- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

Going to the movies did not always mean coming home broke, says Tom Hulfish. In fact, his childhood trips to the movies were free — at least when he and his buddies sneaked in through a back door at Alexandria’s Old Town Theater.

“The bathroom was in the back, behind the screen,” he said. “So one of us would buy a ticket and go back there and just open the door.”

The theater has since closed, and Mr. Hulfish, 70, is now part of a group trying to revive it.

He says the theater is a part of his childhood, and he wants it reopened. Other members of the Old Town Theater Project say it is part of the community’s charm and that it could become a showcase for independent, art and second-run films.

“I liked [the theater] because it was smaller, it was walkable from our house, you could go see a movie and get a bite to eat, it was old-fashioned, it was convenient,” said Mary Konsoulis, one of eight original theater project members. “It was just so much more fun than [watching] Hollywood schlock.”

The Old Town opened in August 1914 on King Street as the Richmond, a single-screen theater that was among the first built in the Washington area. It was purchased by the Pedas Brothers, owners of Circle Theater, in the 1970s and operated by Cineplex Odeon, said Bob Carragher, co-founder of the project. Today, it remains as one of the area’s oldest surviving theaters.

The Pedas Brothers’ company did not return several calls for this article.

Cineplex Odeon closed the balcony and made the Old Town a two-screen, first-run theater until 2000, when it was no longer economically viable, Mr. Carragher said.

“For a while there it was the only theater serving Alexandria,” he said. “In the last six years, you’ve had two multiplexes open 38 screens within two miles.”

The theater remained closed until February 2002. That’s when Mark Anderson, owner and operator of Improv clubs nationwide, reopened it as a contemporary entertainment venue. Part of the 18-month renovation project included reopening the balcony, Mr. Carragher said. The club’s 14-month run ended in March.

“I was driving on King Street in my Model A on the day of the St. Patrick’s Day parade … and I looked over and saw the comedy club had closed and here was this chance,” Mr. Carragher said at a party the group held Wednesday evening to garner support for their idea and to get community feedback.

Soon after noticing the club was closed, he and Jim Wilson formed the group, which Mr. Wilson said is ready to raise money.

The group needs $250,000 to buy a new screen, projector and cinematic sound system, and make other capital improvements. The building would cost $1.5 million to buy or $130,000 a year to lease, Mr. Wilson said. Group members have also filed for nonprofit status in Virginia and plan to file similar documents with the Internal Revenue Service.

“We don’t have control of the theater right now, and we need to get control,” Ms. Konsoulis said. “But we need cash.”

Group members are meeting with Alexandria City Council members, including council member-elect Rob Krupicka, who attended the party.

State Sen. Patricia S Ticer, Alexandria Democrat, and outgoing City Council member David Speck also attended.

Mr. Krupicka said he thinks the concept of the theater as a community venue is a good one because it would give an economic boost to the King Street corridor. However, he said it’s too early to say whether the council will get involved.

Group members are not the only ones impassioned about reviving one of the region’s historic theaters. The Avalon in Chevy Chase and the Silver Theater in Silver Spring were recently restored and reopened, and renovations to the Tivoli Theater in Cleveland Park are under way.

The restorations are part of a larger, national trend put on by film lovers and historians during the past 10 years to save community theaters, said Terrance Demas, executive director of the League of Historic American Theaters, of which the Old Town Theater Project is a member.

Aside from providing convenience and alternatives to Hollywood blockbusters, the theaters give customers a sense of grandeur that starts at the sidewalk and continues inside as moviegoers are transported beyond the films on the screens, he said.

“You don’t really care what the movie is. [The building] has already knocked your socks off,” he said, adding that building such a classical theater is more expensive than renovating one.

The success of the Avalon theater, which opened in May after eight months of work, is atypical, Mr. Demas said.

He and Bob Zich, executive director of the Avalon Theater Project who gave the Old Town group advice, said their project moved quickly because of community support and funding.

“If [the Old Town] succeeds at all, it will take them less time than more,” Mr. Demas said. “I think they have a good shot.”

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