In the spotlight, Legion Theater brings down the house
The Turner Classic Film Festival at American Legion Post 43 in Hollywood, Calif., on Saturday, April 13, 2019. Photo by Schelly Stone/The American Legion.

In the spotlight, Legion Theater brings down the house

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The reviews are in.

People are raving about Hollywood Post 43’s newly renovated Legion Theater.

The nearly 500-seat theater featuring state-of-the-art digital projection and sound systems, and 35mm and 70mm capabilities, was on full display to crowds of movie buffs April 11-14 during the 10th annual Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. For three full days and four nights, the theater served as the backdrop for a mix of classics like “The Sound of Music ‘’ – which was shown on 70mm film – “Sergeant York,” “High Society,” “The Little Colonel” and “Wuthering Heights,” a Tom Mix double feature, and a mix of other lesser-known gems and cult classics. Films were presented in formats that included 35mm, 70mm and digital.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) executives praised the theater throughout the week. TCM Film Festival director Genevieve McGillicuddy both raved about the Legion Theater and thanked Hollywood Post 43 for its support of the festival, calling Post 43’s members “amazing partners” and thanked them for “welcoming us with open arms and for giving us this amazing new venue."

“We started talking about this venue two years ago. We are so proud to be a part of this project. We’re so proud to be here. They just had a remarkable restoration here, and we’re excited to be here," McGillicuddy said.

Similar praise came from Mark Wynns, director of Enterprises & Strategic Partnerships for TCM. He thanked Hollywood Post 43 for the use of “this gloriously renovated theater … (and) for having us here. This is the only veteran-run movie theater in Los Angeles, and they really have been working 24 hours a day trying to get this ready for you. We couldn’t ask for a better partnership.”

And TCM host Ben Mankiewicz was at Post 43 for screenings of “Broadway Danny Rose” and “The Sound of Music” on April 13. “I want to thank American Legion Post 43 for opening (the Legion Theater) up for us,” he said. “This is … a beautiful, beautiful place. What a great theater to add to our lineup here at the festival.” Mankiewicz even took time to head downstairs and shot a quick video for Twitter about the post.

But the strong reviews didn’t just come from festival representatives. Those who came to Post 43 during the festival walked away impressed. For Donna Allen, this year marked her ninth time attending TCM’s Film Festival. She was at the Legion Theater for both “The Sound of Music” and the Tom Mix double feature.

Allen said Post 43’s venue is “absolutely beautiful. It’s amazing what they’ve built here. It was really overwhelming to see such a beautiful theater located in what is an amazing building.”

But being at Post 43 meant a little bit more to Allen, the wife of a retired U.S. Navy senior chief, the niece of two World War II veterans and the mother of an Air Force lieutenant colonel: Karen, who attended this year’s festival with Donna.

“It’s an honor to be in this building because of the men and ladies who are a part of it,” Donna said. “They went out and sacrificed for our country. And then they came back, created this place and used it like their second home: to relax, get together, share stories and have a good time. It was a place for them to regroup, and I’m honored to be here.”

Tracy Nelson, who got her acting start as a 4-year-old playing Germaine Beardsley in “Yours, Mine and Ours,” and later went on to star in TV’s “Square Pegs” and “Father Dowling Mysteries," took part in a discussion following the screening of her film debut.

The words first out of Nelson’s mouth were focused on her surroundings. “This is such an amazing theater,” she said. “It’s great to have everybody come and see it.”

Others took to social media to offer their praise. On Twitter, Wild Wolves Talent Agency (@Rayne_Music) – which represents veterans in the entertainment industry – thanked TCM “for sharing such beautiful films on such beautiful screens. The American Legion Post 43, historic Legion Theater is absolutely stunning!”

And writer Deborah Leigh (@D_Leigh_Writes) tweeted out that the Legion Theater “is so perfectly pristine and Hollywood-bungalow classic, I think it's now my favorite #TCMFF venue.”

Those kind of reviews were music to the ears of Fernando Rivero, who was on Post 43’s executive committee when the idea of renovating the theater was first floated. He offered to explore the possibility and was post commander when the construction began.

