Whenever Nancy Twigg, the director of marketing and development at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Md., makes her way across the balcony and up to the old projection booth, she swears she hears something.
“I don’t think it’s ghosts exactly,” she says. “But there are voices here, and they are all aching to talk about the past.”
Luckily, there’s an audience to listen. Following a renovation that restored the theater to its 1920s glory, what was once simply an old movie house has become the jewel of downtown Frederick. It’s a showcase for more than just movies. Dressed up, gussied up and equipped with state-of-the-art sound, lighting and projection systems, the Weinberg — unscathed by Hurricane Isabel — is ready to tackle just about anything, from live theater and music to silent films.
After years of being boarded up and forgotten, old theaters like the Weinberg are being readied for a second run. The boards are coming down, fresh curtains are going up, and the memories of years gone by are flooding in.
“It’s kind of a trend now,” says theater historian Robert Headley, author of “Motion Picture Exhibition in Washington, DC.: An Illustrated History of Parlors, Palaces and Multiplexes in the Metropolitan Area, 1894-1997” (McFarland and Co., Jefferson, N.C., 1999. $55). “Now everywhere you go someone wants to save a movie theater.”
Movies will not be the only things on the program at these refurbished movie theaters. Patrons are as likely to find live theater or touring rock bands as a movie in the house. And when people do find one of these refurbished gems, it’s likely they have the neighbors to thank.
“People had their consciousness raised about preserving old theaters,” Mr. Headley says. “Look at the Avalon. The community has done a wonderful job in banding together to save the place. People didn’t think it could be done.”
Community efforts like the one that saved the Avalon on upper Connecticut Avenue NW often include membership levels that offer patrons discounts and other perks. Links like these help develop a strong sense of ownership among the community while providing a necessary financial base for the theater.
Such is the case at the Weinberg, where local businesses underwrite events and contributing patrons can have their names put up on the wall. The city of Frederick maintains the building and pays its employees, but a public-private partnership is in the offing within the year.
Perhaps it should have been called “the Phoenix.” Back in the 1970s, the Weinberg, or the Tivoli, as it was called then, was limping along showing B movies to ever-decreasing audiences. That was a far cry from its glory days in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, when the Tivoli, (built in 1926) was drawing large audiences.
Patrons dressed up for a night at the Tivoli, competing with mosaic floors, wedding-cake chandeliers and brocade and velvet wall hangings. Anchoring it all was the mighty Wurlitzer organ, complete with special-effects sounds such as car horns, horses’ hooves and jingle bells.
Fast forward to the 1970s, tough times for the movie business. An October 1976 flood brought waters that rose three feet above the height of the stage. Some thought that would mark the end of the theater. Instead, the people of Frederick formed a literal bucket brigade and bailed out the theater.
They did so figuratively, too. After 16 months and a community-financed restoration that cost $175,000, owners Dan and Alyce Weinberg, who according to Ms. Twigg had bought the theater in the 1950s, donated the Tivoli in their name and their children’s to the city of Frederick. The city reopened it in February 1978 as the Weinberg Center for the Performing Arts. To date, hundreds of performers have made appearances there, including Mary Black, Poncho Sanchez and the Flying Karamazov Brothers.
Yet the past is still an integral aspect of the sightlines at the Weinberg, where old programs, theater passes and swatches of the original wall coverings vie for pride of place in the display cases that line the walls.
The Weinberg Wurlitzer is still going strong, one of the few theater organs still in its original location, thanks to frequent ministrations by the Potomac Valley Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society and performances by organ maestro Ray Brubacher.
At 1,165 seats, the Weinberg is almost, but not quite, a movie palace. That name is reserved for the behemoths in downtown sections of larger cities whose populations could support auditoriums with 1,700 or more seats.
In downtown Washington, which boasted a string of movie palaces along F Street NW, the Capitol Theater, built just a year after Frederick’s Tivoli, sat 3,433 people, while the 1918 Palace a block away sat 2,423, and the Earle (now the Warner) around the corner on 13th Street sat 2,240.
