a standing, neon sign that says American Legion Hollywood Post 43This weekend, the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation (LAHTF) hosted their first in-person theater tour in more than a year, this time going behind the scenes with an enthusiastic, socially distanced crowd at the Hollywood Legion Theater at the American Legion’s Post 43.

Both LAHTF and the Legion Theater have made exceptional strides in pivoting their cultural offerings for the virtual/household-pod-sized world, so it felt appropriate that they would be united here as an early return to in-person gatherings. While I’d run into LAHTF at events before, I’d never actually attended one of their solo-hosted tours—but when they started offering live “Coffee and Conversation” webinars, designed to somewhat replicate that experience, they quickly became part of my Saturday morning routine! Like their in-person tours, each webinar spotlights a different historic theater in the LA area, and includes a ton of history, photos, videos, and other extensive research. While backstage tours were obviously their bread-and-butter, the virtual versions regularly attract hundreds of attendees, as well as new members, so I was pleased to hear them pledge to continue the virtual events alongside in-person!

a film projection booth made out of a shipping container

Likewise, following extensive, impressive renovations to their physical space, the Legion Theater had been open for less than a year before everything closed down in March. But they too pivoted quickly to a new pandemic model: a drive in theater, set up in the building’s rear parking lot. Unlike a lot of the pop-up drive-ins that have appeared in the LA area over the last year, the Legion folks have taken a much more considerate, permanent-minded approach to the drive-in experience, from the delightful snack box included in the ticket price, to actually projecting 35mm prints when possible, and even occasional live keyboard accompaniment for silent films. They definitely seemed to understand that, for many moviegoers, especially in LA, the movie title itself is only one component of the theatrical experience, and there are many other factors that are important to us in making decisions on where and when to go.

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While I’d gone to the Legion drive in several times this past year, I’d actually never been inside the indoor theater, or really anything other than the basement hallways. But I found that that level of detail I’d experienced at the drive-in carried on throughout many of the public spaces.

an ornate, tiled entrance to the American Legion

The event started with a presentation on the theater’s history by LAHTF board member Mike Hume, then a walk-through of the building’s $5 million restoration by theater director Bill Steele, followed by a Q&A with Steele and chief projectionist/creative director Taylor Umphenour moderated by LAHTF president Tiffany Nitsche. Although I had already attended the virtual Coffee & Conversation on the Legion Theater, it was nice to be hearing about learning about it in the actual space this time. There were lots of interesting details to learn that kind of required being able to look around, such as Steele relating the architect’s technique of taking a film still from war movies, pixelating them, and using the patterns in the acoustic tiling on the walls as a subtle nod to the theater’s original purpose.

the side wall of a movie theater

Can you see Saving Private Ryan (1998) or The Longest Day (1962) in the dots (the brown, lower third portion of the wall)? I sure can’t, but I will take their word for it.

We also got to see a reel of Tenet in 70mm—which I’ll say I enjoyed more than the first time I saw the movie, especially as I could just watch for the spectacle of it without worrying about trying to follow what was going on.

an old fashioned bar with mirrored wall behind it

Next, we were broken into small groups for a tour of the building, from basement bar to rooftop projection booth. Since the primary focus of the building was to serve as a clubhouse of sorts for American veterans, the various cabinets, hallways, and rooms are chock full of memorabilia revealing the building’s history. It also includes some very stylish lounge areas, some of which are now available for event rentals. I’m especially excited for the beautiful Art Deco bar in the basement to re-open during screenings (used memorably, but almost unrecognizably, in Star Trek (2009)).

We also hiked up to the projection booth, where projectionists Taylor Umphenour and Scott DuVall went over some of the processes of changeover projection, film inspection, and all the other fun stuff that happens (literally) over the audience’s heads, usually without them realizing. The reels pictured below are for Tenet and Dunkirk—just getting them up and down all those stairs seems like a full day’s exertion!

a crowd of people inside a film projection booth

So, what is the best way to support historic movie theaters, and help preserve the moviegoing experience for the future? Bill Steele summed it up thusly: “Buy a ticket.”


Join LAHTF for exclusive access and/or discounts to their events like these, and to support their mission.

Check out the Legion Theater’s upcoming calendar, for both the indoor theater and the drive-in.

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