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From Watts Riot Ashes: Bright Hopes, Heartaches

May 10, 1992|DAVID COLKER and MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In 1965, Corwin was just out of college and Bradley was a city councilman. A committee they formed arranged to use the 1,200-seat Markham Junior High auditorium. They painted the back of the stage white for use as a screen, got projection equipment donated and raised funds to cover expenses, such as a costly insurance policy.

"They laughed at us when we tried to buy insurance in Watts," Corwin said.

Movie studios provided first-run films for free. Admission was set at 25 cents. "There had to be some minor charge," Corwin said. "If you don't pay for something, you don't appreciate it."

The Watts Movie Theater opened on July 16, 1966, with "Harper," starring Paul Newman. It was a sell-out, Corwin said.

But within a year attendance had seriously declined. He arranged for the theater to move to a smaller auditorium in the building used by the Watts Writers Workshop. Attendance still lagged.

"The best we could determine was that the people wanted to get out of the ghetto to see their entertainment," Corwin said. "If you live in a depressed area, you want to get out of it for something that is fun and recreational."

The final show came about four years after opening night.

Corwin said he will try to put together another group to show movies in South Los Angeles. "Black ownership is the key, I think, to make it work this time," said Corwin, who is white. "Outsiders will help set it up and then black owners should operate and own it."

"I'm 52, now," he said, "and I look back at what we did in Watts as one of the highlights of my life."

Formed after the riots, the Watts Labor Community Action Committee has developed a steady stream of low-income housing, job programs, youth activities and programs for senior citizens over the years. Financed by government grants, the union-backed anti-poverty organization headed by Ted Watkins has grown into a major force in Watts.

It is known as the place to go for food stamps, furniture, jobs or free rides to the doctor. Many of the homes in the neighborhood were built with community action committee funding and the committee also runs a homeless shelter and a housing project for senior citizens.

When riots returned to Los Angeles this year, the labor group was not spared: Its headquarters was leveled by fire.

Watkins' daughter, Teryl, who is an administrative assistant for the committee, said she and her father know they will have to act quickly to rebuild. They know from experience that the public outpouring will fade.

James Woods started the Studio Watts Workshop a few months before the Watts riots.

"The support came from my wife and I," said Woods, who had a degree in business from USC and worked at a bank. His wife was a probation officer. "I formed it with eight other artists because I felt that the arts could be a tool for social change."

After the riots, Woods was able to take advantage of the attention focused on the area. With donations, the group provided training for about 150 students in visual arts, music, dance, drama and writing.

One of the studio's best-known projects was an annual Chalk-In, held on a blocklong section of sidewalk on 103rd Street. Youngsters drew on the sidewalk and their pictures were judged in competition. "It was public art for kids," said Barnette Honeywood, who at age 16 participated in the first Chalk-In in 1968. She is now artist-in-residence at Spellman College in Atlanta.

"We were all beaten out by this 12-year-old kid, Richard Wyatt," she said.

Wyatt, who won the first prize of $300, went on to become a prominent muralist in Los Angeles. His best-known work is the 88-by-26-foot "Hollywood Jazz" mural outside Capitol Records.

"That Chalk-In prize started me on my career," said Wyatt, who won with a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. "After that I knew that I wanted to be an artist. I put away the prize money for college."

In 1971, Studio Watts Workshop received a $75,000 Ford Foundation grant to study how the arts could be used in low-income housing projects.

Woods used those funds, plus a Housing and Urban Development grant and other donations, to build a 144-unit complex of rent-subsidized apartments. Studio Watts Workshop became the Watts Community Housing Corp.

"We still had the arts," said Woods, who is on the board of the corporation. Spaces were set aside in the complex for gallery space, arts workshops and the publication of an arts journal. But in the 1970s, almost all arts activity came to a halt. "(President) Nixon came in and the funds started to be reduced," he said. "Under Reagan and Bush, it all went."

Woods said he is trying to persuade the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the complex, to set aside a portion of the rent income for arts programs.

When it finally opened, the young men and women from 1965 Watts were at least middle-aged.

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