A Tale of Two Theaters Page 2

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Jonathan mostly uses the theater for watching TV; he has a tough time sitting through movies because, as he put it, "I write thrillers. I don't want to watch them." For him, the modestly sized room is in some ways preferable to a larger theater. "I like sitting in the small space," he said. "If it's just one or two people watching - which it usually is because three of our four kids are out on their own now - sitting in a big theater can feel a little weird." He said he uses the room almost every day to take a break from his prolific writing, which so far this year includes two mystery novels (Compulsion and Bones) and a coffee-table book called With Strings Attached that details his world-class collection of acoustic guitars and mandolins.

The man behind the theater's technology is custom installer Eric Eidelman of Audio/Video Interiors in West Hollywood. He said that even though the theater's small size reduced the demand on the video and audio components, the space presented problems, too: "It was challenging to get a good audio balance in there, and it was also difficult to get good video without the video becoming overwhelming."

The theater's electronics are surprisingly simple: just a Marantz A/V receiver, a DirecTV satellite receiver with built-in DVR, and a Marantz DVD player. Still, neither of the Kellermans is a tech geek, so Eric decided to strip the programming on the Crestron touchscreen down to the bare bones. I found I had no problem operating the system - getting it started is as easy as tapping an onscreen button for the DVD player or the satellite receiver. There are no extraneous options, and there's nothing that could get even the least tech-savvy user in trouble. "We only put in what the client needed," Eric explained.

Even though Jonathan's the word guy and Theo is the visual guy, the novelist credited the designer with the best description of the mini-theater: "Theo said to me, 'I used to work as an art director for Malcolm Forbes, and he had a collection of Fabergé eggs [referring to a series of jeweled eggs with elaborate interiors created for Russian royalty in the late 1800s and early 1900s]. This theater will be my Fabergé egg.'"

The open, sectioned layout of the Kellermans' Malibu home theater offers ample space to watch a movie, play some pool, or simply lounge around.

SAND ON MY FEET

Many custom home theaters exhibit a disappointing sameness, as if they were bought out of a catalog at some franchise store in a suburban shopping mall while an easy-listening version of Britney Spears' "Oops! I Did It Again" played in the background. What a relief it was to step into the theater in the Kellermans' Malibu house - a space that not only reflects the beach community's relaxed mood, but barely even feels as if it's indoors.

"They brought me in on this one right after the theater in the Beverly Hills house was finished," Theo said. "The earlier theater had to be more formal-looking to fit in with the Southern Colonial look of that house. For this beach house, the mood was more casual, more playful, more 'kick your shoes off.'" In this case, Theo had a lot more space to work with - an area measuring about 18 x 20 feet that the Kellermans had been using for Ping-Pong and storage. "We'd owned the house for 22 years and were in the process of remodeling it. It was kind of a mess down there," Jonathan confessed.

"I suggested doing something with the feel of a beach-house gazebo, like you're looking out the openings of the gazebo onto the sea," Theo said. Indeed, the room has a convincing "outdoors at dusk" feel, with LED stars scattered across a pitch-black ceiling, and wall niches framing silhouettes of palm trees against paintings of clouds across a darkening sky. I doubt tea and crumpets will ever be served here; it's more like the kind of place where Jimmy Buffett might knock back a couple of Coronas while chuckling through Gilligan's Island reruns.

"The one unusual thing was that they wanted to put a pool table in there," Theo continued, "but the solution was simple - we made two sections to the room, kind of like in Beverly Hills. One section is for the pool table, the other is the theater, but they're tied together with the same beach theme." The pool table demanded good lighting, so Theo added a faux trellis over the table and suspended the lights from that; you can still see the LED stars through the trellis beams.

Another challenge Theo had to overcome was a concrete bulkhead that ran across the back of the room, a structural necessity because the house is so close to the Pacific Ocean that if you fell off the back balcony you'd probably get wet. Faye Kellerman - who was more involved in the design of this theater than her husband was - and Theo decided to conceal the bulkhead with a small balcony that holds four extra theater seats and a small cabinet for the A/V gear.

One might expect the world's most famous home theater designer to reject others' input, but Theo actually prefers having a client who takes a strong interest in the project. "I usually don't get that, and I miss it," he said, "because there's nothing more fun than having the client involved. Most designers think the client has no taste and doesn't understand what they're trying to do. I prefer a collaborative thing, where the end result is not just about my ideas."

For the sake of simplicity, the Malibu theater uses essentially the same gear found in Beverly Hills, and the control screens on the Crestron remote in Malibu match the ones in Beverly Hills down to the last button. The only changes are that the Malibu theater has a Sharp Blu-ray Disc player instead of the Marantz DVD player, the Marantz receiver is a newer model, the Definitive Technology speakers are beefier models to accommodate the larger space, and extra subwoofers were added. "It's really more like an elaborately designed family room than like the custom theaters we typically do," Eric Eidelman said. "The Kellermans don't have high-end needs because they're not big movie watchers. Jonathan is a member of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences], so he gets screeners [of films under Oscar consideration], but he watches them once and that's it."

For the Kellermans, the theater is perfect. "I think there's more electrical wiring in that one room than in my entire house," Jonathan said. "But it works well. I haven't had a problem with any of the equipment, except for the DirecTV receivers. They used to have TiVo, which was great. Then some genius decided, 'We don't need TiVo; we'll put our own boxes in.' But they're not reliable. I can't tell you how many we've changed out.

"I occasionally write for the Wall Street Journal," he continued, "and I'd love to write an editorial about this. But Rupert Murdoch owns both the Wall Street Journal and DirecTV, so I don't think that will happen."

For a guy whose novels explore rather dark subject matter, Jonathan has a remarkably sunny disposition. But he's even more effusive when he talks about his theaters. "These were the smoothest construction projects I've ever done," he said as he relaxed in the back row of his Beverly Hills theater, the day's writing work done and hundreds of TV channels waiting at the tap of the Crestron touchscreen.

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