Los Angeles Loses Another Movie Showplace

THE NATIONAL THEATRE - Westwood, Los Angeles, CA

The National Theatre in Westwood was one of the last big-screen, large capacity, individual movie theatres in Los Angeles; a rare example of late 60s-early 70s modern architecture.  Known for superior picture and sound presentation, The National Theatre was a favorite movie showplace in Los Angeles for over 37 years.

In March 1970, when National General Corporation opened a modern theatre in the Westwood district of Los Angeles. The National Theatre was heralded as...

Through the years, The National provided a fine showcase for films as diverse as BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, THE GOONIES, CHINATOWN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and THE EXORCIST. Launching a gradual release at the National in December 1973 before slowly opening wider in Spring 1974, THE EXORCIST at the National got plenty of media attention. Footage of the National's marquee, the film's title painted onto the side of the theatre, the writer William Peter Blatty and director William Friedkin, serving coffee to the long lines outside, people fainting and being revived in the lobby, was broadcast throughout the US and beyond. A recent episode in the "Movies that Shook the World" TV series includes many shots of the National's exterior, and its upper lobby. 

As the success of The Exorcist began to spread, Warners bought a full page newspaper ad in LA...

The National was very popular for its presentation of 70mm engagements, and it was equipped for Douglas Trumbull's new SHOWSCAN format for BRAINSTORM.  However, when digital sound came in, 70mm prints became scarce. When Paramount opened their blockbuster TITANIC, The National was one of a very few theatres that got a 70mm print, which looked fantastic on the National's big screen.

As multiplexes began to dominate the movie scene, the National began to show its age. Moviegoers migrated to other districts, and business began to decrease. In the fall of 2006, Mann Theatres announced that a rent increase made the National too expensive to keep, sparking much speculation and doubt about the theatre's chances for survival.   After extending their operations for a few more months, Mann closed the National in May 2007.

New hope arrived when an independent operator re-opened the National in May, featuring new but low-profile films.  When it reopened, we learned that the National was being leased to a man who also operated the former Mann theatres in Culver City.  We were told by a National staffer that he held a year lease on the National until spring 2008, with a possible option for two more, and that the owner had no immediate plans for tearing the theatre down. However, we knew that did not mean that there weren't plans in the works to destroy it eventually.

In the summer of 2007, a "Public Notice of Planned Demolition" was posted in one of the National's windows. It was then announced at a screening by an LA Film Festival rep that the owner was planning to demolish the National, and build a Banana Republic store in its place.  This announcement brought a strong fear that we would lose the National Theatre unless a miracle happened to save it.  An online petition was begun to Save the National Theatre and local cinema buffs began signing on.

Lack of a definitive answer directly from the National's owner and operator fueled a good deal of suspicion.  What about that Demolition Notice?   It is not unheard of for an owner to avoid a public outcry by keeping a theatre open while quietly arranging for its demolition.  In this scenario, a theatre could close suddenly on a weekend, and be gone shortly after.  This happens all the time... and it has happened to the National.

On Sunday, October 7 2007, with no advance warning or fanfare, the National Theatre was quietly closed.  It seems, as we suspected, that "the re-opening" was just a devious way to avoid any movement to save the theatre until they finalized their plans to destroy it. 

A few determined individuals, called Friends of the National Theatre, filed an application with the LA Cultural Heritage Commission to grant the building Historical-Cultural Monument status.

On November 1st, 2007 a meeting of the Cultural Heritage commissioners was held at LA City Hall.  A strong case was made for saving the theatre, and many of the theatre's merits were discussed.  It was noted that there was no other standing theatre left from the late sixties era of architecture, that remained completely unaltered from its original form.  Industry sound experts pointed out that the National's acoustics were significantly superior to most movie venues in Los Angeles, including every other popular big screen theatre in LA.  Four Commissioners voted unanimously to put the National Theatre under consideration as an historic and culturally significant building. 

However, after an onsite inspection and a further review, the National Theatre was denied landmark status.  Determined to demolish this irreplaceable theatre, The property owner, Simms Development corp, even turned down a lucrative offer (reportedly from Actor/Producer Robert Redford for Sundance Cinemas) to buy the building and keep it as a theatre.  According to pubic records, Simms planned to replace the theatre with a "one-story commercial space with rooftop parking." 

As this theatre was being demolished, we predicted that the National was destined to follow the same fate as the Kallet Genesee in Syracuse - a nice viable theatre, destroyed for a forgettable building, with a chain-store business that quickly fails...   We  thought we would be looking at some dull building that no one will want to save 35 years from now.  We were sure that somewhere down the line, it would become obvious that we have lost something special, in favor of something forgettable.  Again.

Remember the owner of the National actually turned down an offer to buy the theatre.  Robert Redford wanted to keep it as a theatre, but Mr. Owner refused.  He just HAD to demolish it for something he was sure would make him a bundle.  Right...   two years later, 1n summer 2010, the only thing on the sad, empty lot where this exceptional showplace once stood, (in almost 5 feet of weedy brush) was a sign advertising a dull retail building that was due for: Spring 2009.  Yeah.  Missed that date a bit.  More than a year after Mr. Owner's Big Deal Building was supposed to open, there was nothing there.  He turned down a buyer for... an empty lot.  We could only hope his pockets were equally empty.  By summer 2013, a full five years after the owner demolished the National, a construction crew had dug a deep hole in its place.  Whatever goes in there won't fill the hole in LA Moviegoer's hearts.

National Theatre - 10925 Lindbrook at Gayley Avenue - Westwood Village, Los Angeles, CA


Moviegoer's Note: just up the street to the left of the dearly departed National is a nice NY style pizza place called Lamonica's. New Yorkers will feel right at home in the place - it's decorated with vintage subway signs. The pizza is fresh and tasty, (excellent cheese to sauce ratio!) and the prices are quite reasonable.   A most worthy detour on the way to any of the last remaining theatres in Westwood.

Lamonica's New York Pizza - 1066 Gayley Avenue - Westwood Village, LA 310-208-8671

Text © 2008, 2010 by TJ Edwards