- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

When Bethesda, Md., Councilman A. Denis caught up with the sleeper smash "The Blair Witch Project" two years ago, the experience was more than just an unexpected Hollywood fright fest.
It became a communal gathering of his Bethesda brethren. Mr. Denis took in the film at the Bethesda Theatre Cafe, and the memories of the visit are still fresh.
The historic venue is more than just a theater, the Friendship Heights Republican says. Its an old-fashioned nook where conversation is encouraged and one feels neighborly with fellow ticket buyers.
"The audiences are more participatory in what's going on," Mr. Denis says of the theater, which serves food, spirits and beverages with each unspooling reel.
But those communal happenings are going the way of silent films and affordable popcorn prices. The art deco-style theater is closing its doors Thursday, ending a Bethesda institution that began May 19,1938.
"Its another part of old Bethesda leaving us," Mr. Denis says. "So many of the landmarks have gone by the wayside. Its disorientating for a lot of the people who have lived here for many years to be a stranger in your own neighborhood."
Developer Gene Smith, with Bethesda-based E.M. Smith Associates, and his partner the Bozzuto Group in Greenbelt, will begin construction soon on high-rise apartments and town houses on the land surrounding the Wisconsin Avenue theater.
The storied structure and its towering neon Bethesda sign have been spared any dramatic wrecking ball epilogues, thanks to its inclusion in Montgomery Countys Master Plan for Historic Preservation in 1986. But theater president Peter J. Carney says the rent demands of the parcel exceed what his business could ever hope to generate.
The business ran as a conventional theater for about 40 years, closed briefly and reopened in 1983 under Mr. Carneys supervision as the Bethesda Cinema N Drafthouse to show its first film, "An Officer and a Gentleman." The theater, which changed its name to its current moniker in 1990 while expanding its food lineup, will show its final film, Jennifer Lopezs "The Wedding Planner," until Thursday.
The theater hasnt been exclusively reserved for movies through the years. In 1986, live stand-up performances, featuring future stars like Dave Chappelle, Martin Lawrence and Will Durst graced its impromptu stage.
The space offered tiny charms that no others could match, beyond the snacks and drinks. Patrons entering the theater were greeted with grainy images of its earliest incarnation, lovingly framed stills that established a nostalgic mise-en-scene.
The soft orange inner chamber led into the theaters spacious walkways and impeccably groomed furnishings, some of which Mr. Carney will take with him. The sea of cushioned seats, each spread far enough apart to give ample arm and legroom, made its interior stand out further from todays crowded megaplexes.
No attempt was ever made to trade in the past for the present. The theater wears its age on its sleeve, and like a screen goddess who captivates no matter the decade, it wears it well.
The Bethesda Theatre represents an art deco neighborhood cinema from Hollywoods Golden Age, according to the Art Deco Society of Washington.
The building, designed by the world-renowned firm of architect John Eberson, is one of a few surviving examples of this design motif in the region.
"The ambience, its hard to match," Mr. Carney says, sitting in one of its comfortable chairs a week before his projectors click into action for one last show.
In the late 80s, soul great Stevie Wonder stopped by the theater so he could soak in the excitement as a closed-circuit boxing match was shown in the theater, Mr. Carney recalls.
Even Mr. Wonder knew the theater was something special.

Last summer, Mr. Carney realized the theaters closing was inevitable, due to the impending real estate deal.
"At that point, we didnt know if it would be six months or a year," he says. "Were not gonna get the rent money they want to see," he says of the landowner, toward whom he says he holds no bitterness. He wouldnt divulge any dollar figures involved in possible rent numbers.
Mr. Carney learned his trade in Florida, operating a string of movie houses along with his business partners. When he decided to strike out on his own, he visited the D.C. area and discovered the historic Wisconsin Avenue theater.
"It seemed like the perfect fit," he says. "This theater brought me to Bethesda."
The building needed little work, and like most start-ups, the business floundered for its first six months. A year later, "It seemed to hit," he says. In fact, crowds were still lining up around the theater during its peak times in the weeks leading to its demise.
"The business model worked well over the years," says Mr. Carney, who will begin consulting work on a Baltimore theater once his local chores wrap. But the prime real estate the theater calls home can fetch plenty in upscale residential living, more than all the popcorn he could pop and sell.
He understands. Its just business.
"We had a good run," says Mr. Carney, who has been inundated with calls from his neighbors bemoaning the theaters closing.
But he cant help looking around the theaters original, hand-painted proscenium alcoves and gracious interior without revealing his mixed emotions.
The Bethesda theater isnt the only movie house closing up shop locally. The Avalon Theatre on Connecticut Avenue NW closed last week. (See story, page C5.) Its operator, Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp., the New York-based chain of theaters, closed 21 of its 365 theaters nationwide recently, the other local casualty coming at Manassas Mall.
In the last 14 months, nine theater chains have filed for bankruptcy. Megaplexes emerged over last decade, offering plush, stadium-style seats, numerous screens and other frills. But the construction costs left theater chains in debt.
One venerable theater looks like it wont be going anywhere for a while. The Arlington Cinema n Drafthouse, which also offers food and beverages along with its silver screen fare, recently inked a 15-year lease to remain in operation along Columbia Pike, says owner Tony Fischer.
That hardly cushions the blow felt by Mr. Denis and those who regularly stopped by the Bethesda Theatre Cafes silver ticket booth.
Mr. Denis is somewhat appeased that the building wont be demolished. But the councilman cant shake the sense that a local cinematic era is ending.
"I hope whatever goes in there they preserve the design and the ambience," Mr. Denis says. "But it wont be the same."


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