Laemmle Theatres Is Surviving – but Not All of Its Screens Will Make It

When the City of Los Angeles dubbed a square mile of North Hollywood the NoHo Arts District in 1992, the area was becoming home to an ever-increasing number of small theaters and art galleries, as well as dance, acting and film academies. The neighborhood gained even more cachet in 2000 as an attractive haunt for creatives when a new Metro subway stop opened, providing affordable transportation to the center of the neighborhood at Lankershim and Magnolia.

When the storied, family-owned Laemmle Theatres arthouse chain opened the NoHo 7 in 2011, it brought even more arts street cred to the block. The theater doesn’t have the architectural glamor of downtown’s old movie palaces, but it quickly became a neighborhood favorite with its attractive blend of blockbusters and arthouse fare, film festivals and other indie events.

However, the beloved NoHo 7 may be gone by year end, sacrificed to keep the rest of Laemmle’s theaters open.

The company sold three of its properties to cover costs when the pandemic shuttered its theaters. The NoHo 7 could close as soon as the end of 2023, company leader Greg Laemmle told TheWrap.

A Catch-22 lifeline

Laemmle Theatres applied for a $905,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan in 2020, but didn’t actually receive the funds until 2021, federal records show, because its theaters had to be open to be eligible for the money, and California didn’t allow cinemas to reopen until March 2021.

The delay was costly. Laemmle said that if the government pandemic support had come through earlier, the company might not have sold the properties. But the alternative was letting them go into foreclosure.

He remains philosophical about the loss of several beloved neighborhood theaters, as well as the dark pandemic period that led him and wife Tish to sell their Century City home and move to Seattle to offset expenses and debt during a time of “zero income.”

Robert and Greg Laemmle in the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles, one of the theaters facing closure. (Photo: Courtesy Laemmle family)
Robert and Greg Laemmle in the Laemmle Royal in West Los Angeles, one of the theaters facing closure. (Photo: Courtesy Laemmle family)

“Not every soldier survived the war, and not every individual theater is going to make it through this thing, because it has been challenging,” Laemmle told TheWrap in a recent conversation in the lobby of the NoHo 7, adorned by classic movie posters. “We’re sitting here right now in a movie theater that is scheduled to close — not scheduled, because they don’t have a date — but it’s likely going to be closed, and that’s sad.”

No one can predict the slow crawl of real estate development, but in the case of the NoHo 7, the property on Lankershim Boulevard in the NoHo Arts District is slated to become a seven-story mixed-use complex including 128 apartments. Laemmle Theatres will get only 60 days’ notice when its time to vacate the premises for demolition.

The loss of the NoHo 7 and other theaters isn’t the end of Laemmle Theaters.

“We’re going to figure out eventually how to get people back more consistently to see arthouse films,” Laemmle said. “We’re going to come up with a financial model that makes sense for that. And if that’s not seven screens and 1,000 seats, we’ll figure out what’s right.”

Not every soldier survived the war, and not every individual theater is going to make it through this thing.”

Greg Laemmle

West L.A.’s Laemmle Royal has also been sold to an investor, but Laemmle will probably continue to occupy the theater for a longer period. The new owner has not revealed a plan for the property.

The Playhouse 7 in Pasadena also was sold in 2020, and continued to operate as a Laemmle theater until 2022, when rival chain Landmark entered into a long-term lease with the owner to operate it.

Kurt and Max Laemmle, the nephews of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, opened their first Culver City theater in 1938. Robert, Max’s son, took it over in the 1960s.

Greg and Tish have triplet sons, 29, who are not involved in day-to-day operations.

“I like to say they are not yet involved in the business,” Laemmle joked.

“The Laemmle theaters have been — and still are — such a vital part of the Los Angeles filmgoing experience, so to hear that any of them may be closing is heartbreaking,” Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, wrote in an email. “Any Angeleno who loves independent film knows how important the Laemmle theaters are.”

Robert, Max and Greg Laemmle. (Photo: Courtesy Laemmle family)
Robert, Max and Greg Laemmle. (Photo: Courtesy Laemmle family)

Saving theaters

Laemmle’s Claremont Theater was in the process of being sold but Laemmle canceled escrow on the deal in January. It continues to own and operate the theater although the long-term future of the struggling location is anything but assured.

