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In the Community: The Performing Arts in Leimert Park

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Vision Theatre Market in Leimert Park.

Photo by John Sequeira.

Through the Looking Glass, a play written over the past six months by playwright and poet Jerry Quickley and community members, explores the real drama, real triumphs, and real people in two of Los Angeles’ most vibrant neighborhoods: Leimert Park and Montebello. In advance of our culminating readings in each community (February 2 in Montebello and February 3 in Leimert Park) and at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (February 8), we’re taking a closer look at Leimert Park’s rich performing arts tradition (below) and what the arts have meant to Montebello (here).

In 1927, when real estate developer Walter H. Leimert began planning his eponymous subdivision, part of the appeal of this “very beautiful and highly successful residential and business development” was the movie theatre at its center. Nearly 100 years later, the performing arts continue to thrive in Leimert Park, and the Vision Theatre remains the center of Leimert Park Village.

The Art Deco theatre (then called the Leimert Theatre) opened in 1931 as a first-run movie house. It was converted to a Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall in the 1970s before actress Marla Gibbs purchased the property and re-christened it the Vision Theatre in 1990. In 1999, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs bought the theatre and started renovations to transform it into a performing arts/cultural center that is scheduled to reopen full-time in 2017.

While the Vision Theatre is a monument to Leimert Park’s past, music teacher Fernando Pullum engages the young artists of Leimert Park’s future. The Fernando Pullum Community Arts Center offers free classes in performance practice in music, theatre, and dance as well as music recording and filmmaking for students in South Los Angeles.

Leimert Park boasts a thriving music scene and is also a hub for jazz, hip hop, and Afrobeat. Educational and performance arts gallery The World Stage, often referred to as “The Stage,“ was founded by jazz drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daáood in 1989. It has since become a black cultural mecca, offering music and poetry workshops and hosting weekly jam sessions as well as a performance series.  The Stage has been instrumental in the formation of jazz groups Black/Note and B Sharp Quartet.

Leimert Park also gave us hip hop artists such as Eazy-E and Yo-Yo. Their talents were among those fostered at KAOS Network, a community media center founded by Ben Caldwell in the early 1980s. On Thursday nights, KAOS is the site of Project Blowed, the world’s longest-running hip hop and rap open mic night, which has been going strong since 1994.

Another historic Leimert Park hip hop gathering took place in the most unlikely of places—a health food store! The Good Life Health Food Centre hosted open mic nights on Thursdays until 1997. Good Life artists include Unity Community (Jurassic 5), Ahmad, Skee-lo, Freestyle Fellowship, Rifleman (Hip Hop Clan), Of Mexican Descent, Click, Volume 10, SIN (Medusa), and Kurupt.

If Thursdays in Leimert Park are for hip hop, Sundays are for Afrobeat. The Leimert Park Drum Circle has been gathering in Leimert Plaza Park on Sundays since 1997. All levels of musicians come together to play djembes, maracas, and cowbells and dance to the rhythms.

Learn more about Through the Looking Glass and reserve tickets for the readings.

Read more about Leimert Park:

"Leimert Theater: Envisioning a Neighborhood Landmark" by Yosuke Kitazawa at KCET

"Play festival heralds impending revival of L.A.’s Vision Theatre" by Mike Boehm in the L.A. Times

"Touring Leimert’s Vision, One of LA’s Last Art Deco Theaters" by Adrian Glick Udler at Curbed LA

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