I just had a vision. A vision about the Vision Theatre in Leimert Park. And boy I’ve got a story for you guys.
Today we’re going to talk about one of the most recognizable landmarks in South LA: The 90-year old Vision Theater. And, like most things in South LA, that’s not the original name of this building.
It was initially the Leimert Theatre.
You can find the Leimert Theatre nestled in the heart of the Leimert park neighborhood, near the recently renovated Leimert Park Plaza. Today, the Leimert Park neighborhood is known for diverse displays of black culture, art, and business. For the first quarter of the 20th century, it was a barren, undeveloped part of Los Angeles. Well, until developer Walter L. Leimert, in 1927, jumpstarted more than $5 million developing commercial and residential buildings across the 600 acre neighborhood. And you’ve guessed it, Walter Leimert is the namesake for this neighborhood.
Construction of this Art Deco theater started in 1931, leased to the Hughes-Franklin Theater company, which was a joint collaboration between movie-industry mogul Howard Hughes and Franklin B. Harold.
Opened in 1932, the Leimert Theater rose as a flagship theater that featured both live theatrical performances and moving pictures. In the low-rise neighborhood of Leimert Park, 115-foot spire towered high, and could be seen for miles. Though striking on the outside, the theater was praised for having the seats with the most legroom at–44 inches between rows– than any other theater in the United States at the time. And one writer even went as far as to say the theater had the most comfortable seats in town.
The theater opened with great success. Attached to the theater were vibrant storefronts that often had trendy clothes, new appliances, and neighborhood services. And the theater took off as a community center for the burgeoning Southwest Los Angeles. Weekly ads advertised new theatrical performances (with special prices for the ladies) and double-featured movies. It also had a series of giveaways with its performances, including this ad that advertised $750 of free christmas gifts, or this ad giving away a 1936 Chevrolet. Or my favorite: if you watched this double feature of “Freckles” and “The Little Big Shot” you could get a free gas range.
I wonder if you could give away an oven to get someone to go to your event today?
In 1968, the Los Angeles jurisdiction of the Jehovah’s Witnesses bought the Leimert Theater in 1968, and converted it into an assembly hall. The Leimert Theater signage was removed from the spire and was replaced by “Watchtower” between 1968 and 1990.
In 1990, Actress Marla Gibbs’ had a vision to buy the Watchtower Theater and convert it into a playhouse and a concert hall that would serve as the center of black art in Los Angeles. You may recognize Gibbs as Florence Johnston on the CBS sitcom from the Jeffersons. And if you don’t know her from the Jeffersons, then you’re probably too young to be watching this channel.
During this time, Gibbs operated a Crossroads Arts Academy, a non-profit cultural entertainment and educational complex that served as an art hub in the inner city city. Originally, Gibbs operated her arts non-profit in Chicago, but planned to move it to Los Angeles if she could purchase the former Leimert Park Theater.
Through her arts non-profit, Gibbs purchased the former theater from the Jehova’s Witnesses for $3.2 million–puting $400,000 down on the property. At this point, she renamed it the The Vision Theater.
Though the theater served as a Watchtower Assembly Hall, the building needed extensive repair–and Gibbs planned to restore the theater to its former glory. She started a campaign to raise $10 million to renovate the theater. At the same time, Leimert Park saw a resurgence in the 90s with more investment in black businesses and a new, rising art scene.
But if you know anything about South LA, you probably know that visions take a lot of work here. A lot.
A New Vision
Under the Crossroads Arts Academy, BET used the Vision Theater as the location for its Comicview awards in 1994. And it always held a series of symphonies, concerts, theatrical performances, and community events, including a 1994 campaign tour for Bill Clinton. Gibbs also hosted “The Jeffersons Movin on Up Tour”, where the original cast of the jeffersons reprised their roles on a live stage, at the Vision Theater.
But performances and events were few and audiences remained sparse.
In 1997, Gibbs and her Crossroads Art Academy foreclosed on the Vision Theater. Gibbs told the LA Times in 1997 that she “was hurt by the failure of the Afircan American community to support the theater.” Though, in that same article, her supporters reluctantly mentioned that the theater lacked a clear financial plan, had frequent staff turnovers, and failed to have a regular live theater season.
Saving the theater from foreclosure, the City of Los Angeles obtained the property from Gibbs and turned it into a performing arts venue, and served as the annual headquarters of the Pan African film festival.
Under the City of Los Angeles, the theater has been undergoing major renovations for the last 10 years, costing over $11 million. The City has worked to reconfigure seating, build out a larger stage, an orchestra pit, and offices. According to the LA City Department of Cultural Affairs, the theater is expected to open in 2022.
Today, in 2021, you’ll find the Vision Theater standing as a weathered, but recovering relic, boarded up with the hopes of a brighter future. Nearby, the Leimert Park Plaza reopened in time for a Juneteenth celebration, bringing new life to the neighborhood center. And hopefully by next year, we’ll be able to see this vision come into fruition.
That’s all for this episode of the South LA Recap. I hope you learned something new today. And if you did, let me know in the comments below. And I’ll catch you around on the recap.