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Byline: Carol Bidwell Staff Writer

Action so vivid that you seem a part of it ... sound so real it makes your teeth rattle ... music so primal you can feel the floor vibrate beneath your feet ... and the fridge just a few feet away.

That's what home theater's all about.

Once within the reach of only the few multimillionaires or movie studio executives, advances in electronics now make it possible for even ordinary folks - with a moderately fat wallet - to have a taste of the total movie-theater experience in their own homes.

Anybody with a few thousand bucks to spend can buy a big-screen TV and a killer sound system at any of the big electronics stores. Tinkerers can sink thousands of dollars more into additional components for a bigger, more vivid picture and more realistic, loosen-your-fillings sound. And just-do-it-big-and-send-me-the-bill movie lovers can have a real live theater - complete with refreshment stand and carefully hidden screens and projectors - built in their homes for $100,000 or more.

While many women appreciate the convenience and privacy of the finished product,

making a home theater happen is basically a guy thing, says Mike Hymes, whose Van Nuys company has installed hundreds of home theaters for clients that include Clint Eastwood and former President Ronald Reagan at prices ranging from $20,000 to $250,000.

``When we bring the client in and it's all finished - we've tested it all before, so we know it works perfectly - and we crank it up, he just goes `Wow!' It's fantasyland. It's truly a man's toy. He can just have so much fun with this.''

The home theater market began to heat up about seven years ago when the first big-screen TVs went on the market. Now Hymes' 40-year-old Micheal's Co. is selling surround sound, THX sound systems, line doublers and quadruplers for sharper pictures, and giant-screen front-projection movie systems, all housed in top-of-the-line cabinetry.

And, if the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys, there's no doubt that today's gadget-minded guys are all grown up.

Last year, Americans spent more than $6 billion on home theater installations, according to the Custom Electronic Design Installation Association in Indianapolis, Ind.

``If the economy holds, 1999 sales figures will reflect a 22 percent to 25 percent increase from 1998 figures,'' predicted Billilynne Keller, CEDIA's executive director.

And while electronics chain stores advertise components to assemble-it-yourselfers, most home theaters are ``sold'' by word of mouth, said Randy Wilson, president of Wilson Home Theater Systems in Woodland Hills.

``It becomes a status thing,'' Wilson said. ``It's like when one house on the block had a pool, and everybody else had to have a pool. Then people got tennis courts and home gyms. Now, it's theaters.''

When he and his wife, Lynn, moved into their Thousand Oaks home in 1990, Allen, a top executive for a major movie studio's music division (who, for security reasons, declines to reveal his last name), wanted all the bells and whistles in his home theater - some that were then only available to real movie theaters and moviemakers. He hired Wilson, who went to the same sources professional theaters used for the latest in DVD technology - which Allen had actually helped develop.

``Back then, we really didn't have the consumer products available, so we were using professional products,'' Wilson said. ``(Allen) was one of the first people outside a movie studio to have DVD.''

Allen dotes on his theater. It includes a 120-inch screen and a THX sound system linked by a single master remote control to a CD player, VCR and other components.

Lynn has little appreciation for the technology (``I don't touch the buttons''), but she likes the fact that the theater is an almost unrecognizable part of their Mediterranean-style home. When nobody's watching a movie, the ``theater'' is a welcoming family room with an ordinary TV set, a comfortable couch and four butter-colored leather swivel recliners.

But when it's time for a showing of ``The Godfather'' or ``Twister,'' Allen presses a few buttons on the master remote, and the screen slides out of a slot in the ceiling. The projector is lowered from a hidden trap door in the ceiling over the coffee table. Electronically controlled outside shutters cover the windows to darken the room. And a blue velvet curtain glides across the room's semicircular entrance. The lights dim.

And it's showtime.

To add to the going-to-the-movies ambience, a corner bar has been painted to look like a refreshment stand, and Allen and Lynn hired a muralist to depict the family waiting in line at a movie box office on one wall; the picture masks the door to the tiny room that houses both the theater system's electronic components and a large collection of movies.

The technology - and the ambience - cost about $100,000.

``It's a pretty expensive toy,'' said Allen. ``It's definitely an indulgence. But we enjoy it. It used to be in the 1930s that William Randolph Hearst was the only one who had a home theater. Now, anybody can be a movie mogul.''

A couple of years ago, Steve Agajanian just wanted a nice TV and good stereo equipment in his 1930s Pasadena home so he could listen to his vast library of records and tapes and watch a few movies. So he consulted Hymes. Seeing the technology available, his desire for better sound turned into a need for big sound, a yearning to watch movies on a giant screen in a setting that could double as a party room.