“I just didn’t want to see another movie theater close,” Laemmle said.

The Laemmle chain has faced heart-wrenching decisions before. It had to sell its historic Los Feliz theater in 1987.

In 2019, the chain walked back a plan to sell its area theaters, amid competition from national mutiplex chains and streaming services bringing traditionally indie movie house fare directly to home screens, to the delight of L.A.’s indie movie fans.

That story is included the 2021 documentary “Only in Theaters,” detailing the history of the movie house chain and the Laemmle family and directed by actor/director Raphael Sbarge. Sbarge admitted there’s a certain irony to the fact that right now “Only in Theaters” is only available online. However the documentary did play on the big screen at Laemmle Theatres in 2022, as well as other locations.

Max and Kurt with parents Sigmund and Alice Laemmle. (Photo: Courtesy Laemmle family)
Max and Kurt with parents Sigmund and Alice Laemmle. (Photo: Courtesy Laemmle family)

Sbarge, who now lives in New York, told TheWrap that Laemmle Theatres played a pivotal role in his film-going life when he resided in L.A.

“NoHo 7 anchored the whole arts district,” Sbarge said. “There are so many film festivals that used the NoHo theater as their point of departure.”

For independents, added Sbarge, “it’s great if you get into Sundance or Tribeca, but 98% of us are looking for someplace else to go.”

A chain built on tradition

Besides hosting film festivals, filmmaker panels and premieres for lesser-known movies, Laemmle’s theaters have long been known for reaching out to the community — in the case of NoHo 7, by featuring local artists on their walls. In a perhaps insolent gesture at the pandemic strictures that hobbled the business, the figures in some classic movie posters on the walls are still sporting COVID-era face masks.

Then there’s the quirky Laemmle lamb — laemmle (pronounced “lem-lee”) means “little lamb” in Yiddish — whose woolly image regularly appears in trailers, sometimes with a message along the lines of shut up already during the show. The lamb sometimes appears as classic movie characters, including what appears to be Dr. Frankenstein. (Even that may be a family nod: Carl Laemmle Jr. was a producer on the 1931 Universal movie “Frankenstein.”)

The Laemmle lamb as Dr. Frankenstein (ish). (Photo: Courtesy Laemmle Theatres)
The Laemmle lamb as Dr. Frankenstein (ish). (Photo: Courtesy Laemmle Theatres)

One particularly popular event is Laemmle’s “alternative Christmas Eve” sing-along screenings of the 1975 classic “Fiddler on the Roof,” with attendees invited to dress the part as Tevye the dairyman, his long-suffering wife or his three lovely daughters. The screenings began in 2008 and, save for a pandemic hiatus, have played on Dec. 24 at all the Laemmle theaters in various years to sold-out houses.

Journalist and author Barbara Isenberg recalled being invited to set up a table at Laemmle’s Royal to sign her book “Tradition!” in 2014. She was astonished to find lines around the block to get in. The Laemmle family provided mini jelly donuts available to moviegoers in keeping with the Jewish tradition of eating fried foods for Hanukkah, she recalled. Being near the refreshments, Isenberg pointed out, always improves book sales.

Things are looking up for Laemmle Theatres. Its newest location in Newhall, whose opening was derailed by the pandemic, finally opened in April 2021. Besides the doomed NoHo 7 and Royal and the rescued Claremont, Laemmle also owns and operates the Glendale, Monica Film Center and Town Center 5 in Encino.

Grant money has made the company solvent, although independent exhibitors might say that the future of an independent theater chain remains as shaky as… well, “Fiddler” fans know the rest.

At least for now, Laemmle said the plan is to go ahead with “Fiddler” on Christmas Eve at the NoHo 7 and the rest of the venues. That 60-day notice, though, could come any time.

“There are plenty of people in the industry that talk about how staff shows up on Friday, and they don’t know that Sunday’s the last day,” Laemmle said. “We’ve never dealt with our staff that way and we’ve never dealt with the public that way.

“The staff is going to know what the closing date is. And the public will know when the closing date is. I do hope that in the interim we’re still here, that people still continue to support the theater.”

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