- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2002

Alexandria's Old Town Theater has a new lease on life. On Valentine's Day, it reopened after an 18-month restoration period.
The building now features theater-style seats, bathrooms that accommodate handicapped people and new sound and light systems.
Mark Anderson, operator of the Old Town Theater, says he was looking for an abandoned movie theater to renovate into a venue for "smoke-free and smut-free" plays and musicals.
"It was our little valentine to the town," Mr. Anderson says. "We tried to remain true to the original design and color theme of the theater and not corrupt the facade. It was a vaudeville house in 1914. We use the original stage."
The stage is rumored to have been used by such vaudeville comic legends as the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields and singer Ethel Merman. Later, it served as the foundation for the one-screen movie theater that the building featured in the 1960s. Then it became a two-screen movie theater in the 1970s. At the time, the venue showed mostly artistic films.
Today, Mr. Anderson, who has a 20-year lease for the building, plans to present small-cast, single-set shows because of the small size of the stage. The first production, "Crazy Love," takes place in a fictional Alexandria mental health clinic. Through songs and comedy, the 400-seat audience encounters the adventures of marriage and commitment.
The theater provides Mr. Anderson an atmosphere to present this show, apart from the improv clubs he operates across the country, such as the Improv Comedy Club in Northwest. He also owns the Wonderama Theater in Tulsa, Okla., where "Crazy Love" completed a one-year anniversary of sold-out performances.
Whether in a club or on a theater stage, Mr. Anderson says his favorite comedians are ones such as Bill Cosby, who make people laugh without using vulgar material for shock value. He believes that John Branyan, an actor in "Crazy Love," is an example of a comedic master.
"Those people are hard to find," he says. "There are not a lot of venues going in this direction. Shock comedy seems to be the sort of status quo now."
Marla Royle, marketing manager at Old Town Theater, says it is Mr. Anderson's dream to provide an environment for "good, clean comedy."
"He is trying to provide communities that offer a different way to make people laugh," she says. "The shows might be a bit quirky, but they are clean."
Ready with popcorn and moon pies for audience members who are hungry, Mrs. Royle says she hopes the theater can serve the public in more ways than one.
She plans to meet with local groups, such as the Chamber of Commerce, to discuss how the theater might be of use during the nights there are no performances.
Whenever the theater is used, Mrs. Royle says it offers the "black light effect."
"Black light shines throughout the entire theater," she says. "As soon as you sit down, when you look at your partner, his teeth and eyes are glowing."
Mrs. Royle, an Alexandria resident, says the town was ready for the opening of the theater.
"We were desperate for something different than another shop, even though the shops are wonderful," she says. "We needed extra entertainment and something to do after you go to dinner."

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