Skid Row, the place where the bald guy in Room 332 got the ice pick in the neck in The Little Sister. It was called the Van Nuys Hotel in the book, a name still etched in the granite facade. And if the surrounding neighborhood is gentrifying these days, the signs in the lobby still remind visitors as they did Marlowe, “Guests Must Pay in Advance.”

“He really captured the flavor of L.A.,” bus rider Maureen Myers of Los Angeles said of Chandler as she dug her spoon into a cup of gelato outside another tour stop, Scoop’s, in east Hollywood.

A friendly hole-in-the-wall place where they don’t ask too many questions, Scoop’s could have served as a Marlowe watering hole if it only served vodka gimlets instead of Italian ice cream.

Still, the nicotine-flavored gelato dished up got the point across: This is L.A., a city where if oddness wasn’t invented, it was perfected. It’s Raymond Chandler’s L.A.

If You Go…

ESOUTOURIC TOURS: esotouric.com or 213-373-1947. Quirky bus tours of the noir side of Los Angeles, including visits to sites that inspired writers Raymond Chandler, John Fante, James. M. Cain, James Ellroy, Charles Bukowski, and others. Tours of the haunts of musician Tom Waits and the site of the Black Dahlia murder and other famous L.A. crimes are also included.

TICKETS AND SCHEDULE: $58 per rider. Discounts and season passes are also available. Most tours begin at noon on Saturdays and last about four hours. Check for details when booking. Buses leave from various locations around the Los Angeles area.

SURPRISES: The tours make frequent stops to meet with colorful L.A. denizens and visit historical buildings and L.A. oddities. “Crimebo the clown” and other colorful characters sometimes accompany the tours, and James Ellroy himself has led a couple of the tours to his sites.

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Information about this bus tour

There are no paper tickets: your name will be on a list at the bus door. Check in is at 11:30am for a 12pm sharp departure from the Daily Dose Cafe.

Food and drink are permitted and suggested; no audio or video-taping without permission. We regret that there are no refunds for passengers who miss the bus.

Parking / Breakfast suggestions

There is ample free parking in the neighborhood.

The Daily Dose is a great place for breakfast, but we recommend that you arrive about a half an hour before check in, so that neither you nor the cafe is rushed.

Need to reach us on tour day? Please phone Richard at 213-915-8687 after 8am.

Overview of this bus tour

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The Daily Dose Cafe
1820 Industrial Street
Los Angeles 90021
(213) 281-9300


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