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Leimert / Vision Theatre: history + exterior views

3341 W. 43rd Place Los Angeles, CA 90008 | map |

Also see: Leimert/Vision Theatre: interior views


Opened: April 21, 1932 as the Leimert Theatre, operated initially by the neighborhood chain Westland Theatres. Expect a reopening in 2021. The building, now owned by the City of Los Angeles and called the Vision Theatre, has been subjected to a prolonged multi-stage renovation project. Much exterior and lobby work had been done but funds weren't available until 2018 to tackle the auditorium and stagehouse issues. The city expects to stretch out the final $6.5 million phase of the project for three years.

Thanks to Wendell Benedetti for his 2013 photo appearing on the LAHTF Facebook page. April Sommer Rabanera comments: "It was interesting to note, when we did the color analysis of the exterior paint, the original layer of that seafoam green had ground up glass in it. So we think the exterior would have been kind if shimmery."

City DCA website: culturela.org/cultural-centers/vision-theatre   DCA phone: 213-202-5500

Email: leimertparkvisiontheatre@gmail.com or dca.visiontheatre@lacity.org  Theatre phone: 323-290-2386

On Facebook: The Vision Theatre

Architect: Stiles O. Clements of Morgan, Walls & Clements designed the building for Walter Leimert, developer of the area. FSY Architects is designing the renovation. See their page on the Vision Theatre and more information lower on this page.

The foundation was built to support a later thirteen story addition, which never materialized. The auditorium, as can be seen even from the exterior, is a huge oval in shape. The ceiling murals by Anthony Heinsbergen were lit by cove lighting in concentric rings. Perhaps the most famous feature of the theatre was an electric eye drinking fountain that came on automatically as you leaned over to take a drink.

There was originally no stagehouse but one has been added as part of the 2019-2022 phase of the renovations. For a film-only house, there was a surprising depth behind the proscenium, about 18'. The stage was extended forward as a thrust in the years the theatre was in use for a variety of performances as the Vision Theatre. There was no basement in the original design. The only dressing room space was a small alcove downstage right and up adjacent to the projection booth, areas once used for offices and staff changing areas.

Seating: It was announced in an L.A. Times article about the opening as having 1,400 seats. One estimate puts it at 1,155 originally (later down to 1,050). Cinema Treasures lists it as 1,123. There is no balcony -- it's all on one level. Expected capacity after the renovation is about 750.

History: The theatre was supposed to be leased by the Howard Hughes' venture called the Hughes-Franklin circuit. That circuit had been formed only at the tail end of 1930. But by mid-1931 it became apparent that the movie business was terrible and getting seriously worse. Hughes and his partner, former Fox West Coast head Harold B. Franklin, started liquidating their holdings.

A Sunday, April 17, 1932 L.A. Times article on page three of section five announced the opening. Thanks to L.A. theatre historian Ed Kelsey for locating the article.

"THEATER TO OPEN NEXT THURSDAY - Celebration Will Mark Fifth Year of District's Development - Marking the fifth anniversary of the establishment of the Leimert Park District, formal opening of the new Leimert Theater one block east of the intersection of Vernon avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard, will be held Thursday evening, according to announcement yesterday by Lawrence Block, vice-president of the Walter H. Leimert Company. Five years ago the district was a barren field, occupying the northeastern section of the vast Baldwin estate. Today, Leimert Park has more than 400 buildings, representing an aggregate investment of more than $5,500,000, and the community is considered one of the most attractive sections of Southwest Los Angeles, according to Block.

"The theater building was designed by Architects Morgan, Walls & Clements, and was erected by Contractors Lindgren & Swinerton, Inc. It is of reinforced concrete construction, and is topped with a 115-foot ornamental tower, equivalent in height to a nine-story building. The auditorium is oval-shaped, and has 1400 seats, a feature of the architectural arrangement being provision of more space between rows than in any other theater, so far as is known, it was stated. Westland Theatres, Inc., operators of a chain of Southland showhouses, has leased the new Leimert Theater for a long term. and is in charge of the formal opening Thursday night, which is expected to attract hundreds of visitors from all sections of Southwest Los Angeles." 

