During the early morning hours on Tuesday April 21, firefighters from the Los Angeles Fire Department extinguished flames that damaged part of the historic Vision Theatre located in Leimert Park.
Firefighters extinguished the fire in about 25 minutes. The first reports of the fire came in around 4:35 a.m. on Tuesday. There were no reported injuries and the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, City Council President Emeritus Herb Wesson hinted that a houseless or a homeless individual may have started the fire but nothing was confirmed as of press time.
“The fire department referred to it as a rubbish fire,” said Wesson. “Reports are that there are some kind of barbeque pit or some type of fire that was started by the individual that was staying right next to it (Vision Theatre). And it’s my understanding that authorities are trying to find him to have a conversation with him.”
The theater has been undergoing a year’s-long, multi-phase renovation. Wesson said the most important thing is that the fire did not delay the timeline of the scheduled reopening of the Vision Theatre. An exact date has not been set but the councilman said he is hopeful the revitalization project will stay on course for reopening at end of the calendar year.
“We’re fortunate that the Vision Theatre basically escaped what could have been a catastrophe,” said Wesson.
“When I was initially informed, my heart stopped because we had been working on this project for so long. In fact, the past three council people have been working on this project and now we can see the finish line. So, when I heard the news and saw some of the film, it was devastating.”
Reports are that the damage was done to the west portion of the marquee of the theatre and there may have been a small amount of smoke that entered the facility but initial investigation is that the structure and roof look to be sturdy and intact.
The owners of the property adjacent to the Vision Theatre have boarded up that facility and this week the city sanitized and hosed down the theatre and surrounding areas affected by the flames.
The venue opened as a cinema venue in 1931 under the name Leimert Park Theatre. It was purchased in 1990 by legendary actress Marla Gibbs, who gave it the Vision name. The city eventually took over the theater and turned it into a performing arts center.
“Marla Gibbs is a treasure to the community and her forethought to invest and create the Vision Theatre in the heart of the Black community will always be cherished and celebrated, said Danny J. Bakewell, Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel and L.A. Watts Times Newspaper. “She developed a creative space for African Americans to be proud of and showcase our talents. With the leadership of Council President Emeritus Herb Wesson, the Vision Theatre will continue to live and thrive for generations to come.”
Ben Caldwell, who runs the Leimert Park Art Walk and manages the Kaos Network, a for-profit community media lab next door to the Vision, assessed the damage. “The damage on the property was mostly due to the homeless encampment that caught on fire. So, the box-wall that faced the vision theater burned down and the wall that faced the encampment burned down,” Caldwell said in a social distanced interview. He says there may have been fires on the roof. “I just hate to see that happen to my friends, there.”
Caldwell says he appreciated watching the people come together during a hectic time. “It showed a community working together; we see how fast we were able to stop the fire,” he said. “There are elements in the community during these hard times that are hard to work with because of the cycle of social trauma, but I think this is a good wake-up call for us all to see what we can do about taking care of emergency things.”