First-Class Movie Theater To Open In South LA

A new set of urban entrepreneurs in Los Angeles is attempting to bring first-class movie theaters to a community that often receives second-class service. Sixteen years ago, "Magic" Johnson opened a multiplex in South Los Angeles that became a metaphor for how urban entrepreneurship could work. But Johnson sold "the Magic" 10 years later, and the theaters declined so badly they closed.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Los Angeles is accustomed to movie premieres, but this weekend is the opening for an entire multiplex theater in the heart of L.A.'s black community. As NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, far more is riding on this premiere than whether or not the movies get two thumbs up.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: It's a day before the Rave 15, a spanking new multiplex, opens in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles.

Unidentified Man #1: Hello, how are you doing today, sir?

BATES: This afternoon the developers are hosting a coveted preview for a diverse group of neighborhood residents and employees from adjacent businesses.

Unidentified Man #1: The movies that are showing are going to be to your left. You don't have to stand in line.

BATES: The guests get a free movie in a new state-of-the-art theater, free refreshments and the chance to spread the word. For some, it's deja vu all over again because they remember the original theater that was built here by basketball great Earvin "Magic" Johnson in partnership with the Loews chain.

The Magic Theaters, as they were called, were cutting edge at the time, such a showplace that tourists from abroad would make a point of visiting. Eventually, Johnson sold the complex and the theaters began a long downward spiral that ended with their closure last summer.

Steve Giles, working security on the door, remembers his disappointment.

Mr. STEVE GILES: Oh, yeah, I used to come here like two or three times a week. I'm a movie fanatic. And then it broke my little heart when they closed down. I had to go way across town.

BATES: Neighborhood residents were dismayed that when the theaters closed, there were no other movie houses close by. So when they got a chance to check out the redone theater, several, like Jae Villata, were pleasantly surprised. She said she'd been to the old theater and this was a definite improvement from its sad final days.

Ms. JAE VILLATA: Really, really, really, really nice - cleaner, bigger, and they have more artwork in here, and it's really nice.

BATES: That's music to Ken Lombard's ears. He was Johnson's partner in the original multiplex. Now, Lombard is president of Capri Urban Investors, which bought the theater and the mall next door. On a walk-through before the theater opens, Lombard insisted this was more than just a renovation.

Mr. KEN LOMBARD (President, Capri Urban Investors): We took it down to the studs, started over. The project itself ended up costing about 12 million bucks. When you think about it from a redo perspective, it's a brand-new theater.

(Soundbite of music)

BATES: There's 3-D and something called 3-D extreme.

(Soundbite of film trailer, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) You're trying to control things that are not meant to be controlled.

BATES: That's a trailer for this summer's prequel, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

The neighborhoods surrounding the multiplex range from extremely well-off to extremely hard-pressed, and while the theaters are expected to pull in everyone, the mall will have a bigger challenge.

Right now it contains three anchor stores: Macy's, Sears and the country's first three-level Wal-Mart. There are also lots of smaller businesses that hope the theaters' success will trickle down.

Tiffany Girrard would like her newsstand to be one of those.

Ms. TIFFANY GIRRARD: By more people visiting the theater, before and after the movies, they can come through - browse through the mall, and that will definitely increase my traffic flow.

BATES: It's a fine balance. If they cater to the Wal-Mart customer, how do the developers also entice those neighborhood residents who regularly drive by the mall to shop across town at a Bloomingdale's or Saks?

Sitting in the partially deconstructed food court, community activist Najee Ali says he hopes this mall can strike that balance.

Mr. NAJEE ALI: To show other investors across the nation that they can invest in urban America, and they can pay a profit, and it can pay off for businesspeople as well as the community.

BATES: That's a tall order. And to fill it, the new multiplex will have to work a different kind of magic.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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