Vidiots announces reopening in historic Eagle Rock theater

A sign on a window advertising Vidiots, opening in 2020 on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles. Oct. 8, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

From its opening in 1985 by founders Patty Polinger and Cathy Tauber to its closing in 2017 in the face of rising costs, the bright teal brickwork and neon sign of the alternative video store Vidiots welcomed visitors from a Santa Monica street corner. Now, after a three-year hiatus, Vidiots plans to reopen in fall 2020 at a new location: the 90-year-old Eagle Theatre on Eagle Rock Boulevard. According to Vidiots’ website, the theater will feature classic titles, new independent films and community programs, while an adjacent storefront will continue to rent out Vidiots’ 50,000-plus collection of DVDs, Blu-ray discs and VHS tapes.

Vidiots transitioned to the nonprofit Vidiots Foundation in 2012, according to executive director Maggie Mackay. Mackay, who grew up frequenting her local video store in New York City, has worked with film-related LA nonprofits for nearly 20 years. According to Mackay, when she joined the Vidiots team in May 2016, the foundation was in need of a leader with fundraising experience so it could support itself in the age of streaming services.

“I didn’t know how challenging it would get! But there was no way I could walk away from it once I met Patty and Cathy,” Mackay said. “Through absolutely no fault of theirs, the technological shift really deeply impacted them. I mean, going from an incredibly, shockingly successful business — financially, publicly, culturally — to really going into a period of very serious financial duress.”

Due to these financial challenges, the Vidiots team decided it was best to leave their historic home in Santa Monica, go into storage and begin searching for a new location, Mackay said. In order to make a video store sustainable in 2019, they needed a business plan, too. So Vidiots began working with an MBA team, whose research eventually led them to Eagle Rock.

The space that will become Vidiots and a sign advertising the store’s opening on Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles. Oct. 8, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

“In spite of having a very rich film culture in LA, which we have, it is concentrated to neighborhoods that do not necessarily include the east side of town. So really from Los Feliz over, all the way to Pasadena, there is not a space for these neighborhoods to gather as a community,” Mackay said. “The data that came back was very clear that there was a big need in Northeast LA for something new. The Eagle [Theatre] was just beautiful luck.”

Escott O. Norton, an Eagle Rock native and the executive director of the LA Historic Theatre Foundation (LAHTF), knows the Eagle Theatre well on both a personal and professional level. The Eagle has been in operation since 1929, when it was called the Yosemite and showed silent films, but Norton’s memories of the Eagle take place during his childhood in the mid-1960s and 1970s. At that time, Norton said, it was showing re-releases of family-friendly films.

“Mom loves movies, so she probably took me when I was like, 4 years old or something. It was [at] the theater that I remember deciding that I was going to get in the film business,” Norton said. “I won’t say that it was responsible for me getting into this as a career, but it was sure a part of it.”

Next, the Eagle went through a period of ownership by the Pussycat Theater chain, according to Norton. Though some people believe the theater showed X-rated movies under Pussycat’s ownership, Norton said, he is fairly sure that is a myth.

“The story that I’ve heard is, they were pretty aware that that would not fly well in Eagle Rock,” Norton said. “Heavy R, maybe.”

In the 1980s, the Eagle became a first-run house, meaning it showed movies that had just been released, according to Norton. It closed in 2000.

Now, as the executive director of the LAHTF, it is part of Norton’s job to make sure historic theaters like the Eagle become available for public use once more. He meets with community groups to encourage them to take leadership roles in activating local theaters, as well as with potential theater owners and operators.

“We don’t want just pretty boxes sitting around empty, we want them to be activated and used by the community,” Norton said. “When a theater comes online as available, it’s really my job to try to pull in these resources and find someone who can use it, so it doesn’t sit there or, even worse, get turned into an Olive Garden or something.”

House Right aisle looking towards stage Photo credit: LAHTF/Mike Hume

When the LAHTF found out the Eagle was for lease, it hosted several public meetings beginning in May 2019 to discuss how to use it, according to Norton. As the community meetings were happening, Norton said, he was already in contact with Mackay and the Vidiots Foundation, but he wanted the community to brainstorm their ideal uses for the space so there would be backup options if Vidiots’ lease fell through. Norton said about 60–80 people attended, and their main concern was a lack of parking. But Norton does not personally consider that a major problem because of ride-sharing, public transportation and the impact of new technology.

“We’re actually having a lot of historic theaters coming back online that were triplexed or duplexed or turned into churches in the ’70s and ’80s and even ’90s,” Norton said. “Now, people aren’t relying on their cars, and they want to get out of the house. They’re rebelling against the fact that they can watch 60,000 movies on their phone, isolated in their car. Especially the younger generation. They say, ‘No, I actually want to share [a] common experience with other people.’”

For Eagle Rock resident, screenwriter and self-described film nut Emily Cook, whom Mackay affectionately calls “the Number One Vidiot,” the revival of the Eagle represents the fulfillment of a 14-year-old dream. Cook said she has always been obsessed with film and grew up watching movies in her hometown of Lingfield, Surrey, U.K.

