- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 24, 2009

As the L2 bus travels south across the county-city line and reaches just south of Chevy Chase Circle, it passes the Avalon Theatre at 5612 Connecticut Ave. NW. The Avalon, the oldest movie theater in the city, stands stronger now than it ever has, according to community members and staff.

An iconic theater, on the National Register of Historic Places, the Avalon opened in February 1923 as the Chevy Chase Theatre. The name was changed to the Avalon in 1929 when it was purchased by Warner Bros. and “wired for sound” as the movie industry emerged from the silent-film era.

“The Avalon is a living fossil from the pre-World War II era of Washington. It has a distinctive character the new megaplexes just don’t have,” says area historian Robert K. Headley. “The Avalon has managed to thrive into the 21st century. This should be a great [source] of pride for all Washingtonians near and far, young and old. With the recent fire in Takoma Park, Md., destroying what was the Allen Theater, it becomes even more important to celebrate this living-history neighborhood destination.”

Built as a neighborhood theater, the Avalon was never intended to compete with larger theaters downtown. The downtown theaters increasingly became studio-owned as the movie industry expanded during the late 1920s and into the late 1950s in what is recognized by cinema historians as the golden era of film. During this time, studios such as MGM and Warner Bros. bought out independent theater owners and increased control over distribution.

Over the next seven decades, the Avalon had several owners who added renovations, such as air conditioning in the late 1930s. There also was the addition of Avalon 2, which seats 165 on the second floor and showed its first movie on Jan. 26, 1971. Finally, in 1985, a 20-by-30-foot illuminated ceiling mural was added to Avalon 1, which seats 428. The mural depicts Mercury, the Roman god of messages and commerce, tossing a roll of film to the cherub Cupid.

“It’s set up to be a community place owned by the community. I would send my kids here by themselves. You always see people you know,” says Joanne Zich, who with her husband, Bob, helped lead a neighborhood effort to resurrect the Avalon Theatre after it was shuttered by its corporate owner, Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp., in March 2001. Loews declared bankruptcy.

The theater was then stripped of its seats and projection equipment, and the screen and concession stand were destroyed.

A community effort led by Mr. Zich - which includes residents from Chevy Chase and Bethesda in neighboring Montgomery County, Md. - quickly raised more than $300,000. The property subsequently was purchased by D.C. real estate mogul Douglas Jemal, who gave Mr. Zich’s group a discounted 10-year lease.

In November 2001, the community formed the nonprofit Avalon Theatre Project, which in 2006 purchased the building. The Avalon Legacy Campaign was launched in March 2008 to strengthen the Avalon’s long-term financial stability for current and future generations of Washington filmgoers. The goal is to raise $2 million: $1.35 million toward renovation and building-improvement projects and $650,000 toward retirement of the Avalon’s $1.3 million mortgage, says Bill Oberdorfer, executive director of the Avalon Theatre.

“In November 2001, the community formed the nonprofit Avalon Theatre Project, which in 2006 purchased the building. The Avalon Legacy Campaign launched in March 2008 to strengthen the Avalon’s long-term financial stability for current and future generations of Washington filmgoers,” Mr. Oberdorfer says.

Honorary members of the Legacy Campaign include Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, encompassing Maryland neighborhoods immediately northwest of the District’s boundary.

To date, more than $1.5 million has been raised and used to improve the electrical system and retire nearly $200,000 of debt.

Further improvements will include an expanded lobby and an elevator, increasing accessibility to Avalon 2 for older and disabled theatergoers.

The Avalon Theatre Cafe opened in April. Although it competes with a Starbucks a couple of blocks south, it has been met with great fanfare, as moviegoers can bring wine into the theater.

“We are a community-resurrected theater. We aim to deliver to the whole community - including seniors, families with children, art-film lovers, commercial filmgoers and a variety of nationality-based groups,” Mr. Oberdorfer says.

Popular programming includes a partnership with the French Embassy, a Czech film series and relationships with many of the more than 70 annual D.C.-based film festivals as well as a newly launched program aimed at senior film enthusiasts.

“It’s kinda trendy. It’s the hip place to go when I’m in town,” says Chicago native Caroline Teter, who was visiting friends who live nearby and insisted on coming to the Avalon.

“I bring my nephews for the Saturday morning matinees. They have great programs on the weekends,” says D.C. resident Joelle Gore.

Riding farther south, the L2 passes the Uptown Theatre at 3426 Connecticut Ave., which opened in October 1936 and is the second-oldest movie theater in the city.

Published in 1999, “Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, D.C. : An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997,” written by Mr. Headley, is required reading for anyone interested in local history and culture. Containing rare photos juxtaposed with primary source interviews, the book documents a city that was filled with bustling downtown theaters and active community-supported neighborhood theaters.

Just inside Avalon 2 is a black-and-white photo collage of an abridged local theater history that consumes the entire wall. Accompanying the collage is an index that has the theaters’ addresses and years of operation: the Apollo, 624 H St. NE (1913-1953); the Avenue Grand, 645 Pennsylvania Ave. SE (1910-1970); Trans-Lux, 738 14th St. NW (1936-1974); and the Dumbarton, 1349 Wisconsin Ave. NW (1913-1986) are some of the nearly 20 theaters chronicled.

“People come from far away, and people come on foot,” says Henry Passman, general manager of the Avalon. “We have become a community resource for the entire metro area, not just the surrounding blocks. We recently received a phone call from the Old Town Theater in Alexandria. They wanted to know how we did it.”

John Muller is a writer and photographer living in Montgomery County.

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