For Les Roberson, the closing last month of the Baldwin Theater--the only black-owned movie house in the inner city--marks the end of an era.
"As a kid, my friends and I walked down the street and saw movies there all the time," said Roberson, a 30-year-old Baldwin Hills resident and sales representative for PacTel Corp. "I was waiting for 'Sugar Hill' to come out so I could go see it there. And then one day last week, I was out jogging and saw it was closed. I was stunned."
The owners are not saying when, or if, the Baldwin will reopen. The theater, along with a six-screen multiplex in Hawthorne, was part of Inner City Cinemas, a joint venture formed in November, 1992, by the national theater chain American Multi Cinema Inc. and Economic Resources Corp., a nonprofit real estate agency based in Lynwood. It was envisioned as the start of the nation's first black-owned cinema chain.
But a year and a half after reopening, the three-screen Baldwin quietly closed shortly after Inner City Cinemas filed for bankruptcy.
Ted Fortier, president of the Crenshaw Chamber of Commerce and an area resident since 1959, said that whatever the theater's fiscal problems, the community is the real loser. "Now, when we want to go to the movies, we'll be forced to go outside the area," he said. "It's really a shame. The Baldwin offered first-run movies, had good security, made honest attempts at providing good service."
Many politicians and business people in the Crenshaw community had high hopes for Inner City Cinemas, particularly for its plans to develop an eight-screen multiplex in the nearby Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. But problems within the partnership snowballed.
Last August AMC sued the Economic Resources Corp., charging the black-operated agency with mismanagement and misrepresenting its financial state. The suit also alleged that ERC owed more than $100,000 in film rentals, and that an ERC executive used joint venture funds to pay off nearly $80,000 in internal debts. Economic Resources officials could not be reached for comment.
In a statement, AMC Vice President Gregory Rutkowski, a former Inner City Cinemas director, said ICC's financial troubles left American Multi Cinema no choice but to dissolve the partnership.
"After an extensive review of our options, we feel this (bankruptcy) filing is in the best interests of all concerned," he said. "We regret that this is necessary, but we go forward with the knowledge that this is the only alternative possible at this time."
The Baldwin, a spacious movie house built in 1949, featured a regular lineup of black-themed films. It also frequently held premieres and special screenings; last fall it screened "The Nation," an independent film about the Nation of Islam, and recently showed the celebrated short film "Sweet Potato Ride," shot in and around Crenshaw and Leimert Park.
"It had a real homey feel. You always saw some people you knew," Roberson recalled. "And you never had to fight for parking, unlike the Marina or Westwood."
Crenshaw resident Mark Edwards said the Baldwin couldn't be beat on two counts: convenience and consistent offerings of African American films. "For those reasons alone, I hope it reopens," he said.
Roberson said he and a small group of neighbors are determined to find a buyer for the theater. They plan to take up the matter with Councilman Mark-Ridley Thomas and other local politicians and business leaders to ensure that the shows at the Baldwin go on.