With the exception of the Warner, re-minted as a legitimate theater, the downtown movie palaces are long gone. Washingtonians make do with neighborhood theaters such as the Uptown in Cleveland Park or the Avalon, some of the last links to the city’s moviegoing past. Plans are afoot, however, to reopen the 1924 Tivoli, at 14th Street and Park Road NW, as part of a performing arts and office complex in Mount Pleasant.
Soon, Washingtonians also will see the Atlas Theater reborn. Built in 1938, the Atlas once helped anchor the eastern edge of the H Street commercial corridor in Northeast. It has been boarded up for years, the adjacent alley cluttered with trash and debris, its glory days largely forgotten.
But not by everyone.
“I used to go there all the time as a kid,” remembers one retired District police officer. “Those were the days when we couldn’t go to the downtown theaters.”
By the 1950s, the Atlas, which began as a theater for whites in the 1930s, opened up to the black people who were moving into the neighborhood.
In the past few years, H Street has been changing once again as newcomers have been buying up housing in neighborhoods immediately north and south of the avenue. There is hope that H Street may become the next U Street, with a mixture of old and new businesses that cater to an increasingly diverse crowd.
So when Jane Lang, a local attorney and theater producer, was casting about for a place to realize her vision for a performing arts space, she lit upon the Atlas. Despite its dilapidated appearance, she thought it had potential.
“It’s important to the life of a community,” says Miss Lang, who along with husband Paul Sprenger heads the Sprenger Lang foundation. “We think that [the renovated theater] will greatly enhance the quality of life for the neighborhood.”
Today, those behind the Atlas Performing Arts Center have planned for a complex that will include three performance spaces, with the historic theater reconfigured and two additional spaces that will house a theater in the round and a theater lab.
The African Continuum Theater Company will be in residence, along with other partners, including Joy of Motion, a dance company and studio. In addition, backers expect neighborhood residents to use the space for community events and workshops.
They also expect a surge in business all along the H Street corridor as patrons go out to dine before or after the show.
Even in its earliest days, the movie theater was a gathering spot, as much a place to see your neighbors as to see a show.
“Saturdays all the farmers came in to the movies,” says Rusty Berry, owner of the Opera House Movie Theater in Shepherdstown, W.Va. “At one time, they had a different show running every day of the week.”
When he started renovating the place in 1990, Mr. Berry — who lives upstairs over the theater with his wife Pam — found a number of clues to the theater’s long-ago past, including posters for D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and silent screen star Rudolph Valentino’s 1922 feature “Blood and Sand.”
Despite its grand name, the Opera House Movie Theater is actually pretty small. Nestled in the heart of Shepherdstown’s trendy shops and expensive eateries, the Opera House Movie Theater screens some pretty esoteric fare, from foreign films to independent releases. It still stands alone as a movies-only venue.
“I do the booking based on film reviews by reviewers I like,” Mr. Berry says. “We’re not big on violence around here.”
Built to show movies in 1909, the Opera House Movie Theater was owned by the Musser family until 1956, when then-owner William Musser, refusing to bow to pressure to admit mixed-race audiences, locked it up and walked away.
The theater sat abandoned until Jack Skuse bought it in the mid-1970s. But his plans for reopening the theater came to nought, and it continued to sit locked up and unused.
Things stayed that way until it was bought in 1988 by Mr. Berry, who had just decided to “drop out” from his job as a computer network designer in Arlington. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars later, on Valentine’s Day 1992, Mr. Berry reopened the theater. Now the Opera House Movie Theater boasts a Dolby sound system, freshly popped popcorn, and the original seats and tin ceiling.
Another small-town theater made new is Silver Spring’s Silver Theatre, reopened in April as the AFI Silver after a hiatus of nearly 20 years. (It was scheduled for demolition in 1984.)
Like many suburban theaters, Mr. Headley says, the Silver originally was just a neighborhood movie house.
