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Future uncertain for Westwood's Crest Theater

November 21, 2008 | 10:46 am

The venerable Crest Theater on Westwood Boulevard, which became a city historic-cultural monument in May, is for sale because the owner says anticipated tax breaks did not come through in time. And preservationists are now concerned about the site’s future.

Westwood's Crest Theater Owner Robert Bucksbaum said he agreed to pursue the landmark designation earlier this year after various people assured him that he would qualify for a significant reduction in property taxes under the state’s Mills Act. The problem was timing: Bucksbaum had expected the break to come through with the bill he received in early October from the Los Angeles County assessor.

But the city’s Office of Historic Resources, the office of Councilman Jack Weiss and others said they tried to make it clear that next year would be the earliest the projected 60% or so savings in property taxes would go into effect. In early October, Bucksbaum received his property tax bill for about $43,500, based on an assessed valuation of $3.5 million.

He had expected the bill to be closer to $17,000. “We tell everyone who applies that the tax relief starts in the year after the [Mills Act] contract is recorded,” said Ken Bernstein, manager of the Office of Historic Resources. “Mills Act contracts are recorded in December of each year for the following year.” Bernstein praised Bucksbaum as an “outsanding steward” of the theater and said he was disappointed to hear that it had been listed.

Under the Mills Act, owners of historic properties or properties that contribute to a historic preservation overlay zone are eligible to apply for tax relief. In exchange, they agree to adhere to historic preservation standards and put savings back into the property. Bucksbaum, a lifelong movie buff, bought the theater in 2003 for $3.2 million to save it from developers who planned to convert it into a swap meet.

Since then, he has been subsidizing the theater with proceeds from his two businesses, Reel Source and Exhibitor Relations Co., which track box office receipts. The theater, half a mile south of UCLA, features Art Deco Revival architecture and an elaborate hand-painted interior mural that portrays images from Hollywood’s Gilded Age.

Designed by architect Arthur Hawes in a Moderne style, it opened in December 1940, as a venue for live performances. Known as the UCLAN, it was financed by Frances Seymour Fonda, wife of Henry and mother of Jane and Peter. It was converted to a movie theater and, after World War II, became one of the first in Los Angeles dedicated to foreign films.

Renamed the Crest Theater, it later hosted the first Los Angeles screenings of such hits as “Dr. Strangelove,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Goodbye, Columbus.” In 1987, Pacific Theaters, then the owner, and Walt Disney Co. renovated the structure, replacing the original facade with one reminiscent of an Art Deco movie palace.

Lately, the theater has been relegated to second-run status, featuring movies that have faded from the multiplexes. Bucksbaum said he had hoped to build out the stage and offer the venue for live theater productions. Bucksbaum said his experience provided a cautionary tale for other business owners who might consider applying for landmark status.

“Most of the owners need immediate help,” he said. “Why delay?” The asking price is $4.75 million, according to Timothy L. Bower, a senior vice president with CB Richard Ellis, which is representing Bucksbaum. Bower said he has gotten “a couple of dozen calls” in the last week. Bucksbaum said he would be interested in leasing the Crest from a new owner so that he could continue to operate the theater.

-- Martha Groves

Photo: Los Angeles Times