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Curtain Falls on Dream of Crenshaw Theater

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When actress Marla Gibbs purchased a vacant 1,000-seat theater in the Crenshaw district and named it the Vision Theater Complex, she was chasing a dream to build an entertainment center in the heart of the black community.

It would be Los Angeles’ version of Harlem’s internationally known Apollo Theater, and more.

That was back in 1990. And since then, from time to time, the theater lived up to its billing. Hillary Rodham Clinton came there to campaign. Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan held a rally there to drum up support for the 1995 “Million Man March.” Poet Maya Angelou gave a reading there. Singer Nancy Wilson dropped by to grace the stage. Community activists rallied there last year to decry alleged CIA drug smuggling. Early on, the complex offered acting classes for children.

But more often than not, the Art Deco theater in Crenshaw’s cultural enclave of Leimert Park languished with no acts to fill its marquee, no crowds spilling over into nearby businesses, a promise left unfulfilled.

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Then came the news: Gibbs had run out of money and the theater was closed.

“I lost the building,” Gibbs said dejectedly Wednesday, giving the epitaph to a long struggle with mortgage payments that ended when a bank reclaimed the property. “I had a vision and I just wasn’t able to complete it. This is a sore, an open sore.”

The loss of the theater is a “bitter pill to swallow,” said City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Leimert Park resident.

The news came hard because Gibbs had been one of the first African American celebrities to invest her wealth in the Crenshaw district--years before Magic Johnson received far more acclaim for developing a multiplex theater in the nearby Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Even before that, she had sunk untold thousands of dollars into her jazz club, Marla’s Memory Lane.

Gibbs said she was hurt by the failure of the African American community to support the theater, in which she had invested millions of dollars since her success on the television sitcoms “The Jeffersons” and “227.”

She had been involved in local arts programs since the 1960s, having gotten her own early drama training in free classes. When she bought the old theater on 43rd Place from the Jehovah’s Witnesses for $3.2 million, she expressed the desire to give something back to the community that had been so instrumental in launching her career.

“Maybe my vision is not their vision,” she said Wednesday.

Even among Gibbs’ staunchest supporters, however, the feeling was that the theater failed for deeper reasons. They said the complex was plagued from the outset by the absence of a clearly focused financial plan and frequent staff turnovers. Early promises of a regular live theater season were never fully realized, even though the complex was home to several well-received productions.

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Some observers saw Gibbs as a stubborn lone ranger, determined to do it her way regardless of the consequences. She discouraged efforts to publicize the complex’s dire financial straits last year, saying that if the community really wanted the theater, it would support it.

“In some ways the complex was in trouble the day she closed escrow on the deal seven years ago,” said a businesswoman in the area who, like many, spoke on the condition of anonymity. Gibbs lacked the millions of dollars needed to repair the aging theater but her determination to control the project scared off investors who wanted a share, the businesswoman said.

“There is not a person in the community who doesn’t really share in the pain of this loss,” she said. “Marla Gibbs was the first to really see and make such a major investment by seeing the potential of the area.

“We hope that in the long term this doesn’t discourage people who have a similar kind of vision from investing in the community, but there are lessons to be learned.”

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Other supporters said Gibbs did not pursue foundation grants and public arts funds.

Gibbs lost the complex in June, after a fund-raising effort failed to raise enough money to retire about $250,000 in bank debt. She estimated that she lost nearly $2.5 million on the complex over the years.

“Sometimes, you just have to let it go, take your hands off,” she said. “I thought I was running a marathon race, but I was wrong. I was in a relay race and now it is time to pass the baton off. The banks have it. I gave everything I could.”

Gibbs took comfort in the efforts many ordinary people made to save the theater: the old man who reached into his pocket to give her a dollar, the woman who walked up to her in the bank, gave her money and said, “I love you, thanks.”

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“I got bogged down trying to do real estate and I didn’t have time to touch and hug people,” she said. “I realized this is not a failure, this is just not where I’m supposed to be right now.”

Ruth Nuckolls, who owns Leimert Park Eyewear and is president of the merchants association, said that even if Gibbs doesn’t return, she hopes her vision lives on.

“Everyone was jubilant when she came here, a catalyst that would bring everything here,” she said.

Laura Hendrix, who had moved her Gallery Plus art and framing store nearby not long after hearing that Gibbs’ theater was opening, was also saddened.

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“She has been positive for the community,” Hendrix said.

Brian Breye, owner of the nearby Museum in Black, said Gibbs’ dream increased tourism in the area and helped thaw the chilly feeling many outsiders have about visiting South Los Angeles.


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