Veterans bring Hollywood sizzle to Legion Post

For nearly a century, American Legion Post 43 has been open to a select group of people: military veterans and their families. But the Hollywood community center is soon going to open its doors to a wider audience.

“In a lot of parts of the country,” says Fernando Rivero, a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy Reserve, “your experience of walking into an American Legion is a dingy smoky hall where there are some old crotchety vets looking over their shoulder and sneering at you because you let the sunlight in.”

American Legion Posts — private clubs dedicated to and maintained by U.S. military veterans and their families — are not always the most inviting places to visit, and they’re hardly bastions of modernity. Plenty of them have fallen into disrepair as the veteran population declines. Others have been repurposed or demolished entirely.

“If you just Google ‘American Legion demolished,’ what comes up is this sad list of buildings razed by developers,” says Rivero. “At the end of the day, they weren’t able to pay their county taxes and the last person alive left with their keys.”

That’s a scenario he hopes will never play out at the Hollywood Legion Post, an art deco fortress that sits just down the hill from the Hollywood Bowl. In an attempt to revive it, Rivero and other members are spearheading a massive, multi-million-dollar renovation starting with its on-site movie theater, which is set to soft open just after Labor Day. They plan to lease it out for private screenings, studio premieres and classic movie showings. It’s a risky investment — using money the nonprofit raised over the years by leasing out its parking lot during Hollywood Bowl events — and one that the club’s members hope will pay off. Their goal isn’t just for the theater to eventually become profitable, but for it to help recruit and retain its most important asset: its members.

“It’s a real existential problem for us. What you have is organizations that when their memberships die, their building goes,” says Rivero. “When their memberships were thriving, they built these amazing buildings as monuments to the country… once the membership goes away, the monument goes away.”

The Hollywood Post was erected in 1929 by the father-and-son architecture team Weston & Weston and has since been designated a Historic-Cultural Monument. It has a rich Hollywood history. Its members say Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart used to hang out here. So did the trainer for Pete the Pup, the dog from the original Little Rascals, who allegedly got shot for cheating at a game of poker in the basement bar.

But the place also means a lot to Rivero personally. When he returned home to Los Angeles after deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Hollywood Post was the one place where he felt the same kind of camaraderie and community that he’d only ever experienced at war.

“People didn’t quite know what to do with me or how to talk to me so it was doubly isolating to not really have people around me that understood the experience,” Rivero says. “When I walked through these doors, and it didn’t matter if they were my generation or not, there were Vietnam guys who just said, ‘Hey, man welcome home.’ That’s all you needed to say.”

While the national American Legion organization continues to lose members, the Hollywood Post has been gaining them. Jennifer Campbell, vice commander of the Hollywood Post, says the local club been so successful in recruiting young vets that the national organization has come to them for advice.

“When you look at the Legion organization as a whole, we’ve just now dipped below two million members for the first time, which doesn’t sound like a big deal but it really is, and it talks about the trajectory of where the organization is going,” Campbell says. “We in Hollywood are in a very fortunate position and it’s a calculated position that we are actually on the upswing. We have more members now that we have had in decades and that’s a very big deal for us.”

Of course, movie theaters, much like veterans’ organizations, are also on the decline. Last summer’s movie season was the worst attended in 25 years. But the Hollywood Post won’t be showing the same blockbuster movies as multiplex chains.

“We’re not going to be a calendar house like the Egyptian Theater or the New Beverly, but definitely I think we’re going do enough screenings where it’s going to become I think a pretty major new addition to the movie-going public in Los Angeles,” says Bill Steele, a navy reservist who is serving as project manager. “We’ll have the capability of screening 35mm, 70mm and of course digital, so we’re going to be able to cover pretty much all of the existing film formats that are out there.”

Peter Grueneisen of the firm nonzero\architecture is handling the theater redesign. He says he’s been looking at theaters like the Million Dollar Theater and the Ace Hotel as inspiration. But his goal with this project is “not to copy something old, but to do something contemporary that is really sympathetic to the old structure,” he says.

That means stripping the paint to reveal and restore the theater’s original concrete arches and redesigning the acoustics of the space. “We really tried to design it in a way that could hold up to that kind of heft of it,” says Grueneisen, who is himself a veteran of the Swiss army. “To do something substantial and compatible with the old architecture but still make it look new and fresh and incorporate all the technology that needs to go in.”

There were plenty of challenges along the way. “All the walls and floors and all the dimensions are kind of off because it was built 90 years ago,” says Steele. “They didn’t have lasers, they didn’t have all these measurement systems that they have now.”

To the veteran members of the Hollywood Post, the renovation isn’t just about historic preservation. It’s an effort to preserve the Post for future generations.

“There’s really no other way for us to continue to survive other than to just double down on our building,” says Rivero. “We want to preserve its history, its legacy, by just keeping the doors open.”