As The American Legion project manager, Hollywood Post 43 member Bill Steele saw what was once an aging multipurpose room within the post undergo an amazing transformation into a top-level movie theater.
But the culmination of the multi-million dollar project wasn’t the final product. It came April 11 on the opening night of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Film Festival, when The Legion Theater served as one of the festival’s six venues.
“This is a dream come to true,” said Steele, who serves in the U.S. Navy Reserve. “To be able to be a part of the Turner Classic (Movies) Film Festival, which is a world-renowned film festival, it’s a very high bar to clear. Just to be considered to be a part of that is really incredible. The fact that we’re doing it is amazing.”
Post 43 is no stranger to Hollywood, able to call Clark Gable, Gene Autry, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and Stan Lee among its former members. The post has served as a backdrop in movies such as “The Shining” and the J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of “Star Trek,” as well as in television series “Veep” and “Scandal.”
But the renovation of an unused room into a nearly 500-seat theater featuring state-of-the-art digital projection and sound systems, and 35mm and 70mm capabilities, has taken Post 43 to another level.
“It’s really a culmination of the history of the military in Los Angeles,” Post 43 Commander Michael Hjelmstad said. "This (post) was started by filmmakers in 1919, and now we’re kind of back around to that relevance in the entertainment industry that we used to have.
“It makes my heart race and my hair stand up to be a part of something this big now. It’s like the field of dreams: We build it and they come. And they did. They’re here.”
Steele, who has transitioned from Post 43 theater project manager to theater manager, said Past Post Commander Fernando Rivero “had a vision for this theater being a world-class venue to exhibit film, and I sort of laid the tracks for him for that to happen.”
Steele said that required both raising and borrowing money, including some from the post itself. “You need internal support … and it was really critical early on that we had membership support. We had a lot of member buy-in early on. Without the member buy-in it would have never happened.”
A team of technical experts, including an architect with experience in acoustics and with an eye for “architectural preservation,” was assembled to make the project go from vision to reality, Steele said.
But the post never relinquished total design control. “This has been a team effort. Everything that you see in that theater represents hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions made by veterans,” Steele said. “We didn’t just hand this project off to an architect or a design studio. We played a very, very active, hands-on role in developing this theater. So it very much reflects our values and our culture and our projection of the future of what this post and what The American Legion can be.”
Steele said that Post 43’s theater already is at a level to compete with other top-level theaters in Los Angeles. “We’re competing at their level, and we’re probably exceeding them in almost every category,” he said. “In almost every metric that you can think of, this theater tops them all. We had a guy who used to work for Dolby come here today and said, ‘The Legion Theater is 99 percent better than 100 percent of the other theaters that are out there.’ That meant a lot to us.”
The renovation came after the post realized minor improvements or renting equipment wasn’t going to work. When the GI Film Festival wanted to relocate to the West Coast, Post 43 Events Manager Karl Risinger said the post started looking into the possibly of hosting it. But that was going to require a bigger screen, a projector, a sound system and seating. The theater’s projection booth had remained empty since the 1950s.
The post realized the cost of rentals to host the festival was going to be too much. But in that came the idea for what developed into the multimillion-dollar renovation. The potential of the renovation is what triggered the interest of TCM.
Risinger, a 13-year American Legion member, served as post adjutant, finance officer and events manager before moving exclusively into the last role on Jan. 1, 2018. He brought to his role a résumé that includes security contractor work, acting, and more than 20 years in restaurant, bar and event management.
Risinger said that during an event at Post 43, he spoke with Genevieve McGillicuddy – vice president of Enterprises & Strategic Partnerships for Turner Classic Movies Festival and the festival's director – and told her about the plans for the renovation.
The possibilities piqued McGillicuddy’s interest, and Risinger said she went back to Atlanta and shared it with fellow TCM leadership. The goal was for the post to host TCM’s Film Festival in 2018, but the renovation wasn’t finished in time.
“So we stayed in contact … Turner Classic Film Festival’s team stayed in contact with us throughout the process of renovating this,” Risinger said.
Hosting the film festival created a buzz within the post. “We’re really excited and really wanting to have the festival here,” Risinger said. “Just given the history of our organization, and this post in particular, with Hollywood. A few of the films being shown this weekend have direct history with our post.
“Everybody’s ecstatic. We’re honored to have (TCM) here, as well as just thrilled that they chose us as one of the venues.”
While TCM has done most of the preparations for the film festival, the post has set up a concession stand for popcorn, candy and soft drinks, and brought its in-house caterer to provide box lunches and salads throughout the weekend.
“If people want to come here for the 9 a.m. showing and stay all day, then they don’t have to go anywhere,” Risinger said. “The guests are going to be taken care of while they’re here.”
The Post 43 portion of the film festival opened with a screening of “Sgt. York”, a biography on the Medal of Honor recipient who later helped found American Legion Post 137 in Jamestown.
Prior to the “Sgt. York” screening, McGillicuddy said TCM was “honored to be here.” Then two of York’s relatives – York’s son, Andrew Jackson York, and his grandson and Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation Chairman Gerald York, a retired U.S. Army colonel – talked about their famous Medal of Honor-recipient relative, eliciting laughs and applause from the audience.
Hjelmstad said that Post 43 has a bible in its museum that belonged to Sgt. York. “We just took a photograph with his son and that bible,” he said. “Tying the Hollywood history with The American Legion history has really been an amazing part of this festival and what we set out to do with this project.”
For a complete schedule of events at Post 43, click here.