As the self-proclaimed Entertainment Capital of the World, Los Angeles has its fair share of classic movie theaters, many of which were constructed in the early days of what's considered the Golden Age of Hollywood. From the grand palatial theaters that line Hollywood Boulevard and Broadway, to the smaller but no less opulent theaters like the Vista Theater in Los Feliz and the Crest Theater in Westwood, these structures were a testament to the power and influence the movies had on our city. Unfortunately, many have fallen into disrepair, with hundreds of theaters having been demolished throughout the city's history. Many that remain are either no longer used as a theater, or closed off and inaccessible to the public, hiding the often spectacular interior work found inside.
The Vision Theater, located in Leimert Park, is one of the most overlooked of Los Angeles' classic theaters. Built in 1931 as the Leimert Theater, the intricately detailed structure and its eye-catching 115-foot spire was designed to be the anchor of the neighborhood, as envisioned by the lofty mind of developer Walter H. Leimert.
In accordance with Walter H. Leimert's vision for his neighborhood development, the Leimert Park Business Center opened in November, 1928. In a series of ads designed to lure potential buyers to his subdivision, he promised a "convenient, well-designed business center and plaza" that he proudly predicted would become "the THIRD greatest shopping sub-center of Los Angeles," after Hollywood Boulevard and Wilshire at La Brea.
Early sketches and plans for the Business Center reveal that the corner of Leimert Park Place and Degnan Boulevard had been earmarked for a theater from the start. An ad from the L.A. Times, November 17, 1928, touting that "all eyes are on the Leimert Business Center," includes a small map that notes the structures to be built in the area, indicating that the corner site is "reserved for Theatre."
A hand drawn rendering of the subdivision, displayed at the sales office during the initial phase of sales in 1928, again shows that the same corner had been planned as the site of a theater. At this time they had envisioned, in keeping with the styles of the residential homes, a Spanish Mission-style theater, with a tiled roof and what seems like a bell tower. While the Mesa Vernon Market is drawn mostly in keeping with what was actually built (perhaps the designs were already finalized by then), what's drawn next door is what is notable: a never-built six-story commercial structure at the northwest corner of Leimert Place and Degnan Boulevard. Along with many other unbuilt structures envisioned in the relief map, perhaps its non-appearance was due to the catastrophic events of the following year.
By the time of the stock market crash in October of 1929, Leimert Park had been open for over two years. Walter H. Leimert Co. tirelessly campaigned to sell the lots in the subdivision, with an endless amount of ads placed in newspapers. This blitz campaign continued, but now with a shifted focus -- weeks after the crash, an ad for the subdivision claimed:
With the crash in Wall Street, realty investments have jumped to the front and close-in property has led the way. Never has LEIMERT PARK seen so many buildings and lots change hands for CASH as in the past few weeks ... If you want to see some real ACTION and today's best opportunity for the shrewd and careful INVESTOR, come to LEIMERT PARK ... right now!
Whether or not Walter H. Leimert was merely boasting and propagandizing, the fact of the matter was that at this time the promised "greatest future sub-centers of Los Angeles" was still largely unbuilt. Aside from the multi-purpose Mesa Vernon Market, which had opened in November of 1928, as "the finest drive-in market ever built...completely leased and every tenant ready to break all sales records," much of the surrounding land stood empty. New office spaces were added adjacent to the market in 1929, though an available photo shows most of the storefronts with a "For Lease" sign.
An aerial photo from August 1930 shows a largely empty "Business Center," with its planned centerpiece theater still yet unbuilt. Perhaps the effects of the crash had put a halt to the upward development of Leimert Park, and left it without a community anchor that the theater would have provided. In fact, the theater business had taken a hit in the initial years of the Depression, contrary to some notions that the movies were immune to its effect. In "Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema" by Thomas Patrick Doherty notes that "between the happy days of the 1920s and the first years of the Great Depression, [movie] attendance plummeted from a boom high of more than 100,000,000 weekly to a Depression low of less than 40,000,000, before leveling off at around sixty million." By summer of 1930, Harold B. Franklin, then president of Fox West Coast Theaters, claimed that "Business is better. Much better. We look for continued improvement and a return to normalcy."
Meanwhile boy wonder millionaire heir and budding film producer Howard Hughes was beginning to make his mark in Hollywood. With his deep pockets, he was seemingly immune to the effects of the Depression (though in the years leading up to the crash "Hughes squandered $8 million speculating on Wall Street," 1), spending $3.8 million to produce "Hell's Angels" at the outset of the Depression in 1930. The film luckily turned out to be a blockbuster, earning more than $8 million at the box office.
