Darkness Falls on Old Town Theater Again

Darkness Falls on Old Town Theater Again

Future uncertain for refurbished landmark.

Just one year ago the Gazette reported, "Like the legendary Phoenix, the Old Town Theater... is once again poised to rise from the ashes of abandonment and decay to welcome patrons to both live and celluloid entertainment."

Unfortunately, that ascension became a suborbital flight. The marquee of the once-popular and imaginatively redecorated theater at 815 and a half King St. again announces "For Lease."

Mark W. Anderson, one of the founders of Washington's Improv Theater on Connecticut Avenue, hoped his dream to bring live entertainment to the 89-year-old edifice would be welcomed by audiences. But contrary to Shakespeare's admonition, he found that all the world was not a stage.

"We had some things that worked better than others. But, we couldn't survive the dual setbacks of 9/11 and the sniper attacks," Anderson said in a recent interview. "Theater production is very expensive. We lost $500,000. We would have gone on but we didn't have any more money to lose."

Anderson confirmed that he is not entirely out of the picture. "We are going to produce occasional theater. And we are looking at ways to revive the original concept of a mix of live entertainment and motion pictures," he confirmed.

"In terms of keeping the theater on-going there needs to be several producers. There also has to be a way to get the projector in the theater operative. We couldn't get the lens replaced to get it working properly," Anderson said.

THE PROJECTOR itself is in excellent working. It’s the lens that's inoperative, according to Anderson. His efforts to get it replaced have failed.

"Originally we signed a long-term lease on the theater but now we are working on a weekly basis. We have been able to work out an amicable settlement with the owners," Anderson said.

As partial owner, George Pedas stated that he hoped, "Entertainment of some sort, whether it be film, live stage, or music, or a combination of all, would soon be back in the theater. But to make a go of it there needs to be more of an attraction like food or beer and wine sales."

Pedas admitted he had hoped Anderson “would make a go of it. It's disappointing." But Anderson has not given up. He is attempting to create a new concept that will catch on.

"Obviously we need to do something that is innovative. We can't compete with the large movie theaters and we need more than just stage shows. Even our last show, which featured a former Alexandrian, was very poorly attended," he admitted.

Anderson brought the theater back to its original configuration after it had been divided into two viewing areas for dual film presentations. He extended the stage and restored the balcony. At the time he said, "It will be a one-screen, one-venue stage."

FOLLOWING THE renovations, the theater seated approximately 400. His intention was to present films that “have not been seen on large screens" and "innovative plays." He even hoped to present works written by local artists dealing with the history of the area. None of these concepts evolved.

In his application to the Alexandria Planning Commission, Anderson listed the operating schedule as evening performances Monday through Saturday with a Sunday matinee. It also indicated the possibility of children's shows Monday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The evening schedule got off to a rocky start and the afternoon performances never materialized. One of the problems from the beginning was patron parking. Many of the off-street parking spaces, once available to theater patrons, have been lost to development.

Renovations included all-new seating and a deep navy blue carpet with multicolor confetti specs throughout. Under black light the carpet glowed in the dark, enabling patrons to find their way without house lights.

Along with the new seating and new carpet the entire theater was refurbished, including a revitalized refreshment stand in the lobby. Prior to opening Anderson announced, "The popcorn will be freshly made. None of that bagged stuff."

Anderson originally acknowledged his long-range goal was to open seven nights a week with “some type of entertainment." But, he emphasized then, "We don't want to compete with the Birchmere or Improv. We hope to be a place where new talent can perform. Our main business will remain the weekend nights."

When his first production, "Crazy Love," closed, it was followed by acts from the Improv. But the audiences continued to dwindle, Anderson admitted. Now, the theater whch first opened in 1914 again stands dark.