Gary Essert's latest project is "a temple of dreams," though it is much more than a dream. He is already about one-third of the way along in raising the $10 million needed for his "temple" -- the American Cinematheque, a year-round public exhibition center celebrating "the moving image arts." The name and inspiration come from the Cine'mathe que Francaise in Paris, but the concept is modeled on the British Film Institute's National Film Theatre, in London.
Essert is a master showman -- associates call him a "genius" with a keen sense of heritage and style. He is above all a lover of film. He guided the creation of the still ongoing Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Filmex) -- America's largest-scale film festival. It was Essert who produced a two-hour live tribute to Elizabeth Taylor at the Los Angeles Music Center (including a formal dinner for 1,000) in 1981. He also produced a four-hour film compilation special called "The Movies" for ABC-TV in 1975, having devoted his life to the art of cinema.
Says Essert, "Since I came to Los Angeles in 1959, I've seen the so-called 'suburbs searching for a center' changing into a city . . . No one used to talk about tearing down an old building and being sad about it. They used to say, 'Great! There'll be more garages, more places to park.' "
His American Cinematheque will be part of a model reuse project involving cooperation among federal, state, city and county government and the private sector in restoring and refurbishing the landmark Pan Pacific Auditorium as the newly designated Pan Pacific Center (a $33 million hotel complex incorporating the Cinematheque into the classic west facade) -- developed by the Somerset Co. with Gruen Associates as architects.
At the moment, he is "living for the dream." In February, construction will begin on Essert's dream palace.
"What we're doing does not duplicate what any other organization in the U.S. is currently doing," Essert says. "There are already three great American film archives -- UCLA, the Museum of Modern Art and George Eastman House -- so even though most cinematheques around the world have their own archives built in, we're not going to. We're strictly public exhibition, and we're getting other organizations involved to create our programs."
The Cinematheque will include two film theaters and one space designed entirely for video. It will have daily screenings of films, videos and mixed media works as well as lectures, displays and special exhibitions.
At 47, he still finds it exciting to explain, "Movies are like a huge scrapbook of the human race -- its communication, from physical to ethereal."
Essert was born and raised in east Oakland. His parents were from the Dakotas; his father was a fireman and his mother, a Portuguese e'migre', kept the books for a car dealership. Regularly changing the movie marquee at his local theater, Essert began his film career at age 8. Ron Haver, film curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is his oldest friend from Oakland.
While in his teens, Essert joined the Navy and traveled in the South Pacific aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, running movies for the officers and enlisted men and putting together a documentary to be shown to new recruits. At age 20, he moved to Los Angeles, enrolling in theater arts programs at UCLA and Santa Monica City College. At UCLA, Essert became known for presenting all-night, themed movie marathons to the UCLA community. He created award-winning ad art campaigns for major motion pictures, including "Gigi," "Ben Hur" and "Doctor Zhivago," and developed an expertise at formulating corporate and thematic logos.
"Graphic design is my second most passionate interest," Essert says. Under his direction, Filmex produced exquisite catalogues and posters, utilizing elements of visionary art, art deco and superrealism. He is continuing that tradition at the American Cinematheque with a five-color, lithograph-silk-screen "Temple of Dreams" commemorative poster, created by the Byrd/Beserra Design Studio.
In 1963, Essert was commissioned to work on the planned John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. "I took the Eisenhower Theater and the Opera House and designed motion picture facilities for them -- projection booths, screens, sound systems." He also coordinated motion picture exhibition installation at UCLA, Lincoln Center in New York, Zoetrope Studios in San Francisco and the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.
Essert became a rock impresario, too. He co-owned, designed and operated a multimedia dance-concert hall known as the Kaleidoscope. He showcased such major rock groups as Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone and the Doors. "It's very odd for me to think back on it," he says. "When I was living through it, it seemed like a renaissance time, but today it all seems very naive.
"Rock lyrics were saying basic truths -- about war, the environment, love -- having a profound influence on governments and people. But then it evaporated -- and we went right back to plastic, economic concerns."
While working at the prestigious San Francisco Film Festival in the '50s and '60s, Essert started dreaming about creating Filmex. "It seemed absurd that the movie capital didn't have an international film festival." Modeling Filmex on the British Film Institute's festival, Essert became the principal mover, "mainly through the efforts of veteran film director George Cukor, development director Gary Abrahams and film historian Philip Chaberlin of the L.A. County Art Museum." Essert became founding director of the nonprofit festival.
The showman usually would dress in black, reinforcing his public image as filmdom's high priest. Today Essert chuckles at the thought. "I had put on a lot of weight, and I noticed that if I wore black clothes I didn't look as heavy -- and that's what started it. I like the way I look in black. Black's my favorite color."
In his Beverly Hills office, Essert keeps various photographic mementos, as well as his silent but feisty, inquisitive-eyed mascot Lena -- a basenji, an ancient Egyptian breed of barkless dog.
