Saturday, September 21, 2013

Photo Essay: Vision Theatre Rising

You don't always hear a lot about the suburban movie theaters. After all, they weren't built to attract tourists and visitors; they were for the locals. Therefore, they were a bit cheaper and more simply decorated, and ran movies that had spent some time making their way around the upper tier theaters in the city first.

Over the decades that followed their initial construction, a lot of these single-screen theaters gave way to multiplexes, closed or renovated beyond recognition.

Lucky enough for the 1930 Leimert Theatre, in the Olmsted & Olmsted-designed subdivision of Leimert Park (part of the former Rancho La Cienega, owned and sold by Lucky Baldwin's daughter), it closed comparatively early in 1968, avoiding the inevitable "modernization" and thereby kind of accidentally preserving it.

After years being operated as the Watchtower by the Jehovah Witnesses, eventually it reopened in the early 1990s as the Vision Theatre, owned by TV actress Marla Gibbs (The Jeffersons, 227) who, after a few years, couldn't continue to operate it entirely on her own. It subsequently went into foreclosure, the bank sold it to the City of Los Angeles, the community got involved, a Friends organization was established, money was raised, and now the first of three phases of restoration have been completed, evidenced in the facade (marquee and tower), outer and inner lobbies, and upstairs.



The tower - common in suburban theaters that need to call attention to their locations - is one of the most ornate aspects of this simple Art Deco theater...



...which, at the time, was just considered in "the modern style." (No one called anything "Art Deco" until later.)



Now the marquee lighting is truly modern with the addition of LED lights...



...hanging over the colorful original terrazzo grand entrance of the outer lobby.



Many of the streamlined decorative elements of the original design have now been restored...



...including the walls and ceiling of the outer lobby...



...as well as of the inner lobby...



...whose curved shape exemplifies the Streamline Moderne style of the time.



The ornate and exultant painting of Samson & Delilah in the inner lobby (whose carpet has also been restored to something patterned very closely to the original) was removed at some point, at one time replaced with concessions, and now standing as a bare wall.



The inner lobby walls undulate...



...and curve around an oval-shaped auditorium known as "the chamber."



Upon entering the auditorium, its most striking feature is its brightly colored ceiling, whose paint and design are original...



...recalling somewhat the terrazzo floor in the front, without the geometric symmetry.



The house is slated to be included in Phase 2 of the planned restoration, which has not yet begun...



...so the seats are dusty and fragile...



...still bearing their original Art Deco features.



The floor is littered, heating vents rising up from under the seats like dusty metal mushroom caps.



There are remnants from the Vision's last operating days...



...including some ticket stubs from 2003 in a catch-all by the doors.



Golden Art Deco plasterwork elements flank the stage by the proscenium...



...which will be expanded to include equipment and flies for more elaborate stage productions to encompass all performing arts (in Phase 3), though the theater was built purely as a movie house.



In the back of the house, you can look up towards the ceiling at what was once the projection apertures...



...though now they lead to a completely renovated, handicap-accessible upstairs...



...which can also be reached by two sets of staircases.



Upstairs, a clean, sleek space lays claim to offices...



...classroom and community spaces...



...as well as a peek of the back of the tower, which might house a public patio one day (though not included in any of the restoration phases currently planned).



The alleys on either side of the relatively small building give a glimpse into the neighboring commercial district...



...which the city and community hope to convert into a modern multiplex of its own, a destination for permanent tenants and visitors/shoppers/audiences alike.



The new plans include a structure that will rise high above the back of the Vision, but it's worth the time to poke around behind there now to see the mural.



The Vision's three-phase restoration is slated for completion in 2015, though their stop-and-start approach to the restoration (largely because of the fragmented availability of funding) does slow the process down, as does the involvement of government bureaucracy.

It's great to see some attention being paid to a theater which has no landmark designation or official historic status (though generally considered historically significant), in an area geographically, racially and socioeconomically far enough away from Downtown and Hollywood to be easily ignored, overlooked, and/or underappreciated. It could've been torn down. It could've stood vacant and deteriorating for years. It could've been converted into a drug store.

But there is a vision for Leimert Park - already a destination for African American arts, culture and commerce. The theater is just one part of it.