By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"Magic, he's a down brother," says Mark Broyard, a musician and a morning regular at the Boulevard Café in the Santa Barbara Plaza. "I look around, and I don't see the James Worthy Center or the Michael Jackson Center, or anybody else openly giving their money and putting their names on things. Crenshaw is the hub of black activity, but Mark Ridley-Thomas is doing nothing. Magic's the catalyst for everything that's happening here. When he's finished with this plaza, I hope he starts on the east side of Crenshaw."
Smith chuckles at the notion of Johnson, the accidental populist. He lauds the Johnson Enterprises endeavors as more than worthy, but says Johnson has an overarching need to stay in the spotlight -- that it was only after Johnson made peace with the fact that the basketball court was permanently behind him that he turned to business full time. What better way to attract attention than to tap a market that had never been tapped before, to burst onto a scene that was hitherto devoid of heroes? "He needs to be idolized, worshipped, applauded, he really does," says Smith. "Though he'd drop all this business stuff in a minute if he could play for the Lakers now and make $25 million."
At the same time, Smith adds, Johnson was never just about money, or even fame. "He thrives on pressure, on getting out there with the people, getting into the crowd," says Smith. "With most rich guys, it's enough to be rich. Not Magic. He felt cheated because his career was cut short. He had all this energy and nothing to do with it. He was so wired after he quit basketball, he'd show up to anything, supermarket openings. He's like Bob Hope, who would still be performing if he could still stand up."
ALTHOUGH THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE have good things to say about Johnson, a relative few have mixed feelings about the hurricane path of his ambitions. These folks say that his company, while extolling the virtue and deserving nature of the minority community, is to some degree guilty of exploiting it. In its eagerness to establish an inner-city monopoly, they say, Johnson Development has put the squeeze on the same hopeful black entrepreneurs it claims it wants to encourage.
Several years ago, Marvin Jackson, president of the homeowners group Crenshaw Neighbors, was shopping an ambitious plan for a $15 million theater and retail development at Manchester and Broadway, a blighted corner that had been further damaged in the riots. Jackson and his team were looking for a joint-venture partner; city officials sent them to Kenneth Lombard, head of Johnson Development Corp. and president of Magic Johnson Theaters, who proved less than encouraging. "He admired our proposal but basically said that this was their market, that it would infringe on Magic's turf," says Janis Paxton-Buckner, a co-author of the proposal who was present at the meeting. "They were telling us this even though they had no plans themselves to build there. City officials, especially Mark Ridley-Thomas, killed the project, but it was Johnson Development that put the nail in the coffin."
Lombard says he rejected Jackson's plan because it didn't fit the development criteria that JDC had recently formulated with CalPERS. "From a theater perspective, we're looking everywhere for sites, and if there's a way for something to come together, we look at it," says Lombard. "This just wasn't workable for us."
Lombard is no stranger to economic sudden death. In the early '90s, he was an executive with Economic Resources Corp., a local nonprofit that operated the Baldwin Theater, the only black-owned first-run movie house in the country. In 1992, at his initiative, ERC formed a historic joint venture with American Multi Cinema (AMC) to create a new theater chain, called Inner City Cinema, that promised to catalyze the growth of new movie theaters in the post-riot central city. Lombard was named president of the chain. But the Inner City venture dissolved quickly and acrimoniously a year later when AMC sued ERC -- its own partners -- for misrepresentation and financial misdealings. Lombard was never implicated in the financial misconduct -- in fact, the lawsuit says it was Lombard who attempted to bring the whole matter to the ERC board's attention, for which he was subsequently fired by his colleagues. Lombard was down, but not for long: Several months after he left the ERC and Inner City Cinema, Magic Johnson announced his intent to build a theater complex on the grounds of the Crenshaw mall -- with Lombard as his chief operative. Lombard declines to comment on the details of the lawsuit, which was dismissed in 1994, though it is safe to assume he is more content with the fruits of the second venture than he was with the first.
Questions about the Baldwin Theater's ultimate demise still linger. A prominent Crenshaw businessman tells the story of a grassroots group that was looking to reopen the theater. The group was told by Johnson Development that if it planned to open the Baldwin as a first-run house, it would do so at its own risk. "There are lots of folks who had an interest in developing, then Magic comes in with a brand name, and bingo, he's a savior," says the businessman, who asked not to be named. But he also acknowledges that a certain amount of cutthroat maneuvering is par for the development course, and that it may be worth the end result. Indeed, in all of the criticism leveled at Johnson, no one -- except for some Santa Barbara Plaza tenants who are understandably wary about redevelopment -- suggests that Johnson quit what he's doing. "At the end of the day, the Magic theaters are a good thing," says the Crenshaw businessman. "It's nice, it's clean, I go there. This is more of a business thing than a black crabs-in-a-barrel thing. Johnson Development made an investment here, they'll get a return on that investment, and they'll stay. That's what matters."