The story of the grand old historic Westlake Theatre is one that is, unfortunately, all too typical of LA’s historic buildings. Currently it’s fate, and that of the neighborhood, remains in limbo.
The Westlake Theatre opened in 1926 when Westlake was considered one of the most desirable residential areas in the city. At that time, MacArthur Park was known as Westlake Park. The neighborhood was then what Beverly Hills and Bel Air are to LA today.
The theater was the crown jewel of the upscale neighborhood. It had seating for 1,949 patrons and was used for both motion pictures and vaudeville shows. It was built at the then staggering sum of $750,000. It featured a three-story neon sign that reads “WESTLAKE THEATRE” which is still intact today.
The Westlake Theatre operated as a first-run movie theater from 1926 until the 1960s. As the neighborhood’s demographics shifted toward a hispanic population, the theater was sold to Metropolitan Theatres Corp., which showed Spanish-language or Spanish-subtitled movies.
Soon after the theater opened, movie studios began using the Westlake to preview upcoming films. Some of the films previewed at the the Westlake include; The Best Girl, starring Mary Pickford and The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.
The Jim Jones Incident at the Westlake Theatre
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The Westlake had its share of odd incidents. For example, on April 9, 1928, the assistant manager at the time, foiled a burglary when he walked in on the burglar trying to open the theater’s safe. The burglar ordered the manager to open the safe. When he refused, the burglar tied him up and fled without the money.
Perhaps the most infamous and foreboding incident was Reverend Jim Jones, founder of the People’s Temple was caught masturbating by an undercover police officer in the theater on December 13, 1973. He was arrested and booked for lewd conduct. Rather than see the incident as a warning, members of the People’s Temple (including a deputy D.A.) began to pressure the LAPD to dismiss the charge, which it eventually was. Jim Jones later lead these same followers to their death in Jonestown, Guyana on November 18, 1978. That incident, the Jonestown Massacre, is still considered to be one of the greatest tragedies in American history.
In 1991 its life as a theatre ended. It was sold and converted into a swap meet. To protect the building from drastic changes, the building was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in September 1991. The theater was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
Efforts to Rehabilitate the Westlake Theatre
The Westlake was purchased by the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles in 2008 with plans to rehabilitate the theater as a venue for live theater, film, music and other performances, but as of this writing in 2018 it still remains a swap meet.
Efforts to rehabilitate the Westlake have been severely hampered by the decay of the community itself. In the 1980s the neighborhood had become infused with refugees from Central American countries like El Salvador, where a civil war had displaced a million people. In time, young Salvadorans formed a gang called Mara Salvatrucha, meaning, roughly, Gang of the Salvadoran Guy; for short, it was labeled MS-13. In time, the gang had spread to 33 other states and five countries.
By 1990 Westlake had become a grim area where heroin addicts andy gang members controlled the streets and alleys and the lake at MacArthur Park was infamous for the number of bodies to be found in it. Gang members, were demanding “rent” from street vendors to use the public sidewalks, which were bustling with refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries. Fear was the price of living and working in the Westlake district.
Westlake had transformed from one of of LA’s most desirable “suburbs” to one of its least desirable and dangerous.
Also, as its second most densely populated neighborhood with multiple families living in small apartments owned by notorious slumlords, effecting change has been difficult. The 2000 U.S. census revealed that there is an average of 38,214 people per square mile in Westlake. Another report said that at 147 people per acre Westlake had four times the average density of Manhattan.
Despite this, crime has been falling for over a decade in the neighborhood and it is decidedly safer than it was. This is in part due to artists and other creative people moving into Westlake when rents skyrocketed out of reach elsewhere. It is also attributed to intensive anti-crime and cleanup efforts in MacArthur Park. Crackdowns on slumlords in the neighborhood have also improved living conditions slightly.
In 2016, the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles issued a request for proposals to rehab the theater and possibly build affordable housing and retail on four neighboring parcels. The goal was to make the area an attractive regional arts and culture and entertainment destination. There were no takers. A real estate broker in the area said there were too many covenants – that is too many restrictions on what could and couldn’t be done with the property as a result of the very historical designations assigned to the building in an effort to save it – for anyone to find it a viable investment. In 2017 the Westlake Theatre was put up for sale “as is” in a last ditch effort to do something with the property.
Today the majestic sign atop the Westlake Theatre still dominates the neighborhood. The lake and theatre sign add dignity and form a peaceful oasis in the midst of the most crowded and chaotic neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Whether the neighborhood continues to improve, or slips back into the utter crime ridden, fear dominated, gang infested community of the eighties could rest entirely on what the Westlake Theatre becomes after the sale.