Role of a Lifetime
Bob Laemmle revived the family cinema business one theater at a time
You could say that Bob Laemmle (’58) was born to be in the movie business. His father Max and Uncle Kurt opened the Laemmle movie theater chain in 1938. Their cousin, Carl Laemmle, was the founder of Universal Studios.
But when Bob was attending L.A. State College in the 1950s, going into the family business wasn’t an obvious choice.
“By that time, television arrived. It was disastrous because the audience just dwindled away and there was not enough support for neighborhood movie theaters, so they started to close,” says Laemmle. “The one family-run theater that remained was Los Feliz. And the decision was that my uncle would find another occupation. My dad was left to run the theater by himself and it provided a modest enough living for our family. But there was never really any reason for me to think about being in the ownership of that theater.”
Instead, Laemmle studied business administration in between working full-time and shooting hoops on legendary Coach Sax Elliot’s 1957 and ’58 basketball squad—the best team in the school’s history. After graduation, Laemmle completed a master’s degree in finance from UCLA and got a full-time job analyzing loans at a bank in downtown L.A.
Then in 1962, Laemmle was asked to manage the Los Feliz theater while his mother and father left for an extended trip to visit his sister, who had just had a baby.
“I’d be at the bank’s office and for about two hours or so every day, I’d have to make phone calls ordering supplies and running the business,” says Laemmle. “After those six weeks, the realization sort of hit me that if anything ever happened to my dad, I would have to know what this business is really about. Because selling candy doesn’t teach you about running a business. I decided then that I would be better off if I could turn it into a real family business.”
Laemmle purchased a minority stake from his grandfather. But the single screen theater wouldn’t be enough to support them all, so his first assignment was to find the right location for a second theater. He found it in Pasadena.
Pasadena was a sophisticated community—the kind that supported chamber music, the arts and, hopefully, a small family-run theater playing an increasing mix of independent and foreign films. Laemmle discovered an empty M’Goo’s Pizza Parlor and turned it into the Esquire Theater. Years later, they opened the Colorado Theater down the street.
Eventually, they paired up with the owner of Vroman’s, Pasadena’s venerable independent bookstore, and the city to develop a lot adjacent to the bookstore near the Pasadena Playhouse. The completion of the seven-theater multiplex, Laemmle’s Playhouse, added thought-provoking cinema to the mix of literary atmosphere and live theater that has transformed the Playhouse District into a mecca for high-brow entertainment.
The same kind of scenario played out in communities like North Hollywood, Claremont, and Santa Monica. And this type of development has helped the company evolve and change with the industry and region.
“Generally, the theater is the magnet that brings people into a shopping district. But the type of theater determines the audience. Big theaters bring in a bunch of kids who watch blockbuster films. But are kids the audience they want to attract for their retail or are they a disruptive influence?” says Laemmle. “We’re not quite a museum, but we do a lot of the same things that a museum would do and attract a similar audience. Communities like Claremont, North Hollywood and Pasadena are aware of what we bring to the table. This is why they want a Laemmle Theater.”
Now, under the leadership of Bob’s son, Greg, the company offers 34 screens in seven locations. The Laemmles have outlasted the threat of television, the creation of cable, the sprawling reach of Internet, streaming movies and corporate competition to recently celebrate the company’s 75th anniversary.
“The theater business has been on the verge of extinction since the 1950s. I’m not exaggerating. There are constant rumors to the effect that this or that is going to kill the movie business. It’s this type of industry at all times,” says Laemmle. “We’ve sort of bucked it because we think people want to go out to movies and share the experience of seeing a film.”
It doesn’t hurt that Laemmle Theaters has a reputation for excellence. Some of the chain’s most loyal customers visit several times a month. And many in the community have a blind faith in Laemmle’s selections, often lining up for movies they maybe hadn’t heard of because they know that if it’s playing at a Laemmle, it will at least be interesting.
“My philosophy of survival—plain and simple—is find a niche. Everybody else is doing something their way,” says Laemmle. “There is no difference I can tell between these large theater companies—Regal, AMC, Pacific—every one of their theaters is the same with the same programming. What we provide is a niche that is not being met by anybody else in the marketplace.”
With the third generation of Laemmles at the helm, the company has plans to expand once again, with new theatres opening soon in Glendale and a remodel under way in Santa Monica.
And as for whether the fourth generation will go into the family business? Greg’s triplet sons are currently in college, Bob says, but there’s no pressure for them to join in the venture.