Magic Johnson Theaters was a blockbuster business story in the mid-1990s, the feel-good saga of a plucky underdog’s climb to the top of the heap.
Since Johnson and his partner sold their ownership stake in 2004, time and circumstances have been less than kind to the cineplex at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. But new owners for the mall and new operators for the theaters have big plans to rejuvenate the venture.
The undisputed success — considered improbable by many at the time — of an upscale theater complex in South Los Angeles launched the post-basketball career of Earvin “Magic” Johnson by showing that he was an entrepreneur as well as an athlete.
“Magic Johnson Theaters were state of the art in the heart of what’s considered the black community,” City Councilman Bernard C. Parks said. “People didn’t have to drive to other areas to view first-run movies.”
The theater complex drew 1 million visitors a year in its heyday and was sometimes the top-performing theater in the county when it screened movies of particular interest to African Americans, such as “Waiting to Exhale” in 1995.
Such movies became communal events that attracted people from miles around, said Jose Nunez, a top manager at the theater when it opened in July of that year.
“There were mothers and daughters, whole families,” he recalled. “People treated the place like a community center, congregating in the halls and lobby. They didn’t just buy a ticket, sit down and then leave.”
At Christmastime, some regular theatergoers brought cookies to the staff, Nunez said. A group of women who used to exercise by walking in the mall would meet in front of theater and voluntarily sweep the sidewalk there before setting out on their jaunts.
But the love fest didn’t last. Johnson and his partner, Ken Lombard, decided to sell their theater business to Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp. in 2004. The move opened the door to more profitable ventures for both men, who are no longer in business together, but led to the decline of the once-popular theaters.
Under terms of the sale, Lombard and Johnson allowed the new owners to use the name “Magic” on the Baldwin Hills theaters until the complex’s lease at the mall expired this year. Loews was taken over by AMC Entertainment Inc. in 2006, by which time the theaters had grown increasingly dated. Newer theaters within easy driving distance had stadium seating, 3-D and fresher looks.
AMC wanted to renew the lease that expired in June and was ready to put in new carpet, reupholster the seats and repaint, but Lombard wanted more.
He is in the position to call the shots in the theater once again because he is now its landlord. Last year, Lombard joined Capri Capital Partners, the Chicago real estate investment firm that has owned Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza since 2006.
Capri is working on a $30-million overhaul of the mall completed in 1988, which will be followed by a more ambitious development program intended to add housing, a hotel and an office building. Lombard is determined to bring the mall from what he called a C level to an A, including the theaters.
Some developers and retailers underestimate the sophistication of consumers in urban, minority neighborhoods, Lombard said, and “think they can just bring in second-tier” offerings."But if you don’t do it first class, it’s just not going to work.”
Capri is betting on Rave Motion Pictures, a small theater chain from Dallas that competes in the upscale market. Its other Los Angeles location is the Rave Motion Pictures 18, formerly the Bridge Cinema de Lux, near Playa Vista.
Rave plans to pull out all the stops in what will become the Baldwin Hills 15 when it opens next May, said Jeremy Devine, vice president of marketing. The $10-million upgrade funded mostly by Capri will bring in full stadium seating and digital technology that can project in 3-D and bring in broadcasts of live events.
Rave’s live programming in the past has included the BCS college championship and World Cup soccer in 3-D, and musical events such as the Metropolitan Opera and drum-line competitions.
“Meetings and certain community events can also be done via satellite as a part of our programming,” Devine said. “At non-peak times, modern multiplexes can be much more than they used to be because of new technology.”
Demolition of the old theaters is underway and Rave expects to be in operation by next May. The new complex won’t have the neighborhood to itself quite the way Magic Johnson Theaters did — there are now modern theaters in nearby Culver City, for example — but Lombard hopes to restore the theaters’ bond with the locals.
“There is a lot of loyalty in the consumer base here,” he said. “We’ve got to get back to what made us successful.”