Back on the executive board now, Rivero said the film festival was “cathartic to hear people’s genuine and unsolicited praise for what we’ve worked so hard to bring here. This has been a five-year journey. It’s an incredible validation for just the toil that we put in.

“I work in the entertainment business (at FX Networks). I go to premieres. I go to the after-parties after the premieres. As a lover of old Hollywood, as a lover of all things Hollywood history, Hollywood history and military history, I thought this was this perfect nexus. There’s nothing new in Hollywood, and this is Hollywood’s newest historic theater.”

Legion Theater Manager and Post 43 member Bill Steele, who served as the post project manager during the renovation, came away from the weekend with similar emotions. “It feels fantastic. It’s validation for all our hard efforts, all the money we’ve invested, all the labor of love we’ve put into this,” he said. “And it’s a testament to the enduring legacy of The American Legion. It imparts these positive feelings in the public. To me, it really means a lot that we’re helping continue the legacy of The American Legion as a whole and leaving that positive impact on the public’s consciousness is part of the story.”

Steele was optimistic heading into the film festival. But how things actually went “exceeded everyone’s expectations. We’ve had really good turnout for this. There’s been a lot of buzz about this new venue. I know that the festival organizers are thrilled with our performance and the quality of the venue. It’s all good as far as we’re concerned.”

Ditto for Post 43 Legionnaire Tammy Clifton, who was at the post during part of the festival, wearing her cap and being “a face for the Legion.” Seeing the festival taking place at her own American Legion post "has been absolutely thrilling. When I first joined they were renovating the theater. We had a meeting and I was suggested we have the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival here, and … that was one of the things they wanted to do. I’m absolutely thrilled that that happened. Beyond thrilled.”

Upstairs in the projection room, similar enthusiasm flowed. Post 43 House Engineer Roger Addams has been in the technical side of the movies for 40 years, first starting as a projectionist and later moving to engineering. He started working at Post 43 last summer and saw the film festival as an ideal fit for the Legion Theater.

“It’s great. This is the perfect combination of old and new technology together. We have the digital. We have the new lighting and beautiful new auditorium. And then we have the film. It’s such a beautiful film. And it’s such a beautiful venue. Everybody loves it. It’s really spectacular.”

Legion Theater Chief Projectionist Taylor Umphenour started as an IMAX film projectionist at 17 and enjoyed the opportunity to work with multiple formats during the festival. “It’s been amazing,” he said. “For me, it’s been a confluence of months of work by me, the other technicians in the booth, synthesizing all the different knowledge bases to get all these systems working together. And the support of the veteran community to make this all happen has been incredible.”

It also likely will pave the way for future, perhaps more frequent evets. “It would be wonderful to do one-off events like this, but I think the potential for this theater is far, far greater than just one film festival,” Steele said. “It holds a tremendous prospect for engaging an entirely new audience for a new kind of programming that reflects our Legion values but also offers something new to the Hollywood film-going public.”

That the theater actually uses film, not just digital, is a point of pride for Steele. “We’re helping preserve film here, which is extremely hard to do,” he said. “It adds a halo of prestige to The American Legion organization as a whole that you have a post that has created has created essentially a world-class theater that competes with the finest theaters in the world. And I underscore ‘in the world.’ It’s that good.”

Not lost on Rivero is the potential the theater brings to Post 43 in terms of brand awareness. “What you see this weekend is this building teeming with life in a way that I think will be ongoing, continuous, and will not only be a revenue generator for us, it will really make us a community center,” he said. “Our community here and our veterans can mix together and learn about us, and we can expand our networks so we’re not just inward-looking.”

Rivero believes the new theater can have a long-lasting impact on the post as The American Legion celebrates its centennial.

“This has expanded into what I hoped it would be, which is the next 100 years of The American Legion (and) the next 100 years of Hollywood Post 43,” Rivero said. “People would say the golden era of the post was the golden era of Hollywood. I’m thinking ‘I work in cable television. We’re experiencing a new golden era of television.’ Why can’t we have a second golden era at the Hollywood American Legion?

“This is a theater in Hollywood owned and operated by veterans. It belongs to all Legionnaires, all the Legion Family. It’s a place I hope that vets can look to ... to show who we are.”