By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Johnson, for his part, is undeterred by the criticism, even downright serene; he's acknowledged the challenge, has done his research and stands by his actions. "We talk a lot of trash but don't do our homework," he says more than once. "Why are there so many fast-food franchises in black communities? Because people sat down and figured out that's what black people buy. They did their homework."
But he knows the grounds of fear, of doubt. He knows that despite the tract-home normalcy represented by his movie house, despite its fiscal success and plenitude of smiling employees, it is not the suburbs, and for all the mighty potential of the urban market, this market, like literary black fiction and intelligent black movies, might be given only one shot. It is therefore critically important that the Magic Johnson Theatres remain, as they have thus far, incident-free, and that requires a delicate balancing act between community accessibility and community censure. So while theater officials denounce the possibly incendiary Belly and require men to have caps in hand only, they do vigorous outreach -- special rates and events for seniors and kids, hosting the annual Pan African Film Festival -- and patrons disgruntled over a late-starting movie or slow concession service are issued apologies and free passes. As anybody who's experienced years of meager to no goods and services in black neighborhoods will tell you, this customer-first attitude makes one hell of a difference.
Johnson is certain that he will prevail, that his terms will be accepted and then embraced. He insists there is no one ä who cares like him, who wants to be there like him. He tells the story of an older man who wrote to him to complain bitterly, like Yvonne Hutchinson, about the no-caps policy at the theater. Then the man came to the theater with his adolescent son, who willingly complied with the rule. "The man wrote me back and said, 'Now I understand, because my son showed me,'" says Johnson. "We're the outlet for people, the place where they don't worry, and have fun. We're their two-hour escape from reality."
MAGIC JOHNSON'S GREATEST strength is the fact that he is consistently present. He pays attention; he doesn't ignore or condescend or talk ahead of you. His double-edged charm combines a nearly childlike fascination with the unfamiliar, even the banally unfamiliar -- a man who has everything, he will nonetheless study your $30 wristwatch with real interest -- and a grown-up ability to make it all feel familiar and comfortable.
During my first encounter with Johnson, he is getting his feet done. In an upstairs dressing room at Paramount Studios, a woman bends over his plus-size-13s, silently brandishing an array of pedicure instruments one by one. She focuses on her work, moving nothing but her hands, clearly wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible during this interview -- she probably wonders, as I do, whether I can conduct a serious interview at all with a barefoot Magic -- but Johnson is not quite granting her invisibility. Even as he talks to me he fixes her with a quizzical gaze, studies her clippers and files, mentally notes her progress, lifts a foot and offers another before she has a chance to ask. He acts like he gets this done all the time and like he's never gotten it done before (the pedicure, not the interview).
The second time we meet, Johnson's late-night Fox TV show, The Magic Hour, has been unceremoniously canceled less than six weeks after its premiere. He is philosophical about it, but there's a notable condensation of his spirit since I saw him last; he's disappointed. He does not like to fail -- it happens rarely -- or to be denied a stage. Ill-starred as The Magic Hour was, it at least occasionally focused the altruism in people who sneered for a living. During one of the final shows, the red-eyed rapper Coolio stopped Johnson in midsentence to give him a nod for his ongoing development activity in the hood. "Nobody talks about that," Coolio said heatedly. Johnson smiled -- a small smile, by Magic standards -- and shrugged. "Thanks, man," he said. "I just try to keep it real, like you."
For Johnson, keeping it real means keeping it moving. Onward and upward: One of the tenants he's working to secure for the Santa Barbara Plaza is Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. ("You know them, don't you?" he tells more than asks me, an eager, faraway look in his eyes, and I nod vigorously, thinking I may have seen Krispy Kreme in a movie.) His record label, Magic Johnson Music, debuted last August. In October, his talent-management and promotions group became a consultant to Mike Tyson, and determined to recast his sordid image; Johnson stood at the boxer's side and vowed that when Tyson begins making millions again, he'll make sure he has enough "life skills" to put the money to good use. This Sunday, Passing Glory, the first production from Magic Johnson Entertainment, premieres on TNT.
It's too obvious, but it bears saying: Johnson could be a politician, one of the old-fashioned variety that kisses babies and flashes the victory sign. Someone recently suggested to him that he run for mayor. He laughs at the thought, but not dismissively; it is another unfamiliar thing to examine, at least for a moment. "Wow, I would love to be that guy," he muses at the prospect of being a leader. "But people would have to decide who that is. I fight our fights for us; I know what it's like to approach a company and get rejected. I'm not scared to invest my money, put it up. God blessed me with a vision. I can see something and make it happen. Everybody -- black, white, Chicano, Japanese -- has come up and commended me on the job I'm doing in the community. Just today, a white guy told me, 'Congratulations on doing something that nobody's doing,' and he was firm about it. It was nice to hear." He smiles ruefully. "But I'm just a country boy from Lansing. People have also said, 'Boy, you crazy.'"
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