Little Fox Theater

14023 S. Vermont Avenue,
Gardena, CA 90247

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Functions: Church

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The Los Angeles Times reported in 1998 that the Little Fox had been converted to a church after 24 years of showing films. It looks like adult films were shown for at least part of that period.

Contributed by Ken McIntyre

Recent comments (view all 4 comments)

kencmcintyre on June 26, 2007 at 8:17 pm

Here is the 12/27/98 story from the LA Times:

The Rev. Travis Smith bellows from the pulpit of the 3-month-old First Church of Deliverance:

You can’t live today successfully holding on to yesterday!

Smith has built his congregation on those words. His church is a lesson in how a community can let go of a sordid past.

The Gardena building that the church calls home was for 24 years known as the Little Fox Theater, an X-rated movie house where screenings of films were accompanied by lewd acts both inside and outside the building.

It stood on the corner of Vermont Avenue and 140th Street until residents and officers from the LAPD Southeast Division decided a few years ago to unite in their efforts to close it down. Under pressure, the theater gave up its lease.

Now, in place of the movie screen is the altar where Smith gives his sermons. In place of the dark seats on which patrons once engaged in sexual activity are clean burgundy chairs. In the building where prostitutes once strolled for customers, worshipers rise to yell out, “Thank you, Lord!” What used to be an adult bookstore is now the entrance for the congregation. The back room that clients once used for sex will one day be a dining room.

For two decades, residents were galled that children from 135th Street Elementary School, only a few blocks away, frequently walked by the Little Fox to buy candy at a neighboring grocery store. Activists passed out petitions and talked to police officers with little success.

“A lot of the residents had given up hope,” said B.J. Mynatt, president of the 135th Street Neighborhood Watch Committee. “But we just kept going. We feel that God helped us.”

The theater shut down in February. And then, last summer, with the theater out of business and the building owner in need of a new tenant, Smith appeared, pledging to turn the mostly residential neighborhood around by erasing from people’s minds the nefarious image that once consumed the corner and the entire neighborhood.

“It’s amazing what God does, that a place such as this was could be developed and transformed into a place of worship,” Smith said. “I’m going to work with the community to transform the community into an oasis of love and compassion.”

On his ambitious agenda is the creation of a Christian Men’s Fellowship and a Christian Women’s Fellowship that would have older members of the congregation act as mentors to adolescents to teach them how to respect themselves and each other. He also wants to convert an empty lot across the street—which used to be the site of a crack house—into a playing area to distract kids from dangerous street activities. Other projects include establishing a day care center, a Christian school and a substance abuse program.

From July until September, Smith, building owner Michael Coleman and a handful of volunteers and contractors refurbished the old theater.

With no money and few resources, Smith convinced Coleman to accept a postdated check for the first payment of the three-year lease.

Coleman, who inherited the building from his father, Harry, in 1991, was in a charitable mood. He said his father had long wanted to oust the theater, but found that there was no way to break the lease renewal clause. Michael Coleman was instantly attracted to Smith and his church. “So I cut him some slack.”

Once the theater closed, Michael Coleman advertised the space in church newsletters and local newspapers. He got responses from people looking to open up nightclubs and bars, and rejected them.

“I wanted to better the community,” he said. “I didn’t want that environment because that wasn’t a wholesome environment.”

Around that time, Smith was looking for a place to plant his Methodist ministry. He began the congregation two years ago, borrowing space from the Brookings Community AME Church in Southwest Los Angeles. A friend told him about the building on Vermont Avenue. The price was right, Smith said, and the building’s past didn’t deter him.

“The sin is not within the confines of the building,” Smith said. “It’s within the people who do the deviant acts in the building.”

Southeast Division Officer Al Labrada, who spent more than a year helping residents push the theater out of business, still has a poster board with snapshots of various spots within the building before it got its face-lift.

Labrada and several officers made arrests at the theater. They sent undercover police officers. They attended hearings that the city conducted to try to revoke the business' permit.

Residents took bus trips downtown to monitor the hearings and circulated petitions. “We fought that thing tooth and nail,” said Donna Lyons, 81, who has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years.

Lynn Magnandonovan, a deputy city attorney who handled lawsuits against the theater alleging public sex acts, calls the renaissance of the building “a cosmic vote of confidence for the community.”

Smith is trying to see it that way. It wasn’t until two weeks ago that the 89 members of his congregation finally raised enough money to buy a sign for the orange brick building. Even now, it hardly resembles a church. There is no cross on the roof and no windows to shine light on the altar.

At the end of one joyous and song-filled Sunday service, Smith made a request.

“Today is rent day,” he told his congregation. He reminded them that each month they had to raise $1,950 for rent, $304 for the chairs that were bought on credit and $3,000 for maintenance.

“We have a responsibility to this building.”

kencmcintyre on July 6, 2007 at 11:50 am

I stopped by this theater yesterday. The church is just a tiny storefront. I would guess not more than 20 chairs inside. The theater proper seems to be some kind of warehouse. I will stop by during business hours to see what’s going on inside.

JrkBnd on November 12, 2009 at 12:32 pm


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