Monday, March 19, 2012

Coordinates: 620 Lincoln Boulevard

As it stands, 2010
THE FOX DISCOUNT DEPARTMENT  Store is quite a fancy name for what, in essence, is an indoor flea market. Technically, yes, it is a store, with different vendors establishing the departments, selling discount merchandise, so the name isn't entirely deceptive. But then there's that towering Fox sign, coupled with the peaked street-facing awning that suggests a former glory as a palace of cinematic dreams and memory.

In my early teens I found myself running with an older crowd. As our junior and senior high school orchestras were combined many of us seventh and eighth graders found ourselves sharing music stands with tenth and eleventh graders who were more than happy to bring us unto their world, and we were more than happy to follow. How could I resist? They had access to cars and could drive, and to be a fourteen-year-old tagging along on weeknight and weekend adventures beyond the easy bicycling confines of Culver City was like winning the lottery.

Many of those excursions led to 620 Lincoln Boulevard where I would pony up a dollar and fifty cents to see a double bill at what was the Fox Venice Theatre. In the days before cable and video-on-demand, before DVDs, before VCRs even, the only way to see an old movie was either by chance on TV or in second-run theatres like the Fox Venice where films were programmed into interesting combinations on a calendar. The bills changed daily and it wasn't unusual for the theatre to sell out its 900 seats on any given weeknight. Despite the glut of content all over the web today from streaming sights like Netflix I still occasionally discover films that I saw at the Fox Venice that as yet never made it to video or DVD.

1980 calendar. Every cool kid had one on his wall.
Back then, seeing the Fox Venice calendar in a rack at a music store, a bookstore, or better yet on the walls of a friend's bedroom, lent a cache of cultural cool to those establishments. There was an ad hoc, free-spirited, clinging hippie vibe in those silk-screened calendars, a beautiful chaos in those paste-up graphics that bespoke a love of the movies. The audiences were no less eclectic, consisting of college-age adults and cinephiles, nostalgic older adults banking the fires of their memories while feeding off the energies of a younger generation, and younger kids like myself who felt we were getting a peek into a non-conformist counter culture. Today the experience might derisively be viewed as a sort of hipster scene, but it was a scene outside the mainstream unironically beholden to the cast-offs of Hollywood's memory, a church dedicated to the art form removed from its commercial trappings.

Fading glory, 1968
It's difficult to look at this bland, blue-gray building and think this was the place where I encountered many firsts. It was where I saw my first R and X-rated movies – if the soft-core satire Flesh Gordon really counts as a true X-rated movie anymore. Watching a midnight show of the Jamaican gangster-biopic hybrid The Harder They Fall became a crash course in the burgeoning Rastafarian subculture, back in a day when theatres still had smoking sections and wouldn't think of insisting on only tobacco. Not that I smoked, not that the theatre could enforce their own policies, not that anyone cared that the auditorium glowed with the blue haze of marijuana illuminated by the light on the screen. This was where I saw David Bowie as The Man Who Fell to Earth, where Tod Browning introduced me to Freaks, where I saw Rocky Horror with the creators of audience participation... all before I was old enough to drive. The Fox Venice was where I saw my first foreign films and realized there were stories, real stories, that movies could tell, with ambiguous and not always happy endings.

These experiences were formative and not in the least minor. Prior to the Fox Venice I had a vague sense of wanting to work in movies, but it left me with a life-long questioning of what it meant to tell stories that were true. There was also a reverence that could be felt sitting in that mid-century modern auditorium, this idea that, as a young teen, I was accepted into an adult audience. No one asked me what I was doing there or thought it weird or made me feel as thought I couldn't appreciate what transpired on the screen.

Somewhere in the dark of the Fox Venice, amid the hormonal confusion and narrative dissonance, I lost my childhood innocence. There is a hazy image I have of an alien-looking band of musicians crowded on stage playing an odd arrangement of “Minnie the Moocher” as sung by the devil, the band wearing turbans like bath towels embedded with mechanical eyeballs surveying the audience. Anecdotal evidence over the years suggests this was an early gig from a group called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, later to cute their name down to the last two words, featuring a young Danny Elfman as the devil. But there I was, hearing Cab Calloway's words coming out the rubbery, exaggerated mouth of red-painted crooner inside a shrine dedicated to holding on to the orphans of cinema, and I felt both enthralled and at home. Any true map of the places I have lived in my life wold have to include the address 620 Lincoln.

Opening Night.
What had opened in 1951 as a part of the Fox West Coast Theatre Corporation's exhibition chain, a deco-infused first-run house showing traditional Hollywood fare, had by 1968 found itself on the ropes. Whether because of dropping attendance in the age of television or the fact that the theatre didn't posses the majesty (or prime location) of it's sister theatres in Westwood and on Wilshire, the building's decline as a theatre was protracted but inevitable. Gaining a second wind as a revival theatre in the 1970s then as an Art house in the early 1980s, the Fox Venice couldn't hold on in an era where most palaces (or barns, as large older theatres were called by that time) were carved into multiplexes or simply leveled for their land. The final blow came in 1988 when building renovations uncovered asbestos, a common fire-proofing material that was commonly used in public buildings since been known to cause cancerous mesothelioma, that forced the auditorium to be shut down and gutted. That the basic shell of the Fox Venice theatre still stands is more a testament to the fact that the surrounding neighborhood hasn't seen much in the way of modern development and, sadly, not some grand notion that the building is worth anything beyond the memories it triggers.

It would be fitting to end with a memory of the last film I ever saw at the Fox Venice, but I just don't know what it was. It would had to have been in late July or early August of 1980, and the fact that I don't remember it as strongly as other outings that summer after I graduated from high school – final group excursions to Stan's Donuts and Falaful King in Westwood, last “hangs” with friends at Foster's Freeze on Washington Blvd. and sunsets at Dockweiler Beach in Playa Del Rey, a last stroll of the Fox Hills Mall and a group field trip to Magic Mountain in Valencia – leads me to believe that the last movie I ever saw at the Fox Venice was a solo outing. And as I did when I moved away to college, I never said goodbye to friends and family thinking I would never see them again, I never thought to say a final farewell to the Fox Venice I knew and loved.

-- David Elzey 

photo credits, from top to bottom:
Los Angeles Movie Palaces, photo credit: Bill Counter
the author's private collection
Cinema Treasures 
USC Digital Library, Herald Examiner Collection, photo credit: Donald Irwin Sandusky

additional reference material:
Virtual Venice, "Tale of the Fox," from the Free Venice Beachhead, June 1978

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