Leimert had the neighborhood around the theatre designed to resemble a European village. The design was partially by the Olmsted Brothers, a landscape architecture firm run by step-brothers John Charles Olmsted and Fredrick Law Olmsted, Jr. Their father, Fredrick Law Olmstead Sr., was the creator of New York's Central Park. See the Leimert Investment Co. website (pronounced "luh-MERT") for some historical information about the company. The development was a "whites-only" enclave until restrictive deed covenants were outlawed by the courts in 1948.



Sometime before 1941 the Leimert became a Fox West Coast operation but by 1949 had been jettisoned by that circuit. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding this 1949 ad for the theatre running as an independent.



A January 13, 1960 L.A. Times ad for the Leimert, running as an independent house. Thanks to Mike Hume for locating the ad. Visit his Historic Theatre Photography site for historical information as well as thousands of his great photos of the theatres he's explored in the L.A. area and elsewhere. 

The last film to run in the theatre was "Bonnie and Clyde" in 1968. In 1977 the theatre became a Jehovah’s Witness chapel and was known as the Watchtower. The Witnesses, in their renovation fever, destroyed many of the art deco decorative elements of the building. But we can also perhaps credit them for saving the building.

Actress Marla Gibbs bought the theatre in 1990 and renamed it the Vision Theatre, intending to make it a venue for African-American movies, live theater and dance productions. The 1992 LA riots and economic recession following the riots hit the area hard and the property was in foreclosure in 1997. It has been owned by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs since 1999. Under city ownership there was only occasional use of the theatre as a live performance venue.

In 2007 the Vision received a $2.7 million grant from the California Cultural Historical Endowment for renovation work. Also in 2007 the City of Los Angeles pledged $10 million for a renovation of the building. Curbed LA had the story: "Another Theatre Renovation Planned....." Maybe some of that $10 million never arrived. In any case, little got done. Work in 2011 (the city claims $11 million was spent!) included exterior repairs, painting, and a renovation of the marquee and tower signage. The entrance and lobby were redone, an elevator added, and the booth and adjacent areas gutted for renovation into meeting and classroom areas.

There was no work in the auditorium or backstage. Following that phase of work the lobby occasionally saw use as an art gallery, the upstairs spaces were used as a youth arts center, and the auditorium got an occasional theatrical booking or meeting. The full program was to turn the building into a 750 seat performing arts center with stadium seating, a full stagehouse and state-of-the-art equipment. The project languished.

The L.A. Sentinel had a March 2013 story discussing the initial phase that had been completed but noted that the theatre was still looking for additional funding to reconfigure the auditorium and add a stagehouse. In 2018 the city appropriated $6.5 million to finish the work. Bianca Barragan covered the story in her Curbed L.A. article "Leimert Park's Art DecoVision Theater closing for renovations."  Well, other than the lobby, it really hadn't been open.

There was a fire in the retail building west of the theatre's entrance on April 21, 2020. That building was gutted but, other than a bit of minor marquee damage, the theatre is fine. It's under investigation. Several photos are at the bottom of the page.  

Renovation, phase II: It's under construction with a 2022 opening scheduled. The theatre is getting a new orchestra pit, stagehouse, dressing rooms, and a stadium-style seating configuration. FSY Architects designed the renovation. Among their other projects are the Madrid Theatre and the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, both for the City of Los Angeles. Royal Construction of Arcadia is the general contractor.
 
Auerbach Pollock Friedlander of San Francisco is the theatre consultant, Staging Concepts of Minneapolis is doing the rigging. The seating contractor is Irwin Seating. Architectural historian Barbara Lamprecht, working with the consulting firm ICF, is historic consultant. Jeff Greene's Evergreene Architectural Arts is in charge of restoration of decorative areas of the interior.  