It was in this shaky climate, in January, 1931, that the two Hollywood heavyweights teamed up to form the Hughes-Franklin Theater Company. With the ultimate goal to operate 200 to 300 theaters across the country, the company quickly began acquiring and building theaters with an initial investment of $5 million. In April, plans were announced for sixteen brand new theaters for its initial building phase, seven of which were in the Los Angeles area, one of which was the Leimert Theater in Leimert Park.
Construction of the Leimert Theater began in September of 1931. Designed by architects Morgan, Walls & Clemens, who had been responsible for such iconic structures as the Wiltern Theater, El Capitan Theater, and the Richfield Building, the Leimert contained elements of Spanish Colonial Revival and Art Deco, perhaps reflecting the era in which the romantic, lavish lifestyles of the Jazz Age were transitioning into a more modern, streamlined approach. The building was topped off with a 115-foot tower, "the first of a series of vertical signs to use sequential lighting to attract motorists to a theatre in the middle of a housing tract," according to Marquee Magazine, Volumes 1-5.
The interior contained even more eye-catching details. Inside the lobby was a mural, "Samson & Delilah," by French artist Andre Durenceau, who had studied at the Beaux-Arts in Paris, and was known for his intricate commissioned work for the homes of the wealthy, including Joan Crawfod and Lionel Barrymore. Ceiling details were created by Anthony Heinsbergen, a Dutch-born muralist whose work can also be seen inside Los Angeles City Hall, Biltmore Hotel, Pantages Theater, among other classic L.A. buildings. Seating plans called for "more space between rows of seats than in any other theater in the United States," according to an L.A. Times article from September 20, 1931. This added space required the sacrifice of more than 300 seats, but Harold Franklin was confident that "the added attraction the theater will have will make up for the loss in possible revenue."
In December of 1931, the L.A. Times reported that construction of the Hughes-Franklin Leimert Theater was scheduled to be completed by February. In January of 1932, Hughes-Franklin, by then one of the five largest theater corporations in the United States, announced unexpectedly in the L.A. Times that "all the theaters owned by the corporation will be sold as soon as possible." One of the first to go was the still-unfinished Leimert Theater. Along with four other theaters in the area, it was sold to Westland Theaters, whose president Dave Bershon was the former Western district manager for MGM.
The Leimert Theater officially opened as a first-run movie house in April of 1932, with a gala event hosted by Westland Theaters. Later that year Arthur Miller, then-art critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a glowing review of the theater:
ARITISTS SHOULD SEE THE LEIMERT THEATER on Angeles Mesa. Its construction, design and decoration, all done by Morgan, Wells and Clement, are integral. A ceiling really suspended is so treated in its decorative and lighting effects, and here is the handsomest proscenium in town. The treatment of the oval auditorium is popular, but free from rubbishy ornament. The theater's patrons find it "homey." Finally, Andre Dureneau's "Samson and Delilah" mural is an amazing work. For such figure drawing one must go clear back to Rubens. -- Arthur Miller, Los Angeles Times, November 27, 1932.
A year later, the Walter H. Leimert Co. told the Los Angeles Times that there were no vacancies in any of the storefronts in the Leimert Park Business Center. In fact, demand for store space was so high that "$2000 is to be spent immediately for store fronts and partitions in the hitherto incompleted store section of the Leimert Theater building."
It ceased operations as a first-run theater in 1968, became known as The Watchtower when it was purchased by Jehovah's Witnesses in 1977. After an attempt by actress Marla Gibbs to turn the venue, which she renamed The Vision Theater, into a performing arts space, the City of Los Angeles purchased the buliding in 1999. Currently the theater is undergoing a slow process of renovation.
Today, as The Vision Theater undergoes a $11 million renovation, similar plans are in place to bring new businesses to the theater building and the surrounding areas. While the coming Metro Crenshaw Line and the purchase of many of the buildings make the future uncertain for many of the business owners in the area, the city-owned theater is getting ready for its close-up -- and once again become the anchor of the neighborhood that it was designed to be. Perhaps Walter H. Leimert's vision to make Leimert Park the third largest shopping district may come true.
1Broeske, Pat H., Brown, Petery Harry "Howard Hughes: The Untold Story," p. 40