Magic’s Name on the Marquee : Movies: Community leaders hope Friday’s opening of Magic Johnson Theatres at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza will spark a business renewal for the riot-scarred area.
Opening Friday in an exclusive engagement: Showtime II.
The story stars basketball legend Earvin (Magic) Johnson, the former Los Angeles Laker who created Showtime on the court with his dazzling skill and magnetic charisma. But this time, Johnson is going from hoop dreams to screen dreams.
Amid lights, cameras and celebrities, Johnson, along with Sony Pictures Entertainment, will open the doors Friday on the long-awaited Magic Johnson Theatres, a 12-screen movie complex at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The $11-million project, owned jointly by Sony and Johnson, marks the first major movie theater in decades in South-Central Los Angeles, and community leaders are hoping that the theaters spark a business renaissance for the riot-scarred area.
The theaters will be equipped with the amenities that moviegoers in the community have had to go across town for--first-run movies, large screens, Sony Dynamic Digital Sound, free parking, reclining seats with cup holders and a large centralized snack bar. Ticket prices range from $4 for children and seniors to $7 for adults. The plan, said management, is to make quick and courteous customer service a prime priority.
“I’m definitely excited about this,” Johnson said in a phone interview earlier this week. “I’ve been on pins and needles every day. This has been a long time coming. The response in the community has been overwhelming, people honking their horns, thanking me for doing this. The community needs this shot in the arm, and they need somebody like myself to be a part of it.”
Yet with all the anticipation, pluses and hoopla, it remains to be seen whether the project will be an instant slam dunk for Johnson.
The home base for the theaters, the Baldwin Hills shopping plaza, has performed far below expectations since its opening in 1988, city officials said. The first major U.S. mall to be built in a predominantly African American community, the shopping center is anchored by the Broadway and Sears but has had difficulty attracting supplemental major retailers, who are uncertain about the area, and customers. Although the mall was untouched during the 1992 riots, many surrounding businesses were damaged or destroyed, and city officials say the negative image has been hard to overcome.
“It’s getting better, but there’s been a real reluctance for retailers to come in,” said Bill Price, project manager of the Crenshaw Redevelopment Project Area for the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency. “We need something to get us over the hump.”
The economic picture for the mall has improved recently, with the arrival of several national outlets such as the Disney Store and a T.J. Maxx discount retail store. But officials and leaders have long said that a movie theater was critical for the future of the mall to generate the foot traffic needed for the shopping center to turn a profit. Conversely, mall customers are needed to help the theaters.
The last movie theater in the area, the Baldwin, which was the West Coast’s first-run black-owned movie house, closed in 1993 due to customer indifference and legal problems that led to the owners declaring bankruptcy. The Baldwin, which first opened in 1949, is scheduled to reopen soon as a second-run movie house.
Of even greater concern to residents in the area is security.
The mall is in an area where there have been reports of gang activity and rowdiness among young people. In January, 1992, authorities reported that about 30 youths streamed into the center’s Broadway after a Martin Luther King Jr. parade and started harassing customers and patrons.
Price said that reports of the incident were overblown and that the plaza is a safe area, surrounded by affluent residential neighborhoods such as View Park and Baldwin Hills.
Added Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the area: “This mall happens to be one of the safest in the country. I know the perception is different, but the reality is there have been few documented incidents.”
Price said that the success of a nearby Lucky market has helped rejuvenate the community and that theater management is working hard to overcome the perception that the area is not safe.
“The security aspect of the theaters is very important to the Magic Johnson people and was addressed extensively in their initial plans,” Price said. “They took the extra steps to ensure a family atmosphere.”
Officials at the Magic Johnson Theatres said that extensive security measures were budgeted in the complex’s operating costs and that an independent security firm will maintain a visible but unobtrusive presence. Some gang members participated in the building of the complex, and some will be on the staff. Mall security and a Los Angeles Police Department substation inside the mall are close by.
In addition, Johnson has held outreach meetings with students at nearby Crenshaw and Dorsey high schools to involve them in the project.
Johnson said the management will also be evaluating whether to book action or other films targeted for young urban audiences. It’s a question that must be faced in light of a 1991 incident in Westwood when youths rioted when an opening-night showing of “New Jack City” sold out, and there were shootings at theaters the opening weekend of 1991’s “Boyz N the Hood.”
Studios producing films have often offered to provide extra security for theaters showing them.
“We’ll have to think about those films,” Johnson said. “We want to play all the major movies, but we don’t want to play something that will cause any problems. We want everyone to feel safe and comfortable.”
T. Rodgers, a former gang member who has served as a consultant to Johnson and is helping to supervise gang members working on the project, said he does not anticipate any problems.
“This theater proves that our young people are builders, not destroyers,” Rodgers said. “This building is unbelievable, the eighth wonder of the world. They’ll look at it and say, ‘In the midst of the ashes of the riots, look what we’ve done.’ ”
The entire project represents a whole new business risk for Johnson, but he insisted that he was not worried about its future. The complex is planned to be the first in a national chain of Magic Johnson Theatres in underserved minority areas.
“This is a new challenge for me, but I’m not worried at all,” Johnson said. “I feel in my heart that it will do well. The community will be knocked out by this, and it will instill a sense of pride which will bring everyone together. This will affect a lot of other businesses. It’s just good business to do this.”