Status: The City doesn't intend to operate the building themselves. They're looking for an operator for both the theatre as well as the Manchester Junior Arts Center, developed earlier in the lobby, storefront and upstairs areas of the building. Data about the City's RFP, with a deadline of December 17, 2021, appears on the Department of Cultural Affairs website.
 

 A rendering from FSY Architects. 
 
 
 
A section looking through the proscenium to the back wall. At the bottom note the new orchestra pit and its lift. It's a drawing from FSY and Staging Concepts. This drawing and others seen here were distributed by the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs during a design competition for the new house curtain. The bulbous framing around the top of the stagehouse is FSY's design to make the exterior look more appealing.
 
 
 
A section view to the back of the house from FSY and Staging Concepts showing the new stadium-style seating layout. In the foreground is a motorized lineset for FOH lighting.  

The stage:
 
 
A drawing from Staging Concepts. The lineset shown is one of the four electrics, at both its high and low trims. The four items at the very top are smoke vents. Note the pit below stage level for the tension blocks. There are wingspace issues stage right, with the end of the batten about a foot from the wall.


Proscenium: 44' 11" wide x 26' high.
 
Width: 78'. Centerline to lockrail SL is 47', centerline to SR wall is 31'.
 
Grid height: 65' 

Fire curtain: It's on a motorized hoist.

Rigging: 35 sets that operate stage left with ropelocks both at stage level and at a flyfloor 20' 6" above stage level. A valance set has loftblocks on the grid, all the others are underhung. They're 7 line sets with 8' arbors and 65' battens. The battens and loft wells are somewhat off-center due to lack of wing space stage right. Low trim is 4', high trim is 61'.

Electrics: 4 of the 35 sets are designated as electrics, with 10' arbors and permanently installed raceways. The electrics have a more limited travel than the regular linesets. There are also 3 motorized F.O.H. electric battens.


More exterior views:


1931 - The tower going up. It's a Dick Whittington Studio photo from the USC Digital Library collection that appeared with "Leimert Theater: Envisioning A Neighborhood Landmark," a 2013 KCET article about the area by Yosuke Kitazawa.



1931 - The construction a bit farther along. It was a glamor shot to publicize the rapidly growing development orchestrated by Walter Leimert. Photo: Dick Whittington Studio / USC Digital Library via KCET. The theatre opened in April 1932.



1932 -  The theatre from the park across the street. It's a Mott Studios photo in the California State Library collection. All eleven photos they have, including one more exterior view, all included in their set # 001384370. On the marquee it's Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in "Dance Fools Dance" and "Palmy Days" with Charlotte Greenwood, both from 1931.

also from 1932 - The AMPAS  Tom B'hend - Preston Kaufmann Collection has an additional Mott Studios photo taken from the park that's not in the California State Library set.



1934 - A view of the theatre's marquee with "Gallant Lady" playing. It's in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



1934 - Another "Gallant Lady" shot. It's a photo from the Marc Wanamaker collection. Thanks to Ken McIntyre for finding it for a post on the Facebook page Photos of Los Angeles. It's also on the AMPAS website as part of the B'hend - Kaufmann Collection.  



1935 - A Dick Whittington Studio view looking west from the USC Digital Library collection.



1935 - Backing up a bit. It's another Dick Whittington photo in the USC Digital Library collection. It appears we're surveying the intersection.



1935 - A detail from the previous photo from the Dick Whittington Studio. Note the use of signage adjacent to the theatre. The Chinese did the same thing for years. The Leimert is running "Les Miserables."



c.1938 - A Herman Schultheis photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection. Also see another view by Mr. Schultheis from farther to the west.



1950s - A look east toward the theatre. Thanks to Sean Ault for the photo from his collection.



1950s - A detail from the previous photo.



1968 - The theatre after closing as a film house. It's a photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.  



1968 - Looking east toward the theatre. It's a photo in the Los Angeles Public Library collection.



