Focused on a movie theater for Watts

Times Staff Writer

The last movie theater in Watts closed shortly after the riots in 1965. Dozens of businesses and shops were also shuttered. More than 40 years later, local developers still talk about trying to bring a nice sit-down restaurant to the neighborhood.

“Everything stood still,” said activist Barbara Stanton, 59, who grew up in Watts and whose mother still lives in the mostly black and Latino community in South Los Angeles.

Standing on a vacant lot on Graham Avenue on a recent weekday, Stanton talked about her long-held dream for the economically depressed neighborhood.


She hopes to turn the 1.2-acre site near 103rd Street into the home of the proposed Wattstar Theatre: a four-screen, 1,000-seat auditorium that would be the centerpiece of a larger revitalization effort that would include a job training and education center.

Stanton is not shy about her ambitions. “The 75 businesses that were on this street,” she said, “I want them back.”

It won’t be easy. Nearly 40% of families in Watts live in poverty. The community of roughly 35,000 has more public housing projects than any neighborhood in the city, and unemployment remains higher than the national average. And there have been several revitalization efforts over the years.

But Stanton, executive director of the nonprofit Wattstar Cinema and Education Center, is undeterred. She is pushing forward with her 15-year crusade to bring a theater to the neighborhood. If all goes as planned, she said, residents could see their first blockbuster as early as 2010.

“I was very tired of my mother not being able to go to the movies,” Stanton said in explaining her motivation for the project. Since the old Largo theater closed in 1965, Watts residents have had to travel to theaters in Hawthorne, South Gate and the neighborhood around USC to see movies.

Stanton has already secured almost half of the project’s $20-million estimated cost, mostly through donations and government grants, she said. The remainder would have to come from bond sales certified by the city, and those negotiations are continuing, she said.

Stanton said the project’s first major grant was a $1-million donation from the Pennsylvania-based Annenberg Foundation, which helps support nonprofit organizations that foster youth development through arts, culture and civic programs. It helped attract more than $5 million in local and federal grants and donations.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency is recommending that the city turn over the lot on Graham Avenue to Stanton’s organization if it meets certain conditions, including providing sufficient parking. The property is worth about $2 million.

“We’re about to complete a letter of intent,” said Charlotte Brimmer, a CRA project manager in South Los Angeles. She said the hope is that Wattstar would attract other commercial development.

“This is a catalytic project for us,” Brimmer said. “This is paramount. This is the beginning of creating that synergy to the area.”

City officials cheer Stanton’s efforts.

“It has taken way too many years to get a movie theater in Watts,” said Councilwoman Janice Hahn. “It’s unfortunate that there’s been a lot of young people who didn’t have the simple opportunity of going to a movie in their community.”

Hahn said Wattstar had received strong financial support because the project also includes a job training and education center, which would provide classes in lighting, staging design, sound and camera work for potential jobs in Hollywood.

“A key piece is our educational unit, where our young people can be trained in jobs that will be waiting for them in the entertainment industry,” Hahn said. “It’s the behind-the-camera component that will transform the young people in Watts.”

A freshman in high school during the 1965 riots, Stanton said the tumult left “a big obvious void that we had nothing left in the community -- no entertainment venues, no educational or economic development venues, no training venues.”

The idea for the project dates to the early 1990s, when Stanton and Mann Theatres collaborated on the premiere of director Spike Lee’s film “Malcolm X” in Westwood. Stanton, whose job was to help promote the film in the black community, said it was then that she thought Watts should have its own theater.

Designs for Wattstar show a sleek modern building on Graham Avenue. In computer-generated drawings, moviegoers are shown walking under lighted awnings past larger-than-life renderings of movie stars including Angelina Jolie and Samuel L. Jackson.

Stanton said her group had gotten a lot of help from a number of nonprofit and private organizations, including Warner Bros., which provided financial consulting and helped design the theater.

“We’re right in the heart of everything,” she said. “I can see it, I can envision it.”

On a recent weekday, two youths walked across the vacant lot on Graham on their way to the Blue Line train station. Stanton pulled them aside to ask their thoughts about the Wattstar project.

“This is gonna be the best,” said Shawn Harris, 16.

“I’m gonna work there,” said his friend, Clarence Hardiman, 15.

Stanton said she must raise the entire $20 million before breaking ground. Once the theater is up and running, her organization would be in charge of operations, she said.

Stanton, who was in Denver this week talking to investors, said she was confident that construction could begin by March or April.

“Now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Sometimes I couldn’t even see the tunnel at all.”