What once was the Crest Westwood Theatre in Los Angeles has now reopened as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Nimoy Theatre to the surrounding community on September 17 and its first ticket-selling event took place on September 23. The Nimoy has come six years after UCLA acquired the well-loved theater in 2018 and over the last four years, the structure, originally built in 1940, has been transformed into a 299-seat performing arts space.
“We’re a school very much invested and dedicated to the idea of creating great audiences around the arts, where I believe ideas around the arts genuinely live in the minds of the people,” said Brett Steele, dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture. “The Nimoy Theatre that we’re launching will be the latest of the public platforms in this school for the whole campus and the wider city, so that that opportunity will be provided for artists and audiences to come together.”
Although the Nimoy Theatre is the latest reimagining of the famous building, it was originally the 700-seat UCLAN Theatre, which opened on Christmas Day in December 1940. Solely financially funded by Frances Seymour Fonda, the wife of Henry Fonda and mother of Jane and Peter, the theater showed films such as Magnificent Obsession (1935), The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Brief Encounter (1945) and Disney’s Song of the South (1946).
Already a popular spot for UCLA students and Westwood locals, the theater’s screening of foreign films such as French dramas Bethsabée (1947) and The Sinners (1949), the Spanish version of Don Quixote (1949) and British classics such as The Queen of Spades (1949), The Dancing Years (1950) and Meet Me Tonight (1952) in 1947 solidified its reputation as an art house. Following Frances Seymour Fonda’s death, the family sold the UCLAN to film producer Robert L. Lippert in 1955, and, in 1956, The Crest Theatre was born and remained for 60 years, despite its various owners over time.
The Nimoy Theatre, named after the late actor and director, Leonard Nimoy, is now a 299-seat performing arts space after screening films for more than 60 years. Photo credit to Jason Williams.
Throughout the years, the theater remained a space for groundbreaking cinema and a testament to LA’s beautiful architecture, and in 2008, the Crest was declared an LA Historic-Cultural Landmark. In 2015, due to the determination of former executive and artistic director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP UCLA), Kristy Edmunds, the venue had its first musical concert, starring singer Laura Kabasomi Kakoma (SOMI) and Grammy Award-winning composer Billy Childs. In the following year, students gathered in the theater to watch presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton debate on national television.
Seeing the potential that the Crest had for even more than watching films, in 2018, after the theater had been for sale for nearly two years, UCLA acquired the building as a new space for CAP UCLA, naming it after actor and director Leonard Nimoy. His directorial film, Three Men and A Baby, premiered at the Crest in 1987, but the space truly held a special place in his heart because of his love for theater and performing arts, which lives on in the revitalized Nimoy Theatre.
“We want to acknowledge the incredible vision and support that we’ve gained from the Nimoy family, Susan Bay Nimoy and her family, that are supporting our ability to build an extraordinary project like this,” Steele said. “It’s an important vision for what the arts can and should be doing. The thing we’ve been thinking most about over the last year or so are the heightened ways in which all of us in the arts need to create the circumstances that will allow everybody to come back together.”
CAP UCLA’s new Executive and Artistic Director
Two years following Edmunds’s leave in 2021, the dean of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, Brett Steele, appointed Edgar Miramontes as CAP UCLA’s new Executive and Artistic Director this past May, effective August 2023. The strategic arts leader, curator and producer previously worked at REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney CalArts Theater, as a curator and associate director and succeeds Edmunds after a year-long search to fill the role.
“What got our attention was his amazing vision for where – not just the Nimoy Theatre, but in the Center of the Art Performance – the arts are going in a city like LA and its many communities,” Steele said. “He’s got an absolutely deep and personal belief that’s just amazing to listen to, as he speaks about the role the arts can serve in bridging across different kinds of cultures, beliefs and experiences in a city, and it’s certainly something we share in the larger school here with him.”
Immigrating from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to the United States with his parents and siblings in 1988, Miramontes grew up between East Hollywood and Silver Lake in a vibrant home filled with music and dance. He watched as his parents provided for their family by working in record stores, and, after technology progressed past the use of vinyl, sold mariscos in Santa Monica out of their neighbor’s borrowed truck as his mother sold vitamins and crystals. Despite their hope of him becoming a doctor, his exposure to the arts led him on a different path.
This inclination led Miramontes to Hollywood High School for the Performing Arts, where he studied performing arts and theater with the intention of becoming an actor. But it was in these acting auditions that he realized this particular entertainment business wasn’t where he was meant to be.
“I recall being 16, 17, going to auditions, and after doing your best, or what you think your best is, it was all about whether or not I was light enough or not dark enough,” Miramontes said. “It was always clear that it was about the image; it wasn’t about the practice or my artistry. And those two things didn’t quite align.”