He prominently displays a photograph of pioneer American film director D.W. Griffith. "He seems to be one of those Americans who was never really given his due historically. We want to have a specific memorial to him in the building."
There is a photo on the wall of Essert with Gary Abrahams, taken on Filmex's 1971 opening night. There is also the mature, confident Essert accompanying Bette Midler at the L.A. premiere of "The Rose," a 1979 fall benefit for Filmex.
Essert has gotten used to associating with celebrities -- ever since the San Francisco Film Festival and his rock concert days. "I discovered lots of well-known people, such as Julie Christie and Jack Nicholson, 'loitering' in the lobby of Filmex. I've asked them over the years to support us."
Christie has joined the Cinematheque's international council, whose members will act as ambassadors at large, along with Melina Mercouri, Federico Fellini, Volker Schlondorff, Carlos Saura, Istvan Szabo and 60 other prominent international film figures. Film producer-director Sydney Pollack ("Tootsie," "Out of Africa") and film attorney Kenneth Kleinberg both chair the Cinematheque's board of directors -- responsible for fund raising and controlling the organization. The board of trustees includes directors Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Louis Malle and Mike Nichols; actresses Candice Bergen, Jane Fonda and Goldie Hawn; entertainer Barry Manilow; and producer Allan Carr.
Essert's connections are paying off. Having launched a three-year, $10 million capital campaign, he says, "We seem to be having good luck in developing funds, which we call the 'founders campaign' -- to keep the office together, develop all the printed materials for the fundraisers, approach foundations and create the board." The founders campaign solicited minimum gifts of $10,000.
Essert finds himself more comfortable dealing with artists and filmmakers than with wealthy arts patrons. "My passion for creating an artistic event comes first and foremost -- sometimes over observing diplomatic niceties. When people set out to do a certain task and fall down, I don't care who they are -- I bring it to their attention. That kind of behavior has gotten me in more trouble than anything else, although I try to work with people who relate in a familial way rather than corporate way."
Essert might still be running Filmex were it not for a mighty push from Filmex's board of directors, which, in August 1983, ousted Essert over Filmex's perpetual insolvency -- amid charges of overspending and problems with financing and operations. A bitter fight polarized the board, and nine trustees resigned in protest of Essert's dismissal.
"I'm self-conscious about how it's portrayed -- I've never overspent!" Essert declares. Essert met astrologer Joyce Jilson six months before the blowup at Filmex, "and she pinpointed it to the week. 'There's going to be a cataclysmic change in the organization,' she said." Scores of filmmakers came to Essert's defense, but to no avail. Essert was commended by the Los Angeles City Council as the "Founder of Filmex" in a formal resolution adopted Oct. 14, 1983, and a chapter of Los Angeles history was concluded.
"It forced me into working on the American Cinematheque, which I had been putting off." Filmex's financial settlement with Essert "certainly carried me for nine or 10 months. Without that I couldn't have worked full time on this project."
As artistic director, Essert is currently involved in the search for a managing director to oversee operations and budgeting. "I think as we get further and further along, at some point the two organizations will probably work together quite closely, and I suspect that Filmex will eventually take place at the Cinematheque."
The American Cinematheque will use nearly 40,000 square feet at the Pan Pacific Center. Gruen Associates have conceived a restoration of the streamlined modern exterior while introducing new uses into the vast interior. "They're known mostly for large public concepts like the Museum of Modern Art renovation, industrial malls, shopping centers and international embassies," Essert says of Gruen. "A lot of their expertise is in rehabilitating and restoring buildings." Adjacent to the auditorium is the 28-acre Pan Pacific State Park, which has been relandscaped in recent years.
The centrally located Pan Pacific Auditorium was active for 37 years. Although most closely identified with the Ice Capades, other popular attractions -- trade shows, cultural events, roller derbies, dog shows and political rallies -- were presented as well. Most recently, the building was designated as a site of national significance on the National Register of Historic Places. Although closed in 1972, the landmark building was used as the dream music palace setting in the 1980 movie musical "Xanadu" and has since been viewed in rock videos. The building will be restored to its original pale rose-beige color, accented with dark purple striping and brass. "We're toying with the idea of designating the four great pylons for Chaplin, Griffith, Eastman and Edison," says Essert.
In early November, the American Cinematheque staged its first public event (held at the Doolittle Theater in Hollywood) -- a weeklong tribute to the film preservation work of the Museum of Modern Art, honoring the museum's 50th anniversary. Essert has planned a solid week of activities for the end of February -- including the first annual dinner-dance benefit, called the Moving Picture Ball, on Feb. 28. Also, the formal groundbreaking will take place at that time.
Essert is proud of a letter he received last year from President Reagan, wishing him "the best in launching this nation's first major public cultural center for film and video." L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley has written in praise of the project, too.
Essert has always been concerned with making available to mass audiences the widest possible spectrum of film going at minimal cost. He believes in intermingling audiences and programs -- and communication among film goers and filmmakers. "More even than the exposition of film, we're talking about creating that experience," says Essert.