1968 - The view west after the theatre's closing. It's a Los Angeles Public Library photo. More 1968 photos in the Library's collection: closer view from the west | corner cleaners | marquee - from in front | marquee - wider view | tower - from the west | another tower view | "Leimert" - lettering on marquee | end of marquee | corner of marquee | base of tower | lower tower detail | upper tower | upper tower - from front | 



1983 - Thanks to American Classic Images for this view of the theatre in its church days. 




2002 - A photo by Betty Sword from the collection of Brooklyn based theatre historian Cezar Del Valle. Check out what he's up to lately on his Theatre Talks blog.



c.2007 - A tower detail by Dean Cheng on Flickr. The photo appears with Marissa Gluck's 2007 Curbed L.A. article "Another Theatre Renovation Planned..." where she wrote: "Seriously, Leimert Park is hot. A buzzing neighborhood, a thriving arts scene, and the attendant fears about gentrification. You haven't really made it until local residents and merchants battle developers." Also see the 2013 Curbed story by Adrian Glick Kudler "Touring Leimert's Vision..."



c.2007 - A rendering of the intended appearance of the theatre after the much-delayed construction program is completed. It appears on a web page from the project's designers, FSY Architects



2008 - Thanks to Ken McIntyre for this entrance view.



2009 - A tower view before restoration work. Photo: Michelle Gerdes



2009 - A corner of the marquee revealed. Photo: Michelle Gerdes



2010 - Pre-renovation. Note the doors installed out at the sidewalk line. Photo: Bill Counter



2010 -  A look up the tower. Photo: Bill Counter



2010 - A detail of some of the tower's ornament. Photo: Bill Counter



2010 - The terrazzo as one approached the entrance doors. Here they were still out at the sidewalk. The 2011 renovations pushed them back in to the original location. Photo: Bill Counter



2013 - All lit up after exterior restoration work and no show on the stage. Thanks to Hillsman Wright for posting this great photo on the LAHTF Facebook page to advertise an "all-about" tour of the building by the organization.



2013 - The neon at dusk. It's a photo that appeared on a now-vanished page of the Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation website.



2013 - New signage atop the tower. Photo: Bill Counter 



2013 - Looking skyward at the restored marquee and tower. Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein



2013 - New neon work on the corner of the marquee. The new electronic readerboards were having a bad day. Photo: Bill Counter



2013 - Looking west across the entrance terrazzo. Photo: Bill Counter



2013 - A terrazzo detail. Photo: Michelle Gerdes



2013 - Looking into the ticket lobby. Photo: Bill Counter



2013 - A deeper view in the ticket lobby. The event was an LAHTF "all-about" tour of the building. Photo: Michelle Gerdes



2013 - The ceiling of the ticket lobby. Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein.



2013 - A ticket lobby wall detail. Photo: Sandi Hemmerlein. Thanks, Sandi! 



2013 - The rear of the building. Photo: Bill Counter



2014 - A look across the restored marquee to the tower. Thanks to Hunter Kerhart for his photo. Keep up with his recent explorations: on Facebook | HunterKerhart.com | on Flickr



2014 - The signage on the tower. Photo: Hunter Kerhart 



2014 - A closer view of some of the tower's ornament. Photo: Hunter Kerhart 



2014 - A corner view. Photo: Hunter Kerhart



2014 - A deco neon detail. Photo: Hunter Kerhart



2014 - The entrance of the dormant theatre. Photo: Hunter Kerhart. Thanks, Hunter!



April 2019 - The theatre in construction mode for phase II. They're talking about a reopening in 2020. Photo: Bill Counter



April 2019 - A view from the west. Photo: Bill Counter



April 2019 - The stage end of the building. Adding a real stagehouse is part of the plan. Photo: Bill Counter



May 2019 - A bit of demolition as the stage area gets removed. The new stagehouse will include fly capability as well as an orchestra pit and dressing rooms. The photo was part of a post on the Vision Facebook page.



July 2019 - Formwork going up for the beginnings of a new pit and dressing room area. The photo was a post on the Vision Theatre Facebook page.