Two years later, a cinder block-walled basement rumpus room has become an entertainment haven housing his collection of American Indian and cowboy art and artifacts, plus a 100-inch TV screen, a ceiling-mounted projector, eight surround-sound speakers, a digital satellite system, a DVD player and Web TV. All that's linked to a state-of-the-art CD setup - and an old-fashioned turntable for all his old 33 rpm albums.

From control panels throughout the house and on the patio by the pool, he can dial up sound from the TV, the radio or any of his CDs or albums.

``I didn't have this vision when I started,'' said Agajanian, a divorced, retired garbage company executive with two grown children. ``One thing led to another, and I ended up with this exquisite masterpiece of a room.

``I purposely decided to overdo it, because I wanted this to be a `wow' room. People see it for the first time and go, `Wow!' When I give people the tour of the house, I purposely leave this room for last, because once they see it, they don't want to leave.''

And he delights in demonstrating the subwoofer - the big speaker that sits under the screen, which transmits movies' lowest bass notes: the low rumble of a rocket taking off, the roar of an explosion, the beat of concert drums.

``If it's turned up all the way, the whole room will rattle,'' he said with a grin. ``I love it.''

Agajanian said he can't recall what his home theater cost, but Hymes said a similar setup would cost about $190,000.

``We're not working for the guy who wants to get the cheapest stuff and slap it in,'' he said. ``People have a lot of money, and they like the excitement of sitting in their own home and seeing what other people can only see at the movies.''

That's not to say that a do-it-yourselfer with more time than money and some training in electronics can't create his own home theater.

Mike Flynn of Granada Hills, a computer software designer for a Simi Valley mortgage loan firm, got sucked into the home theater maelstrom a bit at a time after hearing a surround-sound system at a friend's home a decade ago.

``Being a bit of a film buff, I had to have one,'' recalled Flynn, who has a library of more than 1,000 movies on laser discs. ``I love technology and gadgets.''

An inexpensive sound system led to a bigger, better one with bigger, better speakers. He acquired a laser disc player, then a better one that would turn the discs over automatically. The 35-inch TV was exchanged for an 84-inch screen with a ceiling-mounted projector and a THX sound system.

He bought the pieces gradually, either at a discount or used: a $10,000 projector marked down to $7,000; $7,000 worth of matched speakers for $5,000 because they were demo models; amplifiers and a laser disc player for about $1,000 each; a used $2,500 line doubler for $1,000.

``I was always looking for a deal, and I didn't spend it all at one time,'' said Flynn, who's set up his own Web site to offer advice to others who want to build a similar setup. ``I'd do my own research and find out what the cool thing was and look until I got the biggest bang for the buck. If I didn't have the money, I'd put it on layaway.

``If I was a millionaire, I'd probably do the same thing, because it's just my nature.''

Flynn and his movie-loving wife Babette eventually converted their old garage into a space for all this technology.

There's no gee-whiz movie-palace ambience in Flynn's home theater. But in the stark white room, viewers can sink down in the dark into one of two huge leather sofas and enjoy the same sharp, giant picture and the same head-banging sound as any millionaire.

``You know the scene in `Jurassic Park' where the Tyrannosaurus rex is walking toward the Jeep, and a cup of coffee on the dashboard vibrates every time he takes a step? Well, I can put a cup of water on the subwoofer, and the water in the cup will do the same thing. It's so cool.''

Falling into the Web of home theater

To learn more about installing your own home theater, check out these resources:

Peterson Publishing Co.'s Los Angeles-based magazine, Home Theater Interiors, provides lots of information on theater installations and equipment. It's published four times a year, with copies available on newsstands for $5.95, or subscribe by calling (800) 264-9872.

Home theater owner Mike Flynn shares his own experiences and his opinions on equipment and assembly at

Information, plus monitored chat rooms, is available from other home theater owners at


4 Photos, Box

Photo: (1--Cover--Color) It's SHOW time!

Movie viewing experience has all the comforts of (a very expensive) home

(2--3--Color) In a movie executive's Thousand Oaks home, an ordinary family room, top, becomes a state-of-the-art home theater, above, when the screen and projector lower from inside the ceiling.

(4) ``If it's turned up all the way, the room will rattle,'' Steve Agajanian says of the subwoofer-equipped audio system in the Pasadena home theater he had built in his basement.

Photos by David Sprague

Box: Falling into the Web of home theater (See text)
COPYRIGHT 1999 Daily News
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 17, 1999

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