It was during his first semester at Santa Monica College that he unknowingly auditioned for the Avaz International Dance Theatre, a Middle-Eastern dance space founded by artistic director Anthony Shay in 1977 that represented the cultures of Hungary, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Uzbekistan and toured both nationally and internationally. Dancing here, Miramontes not only realized that, through dance, he could more openly express himself, but he could also view the world differently.
“It was arts, culture and dance, in particular, and this company with these two wonderful directors, that began to shape who I was and how dance became part of my practice,” Miramontes said. “I don’t dance professionally anymore, but I see the world differently through how the body experiences joy, trauma and violence. Your body is the instrument of expression [in] all of its shapes and forms. Your body is your instrument.”
Undocumented and unable to tour internationally with this dance company, Miramontes was able to apply and be accepted to UCLA as a foreign student, paying out-of-state tuition with the help of grants since AB540, the bill that allowed undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities, had not yet passed in California. Going one quarter and taking off the next, due to this specific grant, he studied geographical and environmental studies.
“[Geographical and environmental studies] provided a lens to look at the world, even through the imagination or imaginary ways to think about culture and read about certain experiences that were happening across the globe,” Miramontes said. “That limitation heightened my imagination. It was the impetus to learn about other cultures, so my interest became the globe and political geography, thinking about social movements across Latin America, especially.”
In 2006, the artist was finally granted legal, permanent residency in the U.S., allowing him to not only travel and visit places he was previously unable to visit physically but also return to Mexico and see his family. It was while dancing professionally that he was approached about an administrative position at REDCAT and Miramontes soon climbed up the ranks as programs manager to associate director in 2013 to, finally, deputy executive director and curator in 2019.
This August, Edgar Miramontes, a strategic arts leader, curator and producer, was appointed as the new CAP UCLA Executive and Artistic Director, two years after the position opened. Photo credit to David Esquivel.
Officially filling the role of CAP UCLA’s Executive and Artistic Director this August, Miramontes is not only interested in LA’s varying languages and cultures but also in connecting with artists who represent those diasporas and experiences and are speaking to their home countries through their art.
“Thinking about Mexico as a way in which building work in relationship, both through cultural agencies but also with artists, and deepening a relationship with that country and the work that’s happening,” Miramontes said. “I’m also quite interested in interdisciplinary work. I’m interested in artists that are moving or pushing, not just the discipline, but how it moves into social practice, how it moves into a new aesthetic, a new way of blending forms.”
Not only is the curator representing the immigrant community, but he also represents the LGBTQ+ community, having been with his partner, Antonio Castillo, a senior city planner for the City of West Hollywood, for 21 years. These intersectionalities are not lost on Miramontes as he takes on this position, realizing just how much the performing arts and the demographics within a city such as LA are shifting. Representing a lens that might not have been amplified before, he not only wants to build on the legacies he stems from but also complicate them.
“I want to complicate it because I think utilizing the lived experience that I’ve had could bring something new to the table,” Miramontes said. “How am I responsible for that? And also, [knowing] I’m not just that, right? We have the potential to be much more than that. Just really thinking about a different lens and working with colleagues to amplify certain artists’ artistic work that may not have necessarily been at the forefront previously and how it connects to the communities around us. I find that that is the really interesting point in a vast city like Los Angeles.”
Connecting with the surrounding Latino community
While building relationships with potential artists and performers is immensely important to Miramontes, connecting with the surrounding community and UCLA students is as well. And with the Nimoy Theatre under his care, he is actively thinking about how to better involve the communities around it as well as preserve its rich history for locals while utilizing the space in a new and different way.
“How do I think about, not just in preservation terms, continuing that legacy with communities who like historic preservation, but also can think about performance and utilizing the theater differently but still giving it that life and prominence?” Miramontes said. “I’m also thinking quite a bit about a community organizing lens as well, and how the work can tie in a bit more with being mindful of how communities approach performing arts and work and how this work is long-term. It’s not just a one-off. Building trust and building a rapport with communities requires an ongoing conversation.”
Connecting the Nimoy Theatre and UCLA with the vibrant life surrounding it is not only a priority for Miramontes but for Steele as well, which is among the reasons he is so excited to see what the future holds for the curator and CAP UCLA.
“The theater is the physical embodiment of the idea that institutions and universities of all kinds need to understand and find ways to continue to connect themselves to the city and the world around us. I know that’s already a focus and an interest of [Miramontes] in big ways. And our job, all of our jobs here at UCLA, is about supporting him so that he can continue to do that work and discover new powerful ways to accomplish it. And he will. I’m certain he and [CAP UCLA] will.”