July 2019 - A look across some of the dirt that was removed for the stagehouse excavation. Photo: Bill Counter



July 2019 - The view across the big dig. That's the back of the proscenium where the tarps are. There's a bit of the auditorium visible beyond. Photo: Bill Counter



August 2019 - Stagehouse foundation work progressing. It's a photo from a post on the Facebook page of the City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering. Thanks to Escott O. Norton for spotting the post. Also see a short August 2019 video from the LABofE outlining the stagehouse project.



August 2019 - Down in the trenches. Photo: City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering on Facebook



August 2019 - On the roof getting oriented. Photo: City of Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering on Facebook



September 2019 - More forms in place. Note the doorway into the orchestra pit. Photo: Bill Counter



November 2019 - Looking in from the north toward the new steel going up. Photo: Bill Counter



November 2019 - The framing for the multi-leveled support spaces upstage. The actual stage is over to the left. Photo: Bill Counter



November 2019 - A view from the east. It isn't topped out yet. The stagehouse, adjacent to the existing auditorium structure, will go substantially higher. Photo: Bill Counter



December 2019 - The stagehouse at full height. The headbeams are in place. Ready for roof trusses and the grid. Photo: Bill Counter



 January 2020 - Filling in the roof structure. Photo: Bill Counter



January 2020 -  A peek toward the basement. Photo: Bill Counter



April 21, 2020 - A roof fire was reported at 4:35 in the morning. Over 100 firefighters responded and extinguished the blaze within 25 minutes. The shot is from the coverage on Fox 11. The fire was in the retail building to the west of the theatre, which was gutted. The firemen had chopped holes in the roof to ventilate the structure. 



 
April 21, 2020 - A view of the building west of the theatre from the coverage of the event on CBS 2. The Fire Department alert about the event noted that the cause was under investigation. The L.A. Times had a very alarmist story alleging "serious damage" to the theatre. They later fixed it up when they got the correct information. Their article has a link to some interesting video footage of the retail building adjacent to the theatre, where all the problems were. 
 

January 2021 - A look down the block to the tower from Kirk A. Gaw, who is working on facade restoration and lighting during the renovation project. The photo was part of a post of his on Facebook.
 
 
 
January 2021 - Well, the roof deck is on and the grid installed. But not much else going on. Photo: Bill Counter  
 
 
 
January 2021 - A closer look. Photo: Bill Counter 

More Information: See the Cinema Treasures page on the Vision Theatre for lots of historical data and links to many vintage photos. The Cinema Tour page has some nice exterior shots by Ken Roe.

Check out "Touring Leimert's Vision...," a 2013 Curbed L.A. article by Adrian Glick Kudler that included eighteen fine photos by Elizabeth Daniels. Don't miss Sandi Hemmerlein's superb 2013 photo essay "Vision Theatre Rising."

See the 2008 LAist story: "Neighborhood Project: Leimert Park" for lots of history of the neighborhood and many photos. At the bottom of the article are many links for further information about the neighborhood. Check out Don Solosan's "Insider's peek #11", a Los Angeles Historic Theatre Foundation video tour featuring Hillsman Wright.

For more neighborhood history also see a pdf assembled to go with a documentary about the neighborhood: Leimert Park History. The USC Digital Library Archives has a neat August 1929 Dick Whittington Studio photo of a Zeppelin over Leimert Park. Check out the Wikipedia article on Leimert Park. Yelp has a page listing Leimert Park Village businesses.

The Leimert/Vision Theatre pages: back to top  - history + exterior views | interior views |

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2 comments:

  1. What a tremendous gift this work and research is. I am the historical consultant for Phase II of the Vision, might it be possible to discuss the original seating with you? I notice there is no contact information for you. Many thanks, Dr. Barbara Lamprecht

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi, Barbara -- There's contact information for me on the right sidebar. Unless you're looking at the site on a phone. In any case, my email is counterb@gmail.com. I'd be delighted to talk with you.

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