“I remember seeing ‘Alien’ way too young, and I just fell in love with film,” Cook said. “I have books of clippings I’ve cut out and all the movies I was obsessed with. And my diary is just all, ‘I can’t wait to see Cronenberg’s ‘The Fly!’’”

Cook’s work in the film industry (she wrote on Pixar’s “Ratatouille” and Disney’s “Gnomeo and Juliet,” among other movies) led her to Eagle Rock in 2005. At the time, she said, the Eagle was for lease, and she hoped it would become an independent cinema again. It became a church instead. But when the “For Lease” sign went back up over a decade later, Cook said her hope reignited. She attended the LAHTF’s community meetings to suggest the space become a cinema. After some time, Cook heard from a friend — the owner of Vidéothèque, a video rental store in South Pasadena — that her dream had come true.

“I nearly cried. I’ve cried, like, a hundred times,” Cook said. “I’ve thought about that moment and how lovely that it happened there, because it just shows the need for brick-and-mortar places that you actually go [to], where people actually talk to each other, and you have an experience where you’re not just sitting behind your computer.”

Lobby looking West Photo credit: LAHTF/Mike Hume

Though Cook is not currently involved with Vidiots in an official capacity, she said she has donated to the foundation, making her a first-in founding member. She is reaching out to other community members to ask them to donate as well. According to Mackay, most of Vidiots’ current fundraising focus is on a capital campaign, but as its opening approaches, the foundation plans to roll out crowdfunding campaigns and membership campaigns at more modest levels.

Cook said both she and Mackay are also interested in the history of the Eagle. According to Cook, Mackay met with the treasurer of the Eagle Rock Historical Society to collect pictures of the theater, while Cook has been crowdsourcing community members’ memories from the Eagle Rock Neighborhood Group Facebook page.

“There were some great things in there — people remembering all the movies that they saw. It’s like, ‘I saw ‘Robocop’ and ‘Terminator!’’” Cook said. “They remember there was 75-cent Thursday, and somebody said there was a — Tempest, the video game? Must be an ’80s video game — that was in the lobby. I want to talk to Maggie about all those things to see how we can bring those memories [to the community].”

Since becoming a nonprofit, Vidiots has focused extensively on programming, fundraising and community engagement and will continue to do so as its opening date approaches, according to Mackay. Vidiots’ current programming includes a partnership with Austin-based cinema chain Alamo Drafthouse; showings of rare 16-mm films at the Bootleg Theater with a group called Projections; and a series called “Tales from the Video Store” in which filmmakers, critics and other movie lovers reminisce about the days of physical film stores. According to Mackay, Vidiots is also pursuing programming with the Bob Baker Marionette Theatre, the Black List and Occidental College’s Media Arts & Culture (MAC) department.

Mackay said she hopes the wide variety of programming will benefit everyone involved: the organizations, who may come from across LA or from other cities altogether, will get more exposure to audiences, while local community members will get more exposure to film. In particular, Mackay said, she aims to gear programming toward Spanish-speaking communities, families and people with unconventional work schedules.

“To be able to get out of your home and go see a movie at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday morning may be inspiring for people,” Mackay said.

In regards to programming at Occidental, MAC department chair Broderick Fox said he and Mackay have discussed potential ways to connect Vidiots to the MAC curriculum and explore opportunities for undergraduate research programs and internships. According to Fox, Vidiots has one of the most unique and complete archives of late 20th century independent cinema and video art in existence, making it a huge asset for the MAC department. Fox said he believes it is important for students to study works in the media in which they were produced.

“[You have] the capacity to browse the stacks and see, through just physical proximity, titles that you might not necessarily find in a search. The independent video stores have really profound personalities because they’re often very different approaches to organizing and curating a collection,” Fox said. “I remember the video stores in Silver Lake in the ’80s and ’90s. They had really strong LGBTQ sections before those were really categories that a place like Blockbuster would even acknowledge.”

Elliot Tuttle (sophomore), a MAC major at Occidental, initially discovered Vidiots through his internship at Duplass Brothers Productions. He worked odd jobs at a Vidiots fundraiser for industry professionals in late 2018. There, he met Mackay, who he said is the coolest person in the world.

Tuttle fell in love with movies in fourth grade, when he started watching YouTube movie reviews and felt inspired to make his own. Now, he owns a VHS player and frequently purchases tapes for 10 cents at Goodwill. He said he appreciates physical video stores because employees can give customers specific, handpicked recommendations, and he remembers frequenting them when he was younger.

“If I was gonna have a sleepover on a Friday, I’d go to Blockbuster with my friend and his mom after school, and we’d pick something out, and it was really fun,” Tuttle said. “That seems like that could happen now: a friend and I could just go down and pick something out.”

Cook also said she believes the experience of going to a video store is unique because of the human interaction it provides. She looks forward to sharing the experience with her 10-year-old son, who she said is a film lover like herself.

“What a lovely thing for him to have that place to go,” Cook said. “I will know, as he goes into teenage years, that there’s this place for him to meet his friends and hang out and see old movies. When I told him, and [when] we drive by and I’m like, ‘Look, they’ve written Vidiots!’ — he’s just as excited as I am.”