This one sure had good bones. It was designed by noted theater architect John Eberson, known for “atmospheric” movie palaces that combined paintings, props and statuary for a total moviegoing experience. If you were a moviegoer during Eberson’s heyday, you might as well have found yourself strolling down the aisle of a Mediterranean garden, seated in the courtyard of an Italian palazzo or placed smack in the middle of a fantastical Middle Eastern bazaar.
In the AFI Silver, you are on an ocean liner.
Outside pipes resemble those on an oceangoing vessel. Inside are carpeting whose pattern is reminiscent of ocean waves, murals of aquatic birds, and the soothing blues and grays of the sea.
Built in 1938, the Silver was an early attempt to celebrate the suburban lifestyle, anchoring a shopping center on one end and attracting a moviegoing public increasingly unwilling to go downtown.
Shuttered in 1984, the Silver was reclaimed by a public effort that combined community activists, lovers of art deco and the Montgomery County government.
Today, the theater complex sports two additional theater spaces along with the original historic theater. Seating has been reduced from about 1,000 to 400 seats, making the sightlines easier and legroom more ample and ensuring that when you have to get out in a hurry — for popcorn or the bathroom — you don’t have to climb over a mountain of legs.
Along with movies (recent offerings have included a Latin American film festival as well as new and historic films), the AFI Silver will provide space for concerts and other events.
At a recent showing of “Liberty Heights,” director Barry Levinson’s coming-of-age drama of Baltimore in the ‘50s, the box office was turning away customers.
Those who got in not only had a chance to chat for a time with the director after the show, they even had a chance to see the Weinberg, dressed up as a Baltimore theater for a scene in the movie.
Any ghosts at the Silver? One former projectionist swore there were. Shades notwithstanding, there are plenty of voices willing to talk about the past — and the future.
“I used to come here as a kid,” one theatergoer said excitedly as he strolled from the theater for the first time since the renovation after the Levinson screening.
“But we’re members now,” said his wife. “I expect we’ll be coming a lot more.”
On the bill
Whether you’re inspired by tales of resurrection or simply looking for a good show, here’s a sampling of some current and upcoming events at a reborn theater near you.
AFI Silver Theatre: 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. 301/495-6720. www.afi.com/silver
Katharine Hepburn Festival: “Woman of the Year” 8:40 p.m. Oct. 2; “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” 8 p.m. Oct. 3, 5:40 p.m. Oct. 4; “Adam’s Rib” 1 p.m. Oct. 4; “The Philadelphia Story” 3:20 p.m. Oct. 4; “Bringing Up Baby” 9 p.m. Oct. 4, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5; “On Golden Pond” 2:40 p.m. Oct. 5. Festival runs through Oct. 9. Adults $8.50; students, seniors, members $7.50.
Up to seven other films daily. Call for times.
Avalon Theatre: 5505 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/966-6000 information, 202/966-2149 voice. www.theavalon.org
“The Secret Lives of Dentists” (2003, R) and “The Holy Land” (2003, not rated). Adults $9; children, seniors and students $6.50. Call for times.
Family matinees 1 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, $5.
Midnight movies Friday, Saturday, $6.
Opera House Movie Theater: 131 W. German St., Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call for times. Movies generally run Friday through Thursday, with showtime usually 8 p.m. 304/876-3704.
“Swimming Pool” (2003, R). Call for times.
Weinberg Center for the Performing Arts: 20 W. Patrick St., Frederick. 301/228-2828. www.weinbergcenter.org
“Lawrence of Arabia” (1962, PG): 3 p.m. Oct. 5. $7.
QuinTango: two violins, cello, bass and piano in a century’s worth of tango repertoire. 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10. $15, $20, $25.
The David Leonhardt Jazz Group in “The Music of Gershwin”: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 17. $15, $20, $25
Tall Stories Theatre Company in “The Gruffalo”: London’s award-winning children’s theater company in a show adapted from Julia Donaldson’s popular children’s book. 7 p.m. Oct. 21. $10, $15.
Squonk Opera’s “Inferno”: Inspired by Dante’s “Inferno,” this modern rock opera explores life in a Pennsylvania town where an underground mine fire has simmered for 40 years. 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25. $15, $25, $30.