It was a night pretty much like any other night, in January 1997. A group of film buff friends — 24-year-old John Nash, who was at the time an assistant editor for Roger Corman, his twin brother, his girlfriend, two co-workers and musician Skot Alexander — attended the newest, kickiest deal in town: Laurence Austin’s Silent Movie Showcase in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District.
Austin, whose father and an uncle had worked in the silent film industry, never lost his love for the art form. So he created a place where like-minded folks could gather and geek out on a mother lode of silent films he’d been gifted from his contacts in the movie business. On Jan. 17, 1997, Nash and his friends rolled in for a showing of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, still known for its groundbreaking use of tracking shots.
Austin announced the film in a well-rehearsed spiel — “My name is Laurence Austin and I welcome you to the world’s only silent movie theater!” — right before the lights dimmed and the live piano player started to play people into the Academy Award-winning 1927 dramatic comedy.
The shooter was shooting into the crowded theater and … the piano player was still playing.
But not too long into the movie Nash heard something other than the piano player.
“I heard three, or maybe it was four pops. From the lobby,” Nash says. A few heads swiveled around, curious about the source of the noise. But the piano player kept playing and so did the movie.
Then, a pause … and the door from the lobby opened on a silhouette, the light behind it cutting into the dark theater. And now, a certainty: The “pops” had been gunshots. The shooter was shooting into the crowded theater and though the piano player was still playing, audience members had started to hit the deck.
“The first thing I thought of was James Huberty,” Nash says, referring to the shooter at the 1984 San Ysidro McDonald’s massacre that claimed 21 victims and injured 19. But the shooter, in this case, was just clearing a getaway path. Running down the aisle past Nash and his friends, the shooter made it to the back door, when Nash and his brother gave chase.
“Well, that’s what people thought we did,” Nash says, laughing. “That’s what it probably looked like, but we really just wanted to see which way he was going so we could tell the cops.” Five minutes later, the cops arrived. The projectionist, who had stopped the film and come down to the lobby, announced, “Larry Austin is dead.”
And indeed he was: Shot in the head, Austin was splayed out on the lobby floor near 19-year-old Mary Giles, who worked concessions and had been shot as well. The projectionist claimed it was a robbery as the cops ushered people back into the theater and away from the crime scene.
Questions came about later, according to eventual news reports, because people wanted answers. Like, if it was a robbery why had not much of anything been stolen?
Questions that caused cops to keep asking them until, like some ’70s detective show, the truth stumbled out. It turned out that the overly calm projectionist, 27-year-old James Van Sickle, not only had been Austin’s lover and apparently a willed beneficiary to all of what Austin owned (more than a million-dollar estate, theater included), but he had also hired the hitman, 21-year-old Christian Rodriguez.
A cool $25,000 to kill Austin and another $5,000 to kill Giles. Oh, and to make it look like robbery. For not making it look enough like a robbery? Both Van Sickle and Rodriguez were sentenced to life in prison.
“It was the most excitement Fairfax had seen in a long time,” says former Los Angeles Times journalist Ed Newton about the traditionally Jewish section of town where Austin’s theater had been located. But while Fairfax has retained a certain kind of cool, the dream of a silent movie theater passed with Austin: The theater was put up for sale after the murder and turned into an event space and regular cinema before closing down completely.
“You never know what you’d do in a situation like that,” Nash says. Probably something that needs to be thought of more in 2019 with mass shootings sadly becoming an almost monthly occurrence. “But it was so seemingly unreal that as stupid as our very real response was, I’d like to think that it wouldn’t be that uncommon.”