Los Angeles’ neighbourhood spirit comes through in many ways. Long accused of not having neighbourhoods per se but just a collection of sometimes seamless blocks with road signs here and there alerting you that you are driving from one place to the next, the intricate personality map of this ever-changing city shines in the details. Take Westwood for example.
The North side is the domain of the young and smart, with the sprawling and beautiful UCLA campus occupying acres of green dotted by pleasant buildings and students’ housing. In the middle is the Wilshire corridor, one of those rare examples of skyscrapers built to withstand earthquakes (or so their wealthy residents hope). From the taller floors, the condos command sweeping views that run from downtown all the way to the ocean. Then there is the South side of Westwood, less glitzy and less hip, and the domain of the local Persian culture. With the flood of Iranians who started arriving after the fall of the Shah and who continued to move to LA steadily over the years and take up residence in Beverly Hills, business owners who could not afford to open their stores in the Flats, moved a few miles west to Westwood Boulevard, which was, for many years, a shopping desert. Bordered by the recently renovated Westside Pavilion on one end and one of the busiest intersections on the other, the stretch of Westwood Boulevard that has become Baghdad Central is rather quaint and quiet. Middle Eastern grocery stores abound, with Persian and Lebanese restaurants (had a great meal at Sherahazade by the way, on the inexpensive side too) aligned next to Borders and a couple of Italian Trattorias.
But the gem of this stretch of Boulevard is actually a throwback to the glamour of the old Hollywood days. In a city so obsessed with movies, there is a scarcity of jaw dropping movie theatres. The multiplexes have either upgraded and now offer reserved seats, upscale chocolate bars and lobby restaurants at premium ticket prices or remained the same small screen, bad-smelling, fake butter popcorn attractions of a recent past. Both involve difficult parking and advance planning.
And then there are the old Chinese and Egyptian theatres and the often overlooked Majestic Crest in Westwood.
All these theatres share the single screen model but what makes the Crest special is its quirky and beautifully preserved interior and a few nights ago, while in it, I started wondering how it all started, so far away from the Hollywood beaten path too.
The Crest was built in 1941 by Frances Seymour Fonda, mother of Jane and Peter and second wife of Henry. It was meant as a live theatre but, during the War, it became a gathering place to watch war newsreels and, following that, movies stuck. It changed hands over the decades, most famously becoming a Disney partnership for a while. Like many landmarks it fell in disrepair and was threatened to become a church and a parking lot until Robert Bucksmaun, a Westwood resident, took it over in 2003, renovated it and runs it to this day.
Once past the small lobby, the inside is nothing short of spectacular. The murals on the walls depict real Hollywood and Westwood buildings and are now backlit creating an old-fashioned aura of days gone by, all the better enjoyed in the silence and the dimmed lights that precede the beginning of a movie. No Muzak in the background or real estate commercials on the screen which, in fact, is curtained. The ceiling is dotted with shimmering stars that represent actual constellations – the San Diego night sky was photographed and faithfully reproduced.
You will know the movie is about to start when the stars start glimmering and the music of “That’s Entertainment” is played. The curtain is opened to an air of anticipation and the lights in the surrounding “buildings” are dimmed. Best of all, on most days, Robert Bucksmaun can be found at the front, welcoming the audience and introducing the feature. It just doesn’t get more old Hollywood than that.