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Los Angeles Billy Wilder Theater Highlights Classic Films, Modern Art

A new theater in Los Angeles promises to be a gathering place for both film lovers and art aficionados. Mike O'Sullivan reports, the venue is named in honor of movie director Billy Wilder, and will showcase classic movies, modern literature and art.

Located in the Hammer Museum near the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles, the Billy Wilder Theater will present material from the school's extensive archive of film and television productions. UCLA's Cheng-Sim Lim says the archive is the second-largest repository of moving-image media in the world, after the U.S. Library of Congress. She says the theater handles all major formats, including digital video. "We show cinema from all eras, from the earliest cinema to the most current in all formats. We show silent movies at their appropriate projection speed. We show nitrate films, which is a very, very rare and incredibly privileged thing, if you are able to watch it," he said.

Early films that used the chemical silver nitrate cast a distinctive glow on the screen, giving rise to the term "silver screen" in describing cinema. The Wilder Theater is one of a handful of sites around the United States that can show the nitrate prints.

The Hammer Museum, where the theater is located, grew out of the private art holdings of the late industrialist Armand Hammer, who founded of the Occidental Petroleum Company. The museum has expanded its scope beyond his personal collections to include modern painting, photographs, sculpture and electronic media art.

Museum director Ann Philbin says, in addition to showing films, the new theater will be an important cultural center. "We have a very strong literature reading series. We have performance. We obviously do the visual arts. We have more and more music programs. And now that we have a theater, film will become an important part of what we do as well," he said.

Architect Michael Maltzan says the Hollywood theme is seen in many parts of the theater, from the image of Billy Wilder looking down on the entryway to the long mural that resembles a filmstrip with a three-dimensional image. "There are a number of architectural elements along the way, a long strip of lenticular film which acts as a kind of ever-changing three-dimensional image of one of Wilder's famous films, Sunset Boulevard, a famous scene from that," he said.

The scene shows Gloria Swanson, the late actress who is well known for her role as a fading Hollywood starlet.

Billy Wilder's other credits include the comedy Some Like it Hot, which starred Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, and the murder mystery Double Indemnity, with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck. The director died in 2002, and a $5-million gift from his widow, Audrey, made this theater possible.

Inside the venue, one seat stands out from the others. A lone brown chair in a sea of pink marks the place where Billy Wilder would sit in similar theaters while watching screenings of his movies. The architect says it marks his symbolic presence.

That is appropriate, says Robert Rosen, dean of the UCLA school of theater, film and television, who notes that Wilder was a commanding presence in Hollywood. "Here we have a man who was extraordinarily prolific, who was a writer, who was a director, who was a producer, who loved actors, who respected the collaborative nature of the film project, as strong an ego as he had. He embodies the notion of quality, the real notion of excellence in the history of American film, and world film," he said.

The new Billy Wilder Theater will present hundreds of films and videos each year, and host a range of public programs, from presentations by modern writers to dialogues on the arts.