When I moved into South Gate in 2006, I thought the old Allen Theater was nothing but a hunk of junk that took up space, like those pre-installed apps on your iPhone. It resembled a black sheep in the midst of the beauty salons, barber shops, outlet stores and other small businesses on Tweedy Mile.
I had no idea the theater was a fragment of South Gate’s artistic past that had evolved from a venue for movies to community talent shows to ska and rock shows to a plain, old building.
I was definitely surprised to know that a movement was underway to revive it. When I first heard of that movement, the South Gate Arts Revival, I asked myself, “What is there to revive? There’s no arts here in South Gate.”
Apparently, the Allen Theater is one of the last artistic remnants of a white South Gate – a city that is now almost 100% Latino.
The revival group is run by Jacquie Farfan, the owner of Yuri’s Records, a “mom and pop” record shop since 1979 and the base of operations.
The mission is clear: restore the theater to its former glory. Their vision for the theater is to become a center for arts and culture in Southeast Los Angeles that unites the community.
With the help of the community, the theater has hosted a variety of art shows in the past two years, ranging from a Chinese New Year theme to a show during the first-ever CicLAvia event in southeastern cities.
“As a lifelong resident of South Gate, it has been a long-time desire of mine to see this community thrive, not only by bringing new commerce, but also emphasizing the importance of nurturing a cultural and creative environment for its residents.” said Farfan, who is widely regarded as a mother figure in her store.
Farfan started meeting up with local business owners in 2013 and discussed with each of them how they could build and fortify Tweedy Mile’s empty art scene. They decided that the cultural revitalization of the timeless Allen Theater would be in the community’s best interests.
Originally known as the Garden Theater, the Allen opened in 1924. Back in its heyday, the Allen served as the typical neighborhood movie theater. It screened classic war and western movies, cartoons, and hosted talent shows.
The winner of one of the Allen’s talent shows, Earlene Baker Lefler, 79, grew up in South Gate at a time when African Americans were not allowed in the city. She went to the theater every Saturday with her friends during World War II, and describes it as a place for couples to have their first kisses.
“It was always packed,” said Baker Lefler, who now lives in Las Vegas. “It was just a nice, friendly neighborhood theater.”
The Allen remained Baker Lefler’s neighborhood theater for many years, continuing to screen popular movies featuring Cheech & Chong and other pop culture icons.
In the 1990s, the theater became a hub for ska and rock shows. Daniel Villa, 28, would drive all the way from the San Fernando Valley to the Allen and rock out to Latino bands like Viernes 13, La Resistencia, and Chencha Berrinches.
Business went on as usual, but as time passed, the theater’s health began to decline. In 2006, the Allen temporarily closed its doors for renovation. The reopening never happened. Its renovation developed into a hibernation state and went into an indefinite hiatus.
Through the years, as I drove down Tweedy Boulevard, I watched as the theater, like a chameleon, changed its appearance: a coat of a nausea-inducing purple was applied, graffiti popped up on the front doors, and wooden planks covered the building’s facade to disguise the shattered glass. In 2009, the theater officially became vacant.
“It’s one of those things where you don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” said Rick Vazquez, 33, a South Gate native for over 20 years.
When Vasquez heard there was an opportunity to be involved with the theater’s preservation, he contacted Farfan. Like Farfan, Vazquez believes that the Allen could serve and strengthen southeast cities like South Gate, a city known more for housing the previous location of a General Motors manufacturing plant rather than its residents.
For now, the Allen has been able to hang on tight through the tedious process of sorting out city paperwork to preserve the theater. Unfortunately, other southeast theaters can’t say the same. Places like the Los Pinos Theater on Long Beach Boulevard or the Warner Theater on Huntington Park’s Pacific Avenue are awaiting the desolate future of becoming a banquet hall and a retail store, respectively.
As I walk by Tweedy Boulevard 10 years later, I don’t see the Allen anymore as a crippled building on life support; I see it as a phoenix, waiting to resurrect, stronger than ever before. I see it as a place where people with all kinds of different interests can come together and put on a show for the community.