By Darlene Donloe
INGLEWOOD — When Owen Smith and his wife, Mariana Weber Smith were scouting for a venue to purchase, they walked into the Miracle Theater and almost recoiled — taken aback by the years of neglect that had ravaged the building.
The stage was empty, missing even standard audio, lighting and technical equipment. Then there was the décor.
“The walls were painted the color of intestines,” Owen Smith said. “The carpeting was old and stained and had asbestos, which has since been removed. The bathrooms were in terrible shape and there was no hot water in the entire building.”
Each of the 400 original chairs needed to be repaired and reupholstered. And, if that were not enough, to comply with fire and safety codes, Owen said, the holes in the ceilings needed to be repaired, exit signs needed to be mounted and entrance/exit doors needed to be replaced.
It was clear that the building needed more than a little tender loving care to become a working theater once again.
Before it fell into complete disuse, the once-popular theater, located in the heart of the city’s historic downtown on Market Street, had a storied past dating back to 1937 when it opened during the Great Depression as the Ritz Theatre.
In the 1940s, when it was still called the Ritz, it was operated by Laemmle Theatres.
In the early ’60s, the Ritz was operated by Allied Theatres of California.
In 1967, the name was changed to Loew’s Ciné, operated by Loews.
In 1975, it became the Pussycat Theatre before morphing into a community center that closed sometime in the 1990s.
By the late ’90s, the building was being used by Rev. Ernest J. Johnson as a church and a venue for gospel plays. It was Johnson who named it Miracle.
In 2016, 11 years later, the Smiths were looking for a venue to buy. At the same time, Smith was also in the process of relocating his Culver City-based post-production company, which had a lot of production gear, including a projector that needed a home.
As luck would have it, the theater was for sale. The projector indeed came in handy, but not as they imagined.
“Unfortunately, we had to sell the projector to acquire the building,” said Mariana, a Buenos Aires native. “We were a little insane when it came to getting the building, but you have to be a little insane to do great things.”
The Smiths reimagined the possibilities and bought the building with the goal of turning it into one of the city’s premier independent entertainment centers.
They kept the name but for their own, personal reasons.
“We thought it would be a miracle if we could keep it going,” Mariana said. “We thought, this is going to be a miracle. It stuck.”
Today, following an extensive renovation, the Miracle Theater provides a stage for local and international artists. Inglewood’s only independent, mid-size capacity entertainment and hospitality venue has hosted live music, comedy, television and film production, branded events and community forums, becoming a vital part of Inglewood’s vibrant cultural scene.
Local residents are able to rent the theater for private parties and club events at a discounted rate.
Issa Rae and HBO held the Season 2 premiere of ‘Insecure’ at the theatre. Ice-T and Red Bull have taken the stage and the Inglewood Theater and Dancers 4 Life Dance Groups have also utilized the space.
Other recent artists include Malian singer-songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, iLe, Rakim and Rebirth Brass Band.
On Wednesdays, comedian Chris Spencer hosts a monthly Elliott Brothers Entertainment Presents Comedy Block Party. For now, Thursdays are reserved for jazz, and will soon include an open mic night.
“We didn’t get into this for the money,” Owen said. “We wanted to play a role in the revitalization of this community’s downtown. That’s why we’re here.”
Both Smiths, married for 20 years and the parents to two teenage boys, have unorthodox backgrounds that led them to love entertainment, the arts and music.
Mariana began her career as a character makeup artist for opera and ballet at the world-renowned Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.
When he was growing up, Owen’s parents owned the only independent bookstore in St. Augustine, Florida, which, he said, helped cultivate his entrepreneurial spirit and appreciation for storytelling.
It is this background, along with their immersion into the multi-cultural worlds of art and music, that makes both Smiths feel at home in Inglewood.
“At 5 years old, my father took me to Jacksonville (Florida) to see Dizzy Gillespie,” Owen said. “Then we went to see Miles Davis at age 11, we were ‘that’ white family at the barbecue. I recently took my son to see Shirley Caesar’s gospel show. All of this is important.”
Owen’s initial dream was to be an ambassador or an engineer.
He became neither, but he’s had a diverse career that includes working at a start-up digital marketing firm and in technical production for 12 seasons of “American Idol.”
Now he sees the Miracle Theater as his purpose.
“There is a reason Inglewood and a small community business work for me,” he said. “I grew up in a small town in a bookstore. Inglewood is awesome and it’s only getting better.”
The city’s renaissance, propelled by its new sports and entertainment district, is a wave of change the Smiths plan to ride. The same goes for their approach to the proposed Inglewood Transit Connector, which could begin construction early next year.
“Our feeling is that what’s good for Inglewood is good for our business,” Owen said. “We are working hard to see that when visitors come to Inglewood, they get off the ITC and get to experience all the things we love about this city — yes, our theater, but also other shops, restaurants and the mom-and-pop stores that give Inglewood a unique character.”
Along with its for-profit business, the Smiths established a nonprofit arm called the Miracle Theater Foundation, which partners with underrepresented artists to help bring their unique visions to the stage or screen, and increases its community engagement by building pathways to sustainable careers in the area’s entertainment and sports venues.
In addition, the Smiths routinely make the theater available for activities that benefit the community. In an effort to renew the vibrancy of downtown Inglewood, the foundation initiated an Art Walk on Market Street and allows the theater and gallery to serve as the venue with the intent of helping businesses and art enthusiasts connect.
On the Miracle Theater website is a quote by the Smiths. “We want artists and community members to feel like they are coming home.”
“That’s the vision for the Miracle,” Owen said. “That’s the spirit of community.”
“You have to build for the people around you,” Mariana added. “It gives me pleasure when I see someone come to the theater and enjoy the experience. That, to me, is the magic.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.