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Reviving the Old Town

Neighbors want their theater back.

At a party last month, support for a neighborhood theater grew, as Alexandrians showed that there is still interest in reopening the Old Town Theater.

“What we were trying to do is get people to volunteer their services and expertise; we need to expand our group,” said Bob Carragher, one of the main players in the move to reopen the theater.

The party at the home of Lelia and Sanders Partee proved that there is considerable interest behind the Old Town Theater Project — and money available for the restoration of the theater. Their website says the Project is “a group of Alexandria residents committed to reopening their neighborhood cinema.” Their goal is to purchase or lease the building for the purposes of showing independent and classic films.

If numbers are any indicator, then the party worked. About 110 people attended the gathering, and Carragher said that about 50 people committed to work with the group; several have also pledged to back the project financially. “I was pretty surprised, people were quite generous. It [the party] was very successful,” said Carragher.

NO MONEY CAN be collected quite yet. The group has applied for their 501C not-for-profit status, and is hoping that it will be approved by September.

Once that happens, they can start collecting money in earnest. Carragher also hopes that by that time they will also have some kind of agreement with the partial owner of the building, George Pedas. They have had preliminary discussions with him, and numbers have been tossed about, but they are a long way from the bottom line. Carragher did say that Pedas was interested in doing something “sooner rather than later.”

Pedas Brothers purchased the building several years ago and leased it out to Mark Anderson, owner of other entertainment ventures throughout the country, last year. He brought in a three-person comedy with music called “Crazy Love,” which ran for a few months. Then Anderson tried to bring in some improv acts. The audience just wasn’t there to support the venture. One year and half a million dollars later, he terminated the lease after he ran out of money.

“The problem was trying to come up with a hit show every week. It’s an expensive business operating a theater and we couldn’t sustain it,” said Anderson, who is hopeful that somebody will be able to revive the Old Town. Anderson said that a member of the Project sent him a copy of their plan and that it looked good. He would like to still run a couple of shows there a year, and said that he would be available to help in any way he can.

“I still love that theater, it’s a great space. All the lighting and sound—that’s all there now,” said Anderson. “Everything was left as it was when we opened.”

IT’S HARD FINDING local venues for films – Martin Doblmeier knows first-hand. As owner of Journey Films and producer of the newly released “Bonhoeffer,” he would love to see the Old Town Theater open.

“Old Town needs to have its own cinema, especially an alternative cinema,” said Doblmeier. “There are so many wonderful films being made that need to be seen. Old Town has the sophisticated audience for it.”

Anderson said that he could see the theater being used for film festivals, which is something other vintage theaters do. “It could be a showcase for critics,” he said.

From a business owner’s perspective, Jody Manor also sees the advantage of the theater project, especially when that business is on the same block. Bittersweet Catering has stood on the corner of King Street and North Alfred Street for almost 20 years.

While Manor does a booming lunch business, his attempt to stay open later failed to attract enough customers. A thriving theater might just turn that around.

But what’s in it for somebody like Bob Carragher, currently an unemployed government relations worker? “Having lived here since the 70’s, it’s the only theater anyone attended in Alexandria,” said Carragher. “We can hopefully reopen it to provide citizens the opportunity to take in a movie and get a bite to eat, just like in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”

Trying to get a liquor license is an option, but one that the group will handle in the future. Right now they are focusing on trying to ensure that they can legally show films there.

“I’LL DO WHATEVER it takes to help them get a permit,” said Anderson. Time will tell if this new group will be able to overcome the obstacles Anderson encountered.

While renovations to the theater itself – seats, carpeting and lobby – have been completed, the largest obstacle is the film projector. From what Anderson could tell, the lens on the existing projector needs to be replaced, and may have to be custom-built. There is also an ongoing issue with parking. “It kind of depends on how keep their pockets are,” he said.

None of those are real obstacles, said Beth Daniels, an active participant in the Old Town Theater Project. “It’s a perfect location, great space and a good neighborhood,” said Daniels, who has already been in touch with the Film Forum, Coolidge Corner Theater, Hinsdale, and The Avalon –

theaters similar to what they are trying to do with the Old Town Theater.

She has also spoken to friends who are projectionists, and doesn’t feel that the replacing the projector lens is a big deal. The last projectionist who worked at the theater told Daniels that he could find a lens easily. Even replacing the entire projector wouldn’t be a big deal, Daniels said.

As for parking, she’s working with the people who run the DASH bus, as well as some of the garages that Anderson dealt with.

She, and others, thought that they had missed their opportunity when Anderson took over, but realize that they now have another chance, and plan to make a go of it. “It’s been a scheme of mine for years and years to open up a small theater. I’ve been drooling over this theater.”